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Europe court rules employers can ban hijab in workplace

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)

Employers can in principle ban staff from wearing hijabs in the workplace, a European Union (EU) court ruled Thursday in two cases brought by Muslim women working in Germany.

A ban on religious symbols such as headscarves "may be justified by the employer's need to present a neutral image towards customers or to prevent social disputes", the European Court of Justice (ECJ) said in a statement.

The two women, a cashier in a chemist and a special needs carer, had taken their cases to German courts after being prohibited from wearing the hijab at work.

The German courts had then referred the cases to the ECJ for an interpretation of EU law.

The woman working at the chemist had been employed there since 2002 and had wanted to begin wearing one after returning from parental leave in 2014.

However, the chemist instructed her to come to work "without conspicuous, large-sized signs of any political, philosophical or religious beliefs", the ECJ said.

The second woman was employed in 2016 as carer at a non-profit association and had initially worn a hijab at work.

She too went on parental leave, during which time the association issued a policy prohibiting the wearing of visible signs of political, ideological or religious conviction in the workplace for employees with customer contact. 

After returning from parental leave, she refused to remove her hijab, which resulted in several warnings and eventually in her being dismissed. 

Activists and rights groups have long expressed concern that an intense focus on the hijab - often under the guise of policies prohibiting “ostentatious religious symbols” - across Europe was a symptom of normalized Islamophobia in EU countries.

In 2019, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that France's niqab ban violated human rights.

(Complied from dispatches) 

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