March 17, 2017

Can we put Religion on hold at work?

Meliha Hayat , London, UK

Being a Muslim woman, society has defined my life in many different ways, but one thing I can tell you, is that out of all of those adjectives, dull certainly won’t appear on that list.  We are always a focal point of discussion and let’s face it my presence could liven up any dismal gathering. My very being is always brought to question, as many struggle to decide whether my hijab is a symbol of empowerment or mark of oppression.

From Terrorism, Burkinis and Travel bans to Hijab campaigns in the fashion world, I often find myself having to rectify many misconceptions that are put out in the media regarding Islam and Muslim women. And this often opens up a great dialogue for discussion about religion in general, and this goes for people from all other faiths who wear their religious symbols with pride because, although it can make us a target of negative stigma, it also gives us an opportunity to show how religion can actively integrate itself in to the 21st century.

The greatest example of this is through our workforce. Watching people from all different religious and secular backgrounds united together through their passion for work is living testament to the global age we live in.

However, this may all change through the new ruling by The European Court of Justice (ECJ) which states that employers are now entitled to ban staff from wearing visible religious symbols. They have argued that if a firm has an internal rule banning the wearing of “any political, philosophical or religious sign” it does not constitute as ‘direct discrimination’. Critics however, have called the ban a thinly veiled measure targeting Muslims.

When I first read the news I was certainly worried, let’s face it this could rule me out of a lot of potential jobs as I am essentially being forced to choose between my spirituality and professional career. I spent much of my life trying to prove that my faith has never been a hindrance and suffice to say this ruling has certainly put a spanner in to the works. How can I prove that Muslim women are not oppressed or held back when wearing my hijab could potentially put me out of a job?

I turned on the radio to hear what others had to say and I realised this ban stretched further than just Muslim women and workplace discrimination.

I was listening in to an Asian radio station and of course the discussion of this topic was in full swing. The presenter and callers alike where outraged by such a ruling; many constantly referencing Article 9 of the European Convention of Human rights (which provides a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion). Many people of all faiths be they Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu all telling stories of how they have struggled to gain their status in the workforce whilst ultimately maintaining their religious values.

I expected as much, but there was one caller that really grabbed my attention. An elderly Indian woman rang in to the show and her answer shocked me and the presenter alike.

“What’s wrong with making such sacrifices for work?” She said defiantly. “When I first moved in to this country I used to wear my saris and sindoor when I went out. But people started making fun of me and I struggled to find work. So I just stopped wearing it and life became easier for me, why doesn’t everyone else just do the same? If it’s such a big problem why don’t they all just go back to where they came from, because if you want to work in the west you cannot hold on to your religious beliefs and still get  a good job. This isn’t India”

Much like me, the presenter didn’t quite know how to address her statement. It was heart-breaking to think that this was what she had taken away from her years of living in the UK, that to truly integrate herself in to society she had to give up her beliefs and change her identity completely, right down to the way she dressed.

What this answer proved was that such bans and policy not only affect people in the workplace, but essentially affects how people choose to identify themselves altogether and shapes their ideologies towards the concept of tolerance. It does absolutely nothing towards the cause of social cohesion, but in fact just isolates people who stand for different beliefs until they force themselves to conform to the politically correct norm.

Religion is not something we can hide from nor is it something that should be hidden. It is not a light switch that can just be turned on and off, and so it shouldn’t be dealt with so clinically. People should not be forced to decide between their spirituality and their pay check. Religious education, be it in schools or the workplace is more important now than ever. A lack of religious knowledge has indeed been a firm cornerstone for religious extremist groups when it comes to recruiting and spreading their misshapen concept of faith. By allowing people to wear their religious symbols in the workplace you are sending out a clear message to those who try to homogenise intolerance with religion. The West is celebrated as a place of opportunity and equality, there should be no clauses or exceptions in that ideology.

Muslim women in history and indeed contemporary society have proved time and time again that their faith and their religious values have enabled them to excel to the heights they reached.  We have seen Muslim women as Monarchs, Presidents, Prime Ministers; they have travelled to space, excelled in all fields of critical thinking and have become global advocates for equal rights and education. Had such bans been placed in their respective countries then a lot of this potential could have certainly gone to waste.

Some have argued that this ruling has been sensationalised and that it will not affect the huge scores of people the media has claimed it will. But the truth of the matter is this ruling will force people of faith to question whether they will essentially push aside their beliefs to conform to workplace convention or hold on to their religious identity at the price of their qualified potential.  Essentially all this ruling will do it exacerbate the battle religion has been facing against intolerance, whether it comes from religious extremists who wish to disengage religion from contemporary civilisation  or secularist ruling that has placed religion at the fault line of society.