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What is hijab?

Hijab is a distinctive and at times, contentious talking point. There is a lack of thoughtful discussion on this subject which means that most people end up talking about it, and about those who wear it, rather than talking to those who choose to observe it. This means the understanding of hijab is often hugely simplified, based on world affairs and general Islamophobia and xenophobia. Creating space to understand the experiences and motivators for hijab observing women becomes all the more important.

In modern language, hijab is used as the common interchangeable word for the headscarf that Muslim women wear. The types and ways women will adorn their headscarves is diverse and unique to each person’s identity. For Muslim women who choose to wear hijab, it is a deeply personal connection to faith. In ironic contrast to when its application is misused when we have autonomy over our bodies, this choice brings its own liberation.

Discrimination often comes when people treat groups as a monolith or a stereotype; to counter this, it’s important to remember that hijab is a profound expression of identity, and this will be unique to every woman. The core driver is a practice of faith and a recognition of identity as a Muslim woman.

Hijab and the law: hijab discrimination in the workplace

Unfortunately, in 2017 the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) held that public authorities in member states can ban the hijab in the workplace. This came after an employee at the Municipality of Ans in Belgium launched a claim against the public authority.

The dispute that led to the court’s ruling began when the Belgian Municipality informed an employee they couldn’t wear hijab to work. Subsequently, the employee claimed the employer had infringed her religious freedom.

In response, the Municipality amended their employment terms, making it mandatory for all employees to observe strict neutrality. Essentially, they banned employees from wearing signs of religious or ideological belief. The CJEU did not rule in the employee’s favour.

Instead, they held that public authorities in member states could prevent employees from wearing religious symbols in the workplace. This was provided the authorities pursued such restrictions consistently and systematically, limited to what is strictly necessary. As such, the Municipality could ban the hijab from being worn by their employees.

This ruling caused controversy in Europe, but it was not the first controversial event. In 2021, the same court ruled that women could be sacked for wearing hijab in public-facing roles. For French women, the legally upheld discrimination started even earlier, when French schools banned the hijab from being worn and have done so since 2004.

This creates a contentious landscape in which Muslim women exist. While we see an ease of pace at condemnation by the global north for spaces that enforce hijab (an essential denunciation), there is apathy at best and full support at worst of the infringement of the rights of Muslim women who have their choice legally stripped. To centre a Muslim woman is to give her agency regarding her expression of faith. There are some apparent differences in the laws here in the UK.

“Inclusive workplaces should strive to go beyond the basics of the legal line, and encode hijab inclusion in workplace culture and policy.”

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Does the UK ban hijab in the workplace?

The UK does not ban hijab in the workplace. Despite the ruling of the CJEU, the same laws don’t apply in the UK. For starters, the UK courts are no longer bound by EU court decisions following Brexit. But even if they were, the CJEU ruling simply allows member states to prohibit religious symbols in work; it doesn’t obligate them to.

As such, the UK wouldn’t adopt the approach potentially taken in some EU member states. In fact, the Equality Act 2010 makes it illegal to discriminate against someone on grounds of their religion or belief. This includes if an employer were to ban hijab in the workplace.

So whilst there is protection in the UK, inclusive workplaces should strive to go beyond the basics of the legal line, and encode hijab inclusion in workplace culture and policy. It is through this that more Muslim women who wish to express this part of their faith, and who wish to pursue their careers, will not find themselves at odds between these two parts of themselves. An inclusive workplace can make space for pioneers, vanguards, and dynamic leaders.

The hijab trailblazers

Notable women in hijab that we have seen push the boundaries through sheer will of existence and representation are found in all workplaces. We have seen a catalogue of firsts when it comes to representation.

In sport, we see the likes of Ibtihaj Muhammed, acclaimed Olympic medallist in fencing, who made history in 2016 as the first ever American to participate in the Olympics in hijab; Zahra Lahri who at 17 years old became the first ever figure skater to compete professionally internationally in hijab; and, Nouhaila Benzina who made history in 2023 as the first football player to ever compete in a hijab at the World Cup. Religious head coverings had been banned by FIFA until 2014.

Across other sectors too, in law, we saw Raffia Arshad become the first ever UK appointed judge. In fashion, we have seen Mariah Idrissi, who in 2015 became the first ever woman to wear hijab in a western fashion campaign via H&M. Also in 2015 but in television news, Ginella Massa became the first hijab-wearing television reporter in Canadian history.

The relative recency of all these firsts shows there is still work to be done when it comes to the normalisation of hijab in the public domain. By doing so, we encourage the fullness of hijab observing women to be centred. By existing where their presence is “unexpected”, these women are a powerful reminder that they can “take up space” in important rooms and how a woman’s decision to dress as she pleases is solely her business.

How colleagues and line managers can support those who wear hijab in the workplace

When we think of an inclusive culture where we remove the obstacles for all people to achieve their potential, recognising the potential fatigue of many hijab wearing women is important. To oscillate between the many different contradictions placed upon them, from pity, to anger, to shaming, to indifference, many who wear hijab will face an added layer of world weariness. Recognising the importance of intersectionality is therefore crucial.

Don’t assume a Muslim woman’s religiosity depending on whether she observes the hijab or not. Hijab is one form of expression, everyone will have a different relationship with it, just as every person’s faith journey will look different. Centre the person and be an ally. Nothing speaks louder than how you treat people.

Recognising multidimensionality of Muslim women who observe hijab

It is important we recognise that one identifier of a person is not their only one, for workplaces to be spaces for the full richness of a person’s creativity and ability, we must see each other as a sum of our parts. To hijab-wearing women in the workplace, allow yourself multidimensionality, you are not one emotion, one trait, one story. You are a million experiences and a million pieces.

When there are times when societal conditioning may have you questioning “Do I deserve this success/promotion/space” Am I worthy of this?” – challenge that premise of imposter as irrelevant. The only question should be: “Do I want this?” And a healthy culture of workplace belonging will mean there would be no other obstacles.

By starting with this as your foundation it opens up the abundance of ways your workplace can be a safer, more productive and exciting place of inclusion for hijab wearing women. Invest in these to remove the often unspoken stigma that surrounds this deeply important topic.

At Inclusive Employers we can support you with bespoke interventions, whether that’s hijab related training sessions, policy review, one-to-one coaching, wellbeing and mental health, or line manager support, get in touch.

Grow your team

When you become an Inclusive Employers’ Member you grow your I&D team.

Your account manager works with you to understand your goals, your challenges and achievable next steps.

Do you need more support for your inclusive culture to thrive?

Learn about membership today

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