Muslim women struggle with Germany’s ‘hijab ban’ at workplaces

When Shilan Ahmad, 24, arrived to start working at a nursery in Erfurt, Germany, she was immediately turned away.

She had applied for the job with her resume and a photo. When she received approval over the phone from the daycare director, she was thrilled.

But when she met Ahmad in person last December, the director looked at her and turned to the colleague who had organized the meeting.

“How is it possible that you have allowed this woman to talk to me?” she said.

Ahmad, who is from Syria, was wearing a headscarf.

She didn’t think this would be a problem, because she assumed the hiring team had seen the photo of her, wearing the hijab, before bringing her in.

“When I got home, I told my mother that I would take off the headscarf,” she said. “I said, I can’t take it anymore. i was rejected [from the job], and I can no longer “.

Judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Communities

In theory, situations like Ahmad’s are illegal: workers are protected by German constitutional law from outright discrimination based on religion and must have the same job opportunities in almost all sectors.

But the definition of workplace discrimination with regard to religious expression in Germany is complicated.

In July, the Court of Justice of the European Communities (ECJ) upheld a 2017 ruling that allows employers to adopt neutrality policies that prohibit religious dress in the workplace. But the decision added conditions.

Now, employers must demonstrate that the neutrality policy they have adopted is essential for companies.

Prior to the 2017 decision, religious symbols were not allowed to be banned for any reason other than security.

The ECJ case was brought forward by two German workers, a kindergarten teacher and a cashier, who were asked by their employers not to wear the Muslim headscarf at work.

The teacher had worked at the center for two years before opting to wear the headscarf in early 2016. She wore the headscarf to work until mid-October, when she went on maternity leave until May 2018.

Two months before his return to work, the center adopted a new neutrality policy for its employees, prohibiting them from wearing “any sign of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs visible to parents, children and third parties in the workplace.”

When he returned, he decided to keep the handkerchief. After refusing to remove it, she was suspended. Around the same time, another colleague was asked to remove her cross necklace, according to the ruling.

The second case was similar. When a Muslim cashier at a German pharmacy chain refused to remove her scarf, she was sent home.

The EU’s highest court ruled that actions against veiled employees were acceptable because the neutrality policies were implemented in a “general and undifferentiated” manner and therefore could not be considered direct discrimination.

The court added that such policies can only be enforced if they meet a genuine need proven by the employer.

The July ECJ ruling requires workplaces to show more concretely that religious symbols in the workplace could cause palpable financial or interpersonal harm, according to Hamburg civil rights lawyer Tugba Uyanik.

He said the way the media handled the story may have had an impact.

“The ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union was sold as very negative,” said Uyanik. “Like, ‘Banning the veil in the workplace is legal.’ I think because employers heard this [headline] Without understanding the conditions, it could be that some said: ‘Yes, now we also have a policy of neutrality’, without reading or understanding the sentence. “

No Nazi tattoos, no headscarves

Another similar neutrality law banning religious symbols for German federal police officers came into effect in early July.

The law was introduced in response to a 2017 incident involving a police officer tattooing the notes of the Nazi Party anthem on his chest.

Although his superiors wanted to fire him, they found that there was no way to legally fire someone simply based on their tattoos.

In May 2021, the German government passed the “Law Regulating the Appearance of Public Officials” in response to the case.

But instead of just banning Nazi tattoos, the law also includes a section that allows for the banning of “religious and ideological connotations”, such as hijabs or Jewish kippas, for example, “if they are objectively capable of undermining confidence in the neutral conduct of the public official “. office. “

Uyanik said the law is confusing and unnecessary.

Each German state can adopt its own rules of neutrality. Some have laws that prohibit public attorneys from wearing the veil, for example. Berlin, for many years, had its own law that prohibited public school teachers from wearing the headscarf.

“The institution of another federal neutrality law sends the wrong signal to [veiled] women, because they think, why are you so worried about me? Uyanik said. “I’m not doing anything. It is enough to have to fight the laws of my own state. Why are you doing this?”

Lack of clarity

The implications of the various laws in real life are not yet easy to measure.

Since most jobs require a resume, including headshots, most women likely don’t even end up knowing whether their rejection was based on their headscarf or something else, Uyanik said.

Many women who wear hijab have good experiences in the German workplace.

It is not uncommon to see veiled cashiers, pharmacists or saleswomen. Still, the weight of uncertainty is heavy.

Zehra Eres, a biotech student at the Technical University of Berlin, said her dream is to teach.

But she is based in the capital.

You see the hijab as part of her identity, so she knew she couldn’t give it up. It’s the only reason he didn’t study education to teach, he said.

Although Berlin’s law prohibiting teachers from wearing the scarf was declared unconstitutional last year, it is unclear when that decision will be fully implemented.

All German public school teachers were banned from wearing the scarf until 2015, when the federal law was repealed.

For women seeking work or internships, like Ahmad, the lack of clarity surrounding rejections can be maddening.

Siba Biri, a 28-year-old Syrian from Erfurt, searched for months for a pharmacy internship, which she needed to complete her pharmacy technician program.

After submitting dozens of resumes, calling multiple pharmacies, and walking alone to ask about available spots, she still couldn’t find anything.

“My question is: why were all my German colleagues able to find a place?” she said. “Just me and my friend, who also comes from Syria and wears a headscarf, we haven’t found one.”

For most German politicians campaigning before Sunday’s elections, the neutrality laws are insignificant and have not been on their agendas.

The only parties that mention the veil are the country’s left-wing party, which opposes labor bans, and the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which is against the veil in schools and public sector jobs, such as in France.

In the end, Ahmad decided to keep his headscarf.

The experience forced her to begin to fight for greater acceptance of the headscarf. After her rejection, she wrote an article about her hijab for an online magazine and joined the Green Party of Germany.

You want to become an activist or journalist focused on women’s rights issues.

The headscarf, he says, should be a personal choice. If he ever has to deal with women fleeing oppressive governments, families or relationships where they have been forced to watch, he said, he will support them to remove their scarf if that is what they want to do.

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