Headscarves at work – Being visibly Muslim and female

The public debates on Islam are carriers and producers of symbolic references as to why Muslims are a problem (for example, problems with street youth, violence, intolerance, ‘fanatical’ religion). These references are often regarded as the cause of current and anticipated risks to society which, in turn, constitute the legitimatizations and rationalizations for intervention and transformation. Taken together we can regard the public debates on Islam, the policies regarding Muslims, integration and security politics (often leading to more debate and policies) as a surveillance of the everyday lives of Muslims in particular to problematizations in terms of security. The headscarf is of particular importance for this regime of surveillance given the fact that so much debate is about, individuals do not have any problems of confronting women with headscarves with questions about their choice of dress, it is part of European legislation and makes Muslim women with headscarves hypervisible in public as symbolic objects that refer to so many questions, interpretations, legislation and policies concerning religion in general, islam and race in particular.

Ebrahimian vs France
The European Court of Human Rights has ruled in favor of a hospital in France, which had enforced a ban on headscarves at work. The court said the ban did not affect religious freedom. In 2000, social worker Christiane Ebrahimian, who worked in the psychiatric department of a hospital learned that her contract would not be renewed because she refused to take off her headscarf
Apparently patients and colleagues had filed complaints against her. She decided to sue the hospital ending up at the European Court of Justice. The European court argued that the ban did not violate freedom of religion in a country where secularism and strict religious neutrality is enshrined in the constitution. Read the excerpt:

The Court accepted that the interference in question had pursued the legitimate aim of protecting the rights and freedoms of others. With regard to the question whether the interference was necessary in a democratic society for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others, the Court found that the requirement of neutrality of public officials could be regarded as justified in principle: the State, as employer of the applicant in a public hospital, could consider it necessary that she refrain from expressing her religious beliefs in discharging her functions in order to guarantee equality of treatment of patients. Turning next to an examination of the proportionality of that prohibition in relation to the aim pursued, the Court reiterated that while public officials enjoyed total freedom of conscience, they were prohibited from manifesting their religious beliefs in discharging their functions. Such a restriction derived from the principle of the secular nature of the State, and that of the neutrality of public services, principles in respect of which the Court had already approved a strict implementation where a founding principle of the State was involved.
The Court considered that the fact that the national courts had afforded greater weight to the principle of secularism-neutrality and the State’s interest than to Ms Ebrahimian’s interest in not having the expression of her religious beliefs restricted did not cause a problem with regard to the Convention.
It was not the Court’s task to rule, as such, on the French model.


With regard to Ms Ebrahimian, for whom it was important to visibly manifest her religion, she had exposed herself to the serious consequence of disciplinary proceedings. However, following the opinion of 3 May 2000 she had been aware that she had to observe a neutral dress code in discharging her functions. Owing to her refusal to comply with that obligation, and irrespective of her professional qualities, disciplinary proceedings had been instituted against her. She had then had the benefit of the safeguards relating to disciplinary proceedings and remedies before the administrative courts. She had also chosen not to sit the competition to recruit social assistants organised by the HSCC. In those circumstances the Court held that the national authorities had not exceeded their margin of appreciation in finding that there was no possibility of reconciling Ms Ebrahimian’s religious convictions with the obligation to refrain from manifesting them, and in deciding to give precedence to the requirement of neutrality and impartiality of the State.

You can find the ruling summary in ENGLISH and the complete text in FRENCH.

Bans and restrictions of the face veil
In 2014 the European court upheld the French law banning face-covering veils in public, in a case brought by a woman who said that her freedom of religion was violated by the French ban. The reason to uphold the ban is among other reasons based upon ‘the ground rules of social communication and more broadly the requirements of “living together”’ rule. Also this week the Swiss government of the Ticino region discussing a possible ban on the face veil had urged parliament to apply the law to anyone covering their face in public, including masked hooligans or demonstrators, but the parliamentarians opted to single out the attire worn by Muslim women and accepted the proposal.

Female Muslims targeted
At the same time however women with hijab are the targets of violent and verbal attacks in daily life. See for example Shireen Ahmed’s article on HuffPo:
We mourned for the innocent victims from all faiths and backgrounds. We also heard of the stories of heroes, who went out of their way to help others. One of the men, is Muslim. I could not pull myself away from social media for the first few hours. It was agonizing to hear the updates of the events. I had a friend, hijab-wearing woman of Arab descent, attending the match. I was concerned for her safety in the group and I was also concerned for her being an identifiable Muslim.

Thank God she was safe.

Initially, the tweets and the messages of disbelief and concern for Paris came in abundance. Calls for peace, reminders for journalists to confirm reports before sharing stories, requests to not give into hateful rhetoric; language matters.

Many of the tweets quickly evolved into simple messages of anger and hatred. I expected this.

There was barely enough time to grieve properly for all the victims, before I and countless other Muslims were pushed into fearing for our own safety. When I woke up one morning last week, I heard the news that a Muslim woman was attacked outside her children’s school. She was beaten by two white men who pulled at her hijab and called her a ‘terrorist’ — in broad daylight.

I am quite confident that this woman had nothing to do with the destruction and terror in Paris, or Beirut or Baghdad or Ankara. Nor is she responsible for any of the murders committed by ISIS or the acts of terror and violence executed in the name of her faith.

As she lay on the ground yelling’ “Stop, please stop,” her white, male attackers cared little for that striking difference. She wears hijab and is an easy target for their hatred.

And a recent British report on Islamophobia not only shows an increase in incidents of 300% but also: The vast and overwhelming majority of the victims are visible Muslim women between the ages of 14-45. Clearly the way women dress contributes to a surveillance by states and citizens that is specifically aimed at those who in the eyes of many people are marked as Muslim and female. Something that increases during times of political tensions resulting in violence. Although one could argue that such violence and verbal attacks are different from the ruling of the European court. Of course in one way they are given that there are different logics and rationalizations going on, yet at the same time they all add and are the result of the surveillance of Muslim women and the lives and experiences of these women.

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