In a recommendation before the European Court of Justice (ECJ), a senior EU lawyer and the Advocate General of ECJ has said that the French women who was dismissed for wearing hijab in her workplace should have been allowed to cover her head at work.
In June 2009, Asma Bougnaoui, a design engineer lost her job with Micropole SA, a French IT consultancy for wearing headscarf. In an influential preliminary opinion, an advocate general at the European court of justice in Luxembourg found in favor of Asma and her hijab, since the Muslim woman’s dismissal amounted to discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief.
Bougnaoui, who had worked for Micropole for a year, was fired in June, 2009 without prior warning. After she had traveled to a meeting with clients at a big French insurance firm in Toulouse, the insurance firm complained to her superiors that her headscarf had “embarrassed” some of its staff working with her. The insurance company also demanded “no headscarf next time”.
Micropole asked Bougnaoui to comply with the request for no headscarf on her next visit. When she refused she was dismissed, and she challenged her dismissal in the French courts.
A French industrial tribunal and an appeals court compensated Bougnaoui over the fact that she was fired without prior warning but ruled that her dismissal was founded on a“real and serious cause”. Micropole had said it felt her wearing a headscarf hindered the company’s development because it meant the company could not properly interact with its client.
The French supreme court, before ruling on the case itself, had asked the European court of justice to examine the case. The ECJ was asked to advise on whether a requirement not to wear an Islamic headscarf when providing IT consultancy services could be regarded as a “genuine and determining occupational requirement”, therefore falling outside the scope of the prohibition on discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief provided for by a EU directive.
Eleanor Sharpston, one of the senior British Lawyers of the EU and advocate general, said that a company policy requiring an employee to remove her hijab when in contact with clients constitutes unlawful direct discrimination.
However, in another advisory opinion issued in May, in a separate case, Juliane Kokott, another advocate general with the ECJ, said that a company could bar a Muslim female employee from wearing a head scarf at work provided the policy applied to all religious attire and did not single out Islam. That opinion came after a Muslim woman in Belgium, Samira Achbita, was dismissed from her job as a receptionist at a security company.
Advocate general opinions are usually followed when the ECJ finally delivers its subsequent full judgment. ECJ rulings are legally binding on all EU member states.
The ECJ said there could be no exemptions from the EU directive preventing discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief. In a statement, it said: “The advocate general rejects the idea that a prohibition on employees wearing religious attire when in contact with customers of their employer’s business may be necessary for the protection of individual rights and freedoms necessary for the functioning of a democratic society.”
France has one of the most strict regulations on Hijab in Europe. In 2010, the French Parliament voted to ban the wearing of niqab (that conceals the face in public places), becoming the first European country to restrict a custom that some Muslims consider a religious obligation. When challenged, the European Court of Human Rights upheld that ban in 2014 as a legitimate attempt to preserve the norms of France’s diverse society.