Can an IT company freely sack any of its employees who wear an Islamic headscarf (hijab) without this being treated as discrimination? This question has been engaging the highest court in Europe, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) at Luxembourg.
According to a preliminary opinion by an advocate general at ECJ, Asma Bougnaoui, who lost her job at an IT consultancy in France in June, 2009, should have been allowed to wear the headscarf. The opinion, although not binding on the court, is significant as such opinions are usually followed by ECJ while delivering its judgment. ECJ rulings are legally binding on all EU member states.
A statement from ECJ 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.”
Asma, a French design engineer joined Micropole Univers, a French IT consultancy in July, 2008. Eleven months later, she was called in for a conversation about her wearing a headscarf. The conversation resulted in her being fired a week later. According to the facts of the case, when Asma was sent to Toulouse on a project, she went to the client wearing her Islamic headscarf. Her attire caused disquiet among the client’s staff, who requested Micropole ‘not to send a headscarf next time’. Micropole advised Asma not to wear a headscarf whenever she came into contact with the company’s clients. As Asma did not accede to that demand, the contract of her employment was terminated.
Litigation ensued, which wended its way up to the French Court of Cassation. The question of law was later referred to ECJ. Final judgement in the case is expected later this year.