The Belgian branch of the popular Dutch department store chain HEMA has lost a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by a Muslim shop assistant whose contract was not extended after she refused to stop wearing a hijab, the traditional Islamic headscarf.
The woman had worked for the store in Belgian city of Genk for two months while wearing a headscarf, but after the store manager received complaints from customers, was then asked to remove it.
The woman, a Belgian convert to Islam, had been employed as temporary sales staff; HEMA declined to renew her contract because, its representatives said, of her refusal to remove her hijab.
In its defense, representatives of the Belgian shop said that to maintain the "neutral and discreet image of HEMA, the shop did not want employees wearing any kind of religious symbols." The store then offered the woman a job in its warehouse, where she would not have direct contact with clients. She said the alternative job offer was unsatisfactory and then consulted a lawyer.
On January 2, a labor court in the nearby Belgian city of Tongeren ruled that HEMA did not have a clearly stated policy on headscarves and thus had no valid reason to dismiss the woman.
The court ordered HEMA to pay the 21-year-old woman €9,000 ($12,000), the equivalent of six month's salary, as compensation.
According to the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism, an NGO that helped bring the woman's case to trial, the main purpose of the legal action was to clarify how far a company can go in seeking to present a "neutral image" to its customers. The group believes neutrality cannot be invoked as a genuine and determining occupational requirement, and it says it is not self-evident that neutrality can amount to a legitimate goal, when it is chiefly invoked to please a private company's clients.
But the court's formulation indicates that if the HEMA store had clearly stated in its labor regulations that the wearing of religious signs was prohibited to comply with a neutrality policy, it would not have been sentenced. The company has since drawn up formal clothing requirements for all of its stores in Belgium.
In France, the first European country to ban the full-face Islamic veil in public places, anyone wearing the Muslim niqab or burqa in public faces a fine of €150 ($220) and/or lessons in French citizenship.
The government of Kuwait is now calling on France to reverse the ban. During a January 20 speech at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council, a member of the Kuwaiti delegation, Malik Al-Wazzan, said the French government should revoke the ban to "protect the human rights in discrimination and inequalities toward foreigners and those with different beliefs."
This comes as the Kuwaiti Parliament considers a draft law banning the construction of churches in the country, due to the "excessive number of churches" compared to Kuwait's Christian minority. The number of Christians with Kuwaiti nationality has plummeted from 200 in 2007 to fewer than 50 in 2012.
In Britain, St. Cyprian's Greek Orthodox Primary School in south London is being sued by Muslim parents after the school banned pupils from wearing the hijab in class. The couple insists it would be a sin for their nine-year-old daughter's head to be uncovered while in the presence of male teachers.
In an interview with the London-based newspaper, The Telegraph, the school's principal, Kate Magliocco, said the decision not to allow the girl to wear a headscarf was taken by the school's governing body.
"The school has a very particular uniform policy," Magliocco said, "which is shared with parents; and, as head, I must follow the plan. The pupil in question came to us from a private school. Her parents actively chose us and, before she arrived, we held a meeting which included details of the uniform plan."
The uniform policy on the school's website requires girls to wear a dark blue coat, an optional blazer, a skirt, white blouse and a navy blue pullover, but it fails to mention a ban on headscarves.
In Malta, an island country with a population of 400,000, Muslims are calling on the government to issue a directive to state clearly that female employees in both the public and private sectors are allowed to wear the hijab.
Imam Mohammed Elsadi, the leader of the 6,000-strong Maltese Muslim community, told the Times of Malta newspaper that such a clarification would encourage better representation for Muslim women in the labor market.
The request follows a recent case in which two Muslim women working in non-medical jobs in Malta's health sector were forced to remove their hijabs. The imam also referred to Muslim women teaching in government schools who did not wear the garment at work. "I don't know if this is because they are forbidden to wear it," he said, " or whether they remove it out of fear, or whether they choose not to wear it."
In Norway, home to an estimated 150,000 Muslims, the government appointed Faith and Ethics Commission released a report on January 7th recommending that the government begin allowing the use of the hijab headscarf in the Norwegian police force as well as among judges.
The main function of the Commission, established by the government in 2010, is to seek ways to safeguard the religious freedoms enshrined in the Norwegian constitution. The head of the Commission, Sturla Stalsett, said the entire 15-member panel believed the government should allow the hijab and other religious headgear for police officers and judges.
Upon receiving the report, however, Culture Minister Hadia Tajik (she is a Labor Party politician of Pakistani descent and the first Muslim to serve in a Norwegian cabinet) reiterated the long-standing policy that Norway will not allow female Muslim police officers to wear the hijab as part of their uniform. She said the police and judiciary are public entities and should appear to be neutral. As a result, the current ban will not be reversed.
Tajik said: "The Commission has received a fairly broad mandate and they have followed that. This is why they have raised the issue involving the use of religious symbols in relation to the uniform. The government addressed this matter in 2009 and has taken his stance. The use of religious symbols in relation to the police uniform is not allowed."
In 2012, the Norwegian supermarket chain KIWI and the Oslo University Hospital introduced new hijabs as part of staff uniforms. Hijabs have been permitted at the Scandinavian home products company IKEA since 2005.
On July 1, 2012, the Norwegian Defense Ministry began allowing uniformed soldiers to wear religious headgear such as hijabs, turbans and kippahs. In addition to headgear, soldiers are now also allowed to wear armbands containing religious symbols that have been engraved or mounted.
Not everyone is happy with the changes. Jan-Arild Ellingsen, a member of the conservative Progress Party who is also on the parliamentary defense committee, says that army uniforms give soldiers all the identification they need. Says Ellingsen, "The armed forces should be kept independent of ethnic and religious affiliations."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.