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.
But their choice carries a high personal cost. The rampant European misperception of the hijab as a symbol of a supposedly misogynistic Islamic culture has made women who wear one feel like faceless, nameless “victims” who must be saved, instead of empowered individuals making a personal decision. “It’s frustrating, because [the media] always brings out [sic] the male members of the family,” one of them, Sama, said in a message she sent me from Italy. “It’s like, ‘did your father force you to make this choice that I actually made?’”
Likewise, Lama, a French-Algerian woman now living outside France, laments the phenomenon of “white men in the media debating whether we should have the hijab.” The problem, she says, is that “it’s never about the objective garment, it’s about what the garment symbolizes [to them].”
The CJEU’s recent ruling resurfaces tensions between the right to freedom of religion and Europeans’ increasing discomfort regarding the visible face of Islam in the region. Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights sets a high bar for limiting the manifestation of freedom of religion. But the CJEU’s 2017 and 2021 rulings appear to attach greater weight to the concept of overall “neutrality” and, in the case of its recent decision, the effect on others – an issue that already weighs heavily on many Muslim women’s minds.
Several women I spoke to described going through a draining mental exercise before leaving their homes – what I call the “friendly enough” test. “Muslim women look in the mirror in the morning and think, ‘do I look friendly? Do I look approachable?’” Maha, a journalist, explained. And it is not only men whose judgment these women worry about. Khadija, a young French-Algerian woman, confessed that she once stopped to put on red lipstick before going to an interview for a babysitting job. “I told them I wore the hijab ahead of time. I don’t know why I did that, preparing them for me,” she said. “I took out my lipstick and put it on so that [the mother] can see I am French, [that] I am not a terrorist.”
These psychological strains underscore the agonizing choice forced upon European Muslim women today between their faith and identity on one hand, and their nationality on the other. Whereas most European girls can dream of pursuing the career of their choice, Muslim girls in Europe face a demoralizing caveat: “but you cannot wear the hijab.” In a post-#MeToo world where young women are increasingly taught to be empowered, Europe’s Muslim women are being held back by legislation and told that their very appearance is problematic.
Khadija went on to tell me that the experience of removing her hijab for a job when she was 19 left her feeling denigrated and ashamed. “It made me feel like I am nothing,” she said. “I am not the same as everyone else. I am a little bit lower.” She went on to ask, rhetorically, “What gives you the right to do that?”
Despite Europe’s stated values of emancipation, freedom, and self-sufficiency, the dearth of female Muslim voices in the European public debate over the hijab leaves many young women with little hope that the conversation will change. In a stark display of hypocrisy, some of the European politicians who decry Islam for being repressive and anti-feminist champion laws that threaten to strip away Muslim women’s agency.
“Muslim women exist and have things to say when the subject concerns them,” Soumaya, 15, told me. “We are not objects, we think, we feel, we have free will, we are strong and intelligent and, above all, capable.” But, she said, “the media does not want to recognize that. It’s a pity.”
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 its female Muslim citizens – regardless of their attire – in public life. The debate will no doubt continue in Europe’s courtrooms. In the meantime, the lives and livelihoods of the region’s female Muslim population hang in the balance. As one young woman said to me resignedly, “I have to wait for a woman who doesn’t wear the hijab or a man to fight for me, because right now I don’t exist. I am no one.”
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