Europe’s Hijab Test
A recent ruling by the European Union’s highest court raises the question of whether there is a place for visibly Muslim women in public life. Rather than asking whether Islam is liberal enough to belong in Europe, the more relevant question today appears to be whether Europe is liberal enough to accept Muslim women.
LONDON – In mid-July, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that private employers in the EU can ban employees from wearing religious symbols, including headscarves, in order to present an image of “political, philosophical, and religious neutrality” in the workplace. The verdict reaffirmed a 2017 CJEU ruling and highlights longstanding tensions over multiculturalism in Europe. In particular, it raises the question of whether there is a place for visibly Muslim women in European public life.
I have spent the last several months interviewing Muslim women, many of them citizens and residents of European countries, about their portrayal in the media and perception of belonging in their countries. While many reported similar experiences of ostracism or harassment, the European women, particularly those who choose to wear the hijab (head covering), told me time and again: “I feel like I don’t exist.”
The hijab is more than a religious symbol to those who wear it. Muslim women cover their hair out of tradition, to maintain a connection to their cultural heritage, or for reasons of modesty. Several young European women I spoke to explained that they wear the hijab despite protests from their immigrant families, who do not want them to face undue scrutiny or discrimination at work.