Systematic Oppression – It’s Built into our Legal System

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The European Court of Justice has ruled that companies may ban staff from wearing visible religious symbols, but only as part of a general policy concerning religious and political symbols claiming it ‘does not constitute direct discrimination.’ Humanists UK has welcomed this guidance regarding dress code in the workplace. 

But how did this ruling come about? Samira Achbita, a Muslim woman, was employed as a receptionist by G4S, a private undertaking which provides reception services for customers in both the public and private sectors. At the time of Ms Achbita’s recruitment there was an unwritten rule within G4S that prohibited employees from wearing visible signs of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs in the workplace. Ms Achbita informed her employer that she intended to start wearing an Islamic headscarf during working hours. In response, the management of G4S informed her that the wearing of the headscarf would not be tolerated because the visible political, philosophical or religious signs was contrary to the position of neutrality G4S adopted in its contacts with its customers. Ms Achbita was dismissed because of her continued insistence on wearing the Islamic headscarf at work. She challenged that dismissal in the Belgian courts and this rule was the outcome.  It ruled that a company’s wish to project a neutral image was legitimate and allowed internal rules banning visible wearing of political, philosophical or religious symbols. This ruling is arguably controversial and has been widely reported on. 

The term oppression in such instances, refers to the subordination of a given group or social category by unjust use of force or authority in order to achieve the effects of oppression. This rule, a part of British law, feeds into this as it stampedes workers’ rights to freedom of religion, belief and thought in public spaces. It allows a system of oppression as those that will be most affected will be minorities; this ruling proves to affect mainly Muslim women wearing head scarves proving to be directly discriminative, despite claiming otherwise. In the ruling of Eweida and Chaplin V, the United Kingdom (2013), two Christian women who wished to wear crosses at work but were told could not it had been ruled that there had been a violation of article 9. Whereas when it was a Muslim woman who had taken to court after being told they may not wear headscarves to work, it had been ruled that companies may ask all employees to dress neutrally, in other words it was within their rights to ban them from wearing headscarves. This shows that precedent, which requires similar cases to be treated alike, wasn’t followed, leading to the possibility that the ruling is directed at Muslim women wearing headscarves.

The Equality Act of 2010 legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society, while replacing previous anti-discrimination laws with a single Act, making the law easier to understand and strengthening protection in some situations, by accepting guidance from the European court of justice. By telling employees they may not wear religious symbols, this right has been infringed upon.

This is only one of countless examples of how the law not only allows, but contributes to the continuation of oppressing minorities. It’s easy to overlook how our system may act as an instrument of oppression, but it’s the police and law themselves that are oppressive. Such an internal rule of a private undertaking will undoubtedly constitute indirect discrimination. 

So, what should be put in place of this rule? Rather than imposing this rule in Britain, we should look at Article 9 of the European Court of Human rights. This ruling says that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change religions or beliefs, either alone or in community. It allows for the manifestion of people’s religions or beliefs, in worship, teaching practice and observance. A like ruling should be accepted and adopted in the UK. This ruling would allow the freedom of religious practice – something which must be a right to all. 

Overall, this being a ruling accepted and adopted in the UK, is one that should be reformed as it is stopping Britain from progressing into a less discriminatory nation. As rightfully stated by The Conference of European Rabbis, which comprises of 700 Jewish leaders, Europe was sending a clear message that its religious communities were no longer welcome. 


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