Headscarves in Danish workplaces
Since the mid 1990s, the right of Muslim women to wear headscarves at work has been a source of constant debate among politicians, the public and in the media. To begin with, the debate primarily concerned the extent to which checkout assistants and others in the retail sector should be able to wear headscarves when at work. More recently, the debate has extended to focus on public-sector employees, politicians and members of Denmark’s home guard.
Legal victory for women with headscarves
The right to wear headscarves in the workplace has also come under focus on the legal front. Back in 2000, a trainee was turned away from the Danish department store Magasin for turning up to work wearing a headscarf. The store claimed that the headscarf did not comply with their rules governing employee clothing. The case was instantly taken up in the courts and the crown court ruled that Magasin’s reason had no legal foundation and therefore constituted indirect discrimination. The girl received compensation. Prior to this landmark ruling, many headscarf bans had existed throughout areas of the retail sector. The crown-court decision resulted in many companies having to change their employee clothing policies. Following the ruling, employees now had the right to wear a headscarf at work.
Supermarket chain Føtex found another way out
Another retail corporation, Dansk Supermarked, which owns nationwide supermarket chains Føtex and Netto, went the opposite way. Following the Magasin ruling, they introduced employee-clothing regulations that banned the wearing of any form of head garment, unless this was a specially required part of the uniform. The same rules banned visible piercings and unnaturally coloured hair. When a Føtex employee in 2001 announced that in the future she intended to turn up for work wearing a headscarf, she was fired. The supermarket chain backed up their decision by saying that the headscarf contravened the company regulations for employee clothing. The case ended up in the high court, which, in 2005, ruled in favour of Føtex. The reason given for the ruling was that the girl was aware of company policy regarding clothing and had signed a document saying that she would adhere to these rules. The high court also pointed out that Føtex was fully entitled to set requirements for employee clothing as long as these applied to all employees ion the same position.
In the spring of 2009, the Danish parliament, Folketinget, passed for the first time a law concerning religious symbols. This law forbids the use of political and religious symbols, including headscarves, in the Danish courts. This ban affects only judges. Lay magistrates (Justices of the Peace), witnesses and others may continue to wear religious symbols in the courts. This law was passed even though the courts themselves were against it.
The difficulty in proving discrimination
There are at present no large-scale studies of how Muslim women who wear headscarves experience the Danish labour market. In a study conducted by Denmark’s Research Centre for Integration, VIFIN, a number of women said that they had been discriminated against because of their headscarf. The study did however indicate that a number of these women expected to be discriminated against in advance and therefore did not apply for certain types of jobs.
Even though two new pan-European studies from the Open Society Institute and EU-MIDIS indicate that many ethnic minorities experience discrimination in the labour market, discrimination based purely on the wearing of a headscarf is extremely difficult to prove. A rejection following a job interview could be attributed to more general ethnic discrimination rather that the headscarf specifically, even though this may seem to be the case to the job applicant.
The law and public opinion towards headscarves
Rikke Andreassen is a lecturer at Malmö University in Sweden and researcher in the EU project VEIL, which charts and analyses the debate about Muslim headscarves within Europe. It is her impression that, in some areas, wearing a headscarf is becoming easier, and she adds, “The discussion has really moved on since the late 1990s. Now, ten years later on, the discussion is no longer about whether or not a checkout assistant can wear a headscarf at work. It’s of course the politicians who claim that Danes are worried about headscarves and who call for them to be banned. But out in the hospitals and kindergartens there actually is no real problem. Parents aren’t bothered if the teacher is wearing a headscarf.”
She also points out that by continuing to use legal practice stemming from previous headscarf cases, the issue of headscarves at work is held back, even though general opinions in the wider society has changed.
According to Rikke Andreassen, in the future the debate in Denmark will be similar to the debate in the UK and the Netherlands. In these countries, full body coverings such as burkas and niqabs, rather than headscarves, now form the basis of discussions. This is an issue which has already been drafted in Denmark’s parliament on several occasions – most lately with the ruling coalition conservative party calling for a full ban of burkas in public.
Foto: Tine Harden