A court found that a Muslim woman was unlawfully discriminated against when she was fired from a French company for wearing a head scarf while helping clients.
France adheres to strict rules of secularism, in which all religious insignias are banned from the public sphere. While the ban began in 1905 after a struggle with the Roman Catholic Church, the law, known as laicite, has now shifted its focus to addressing Islam. With around six million Muslims in France, the country struggles to maintain a secular public life.
Asma Bougnaoui lost her job with the technology consultant company Micropole in 2009, after refusing to abide by the request that she remove her head scarf when talking to clients. The New York Times reports that she took the case to a French Court, which then referred it to the European Court of Justice, the EU's highest court.
Eleanor Sharpston, advocate general with the European Court of Justice, released an advisory opinion siding with Bougnaoui. The dismissal is considered "direct discrimination" on the basis of religious belief. There was "nothing to suggest that Ms. Bougnaoui was unable to perform her duties as a design engineer because she wore an Islamic head scarf," she said according to The Times.
She noted, however, that she would not have the same opinion if Bougnaoui wore a niqab or a burqa, which would have covered her entire face. Sharpston said that in that instance, the religious covering would have compromised her job as “Western society regards visual or eye contact” as crucial to face-to-face interactions between company and client.
Sharpston's statements are not the final ruling on the case. Although a formal judgment will be revealed in the upcoming months, the advisory opinions are usually reliable guides to how the court thinks.
However, Bougnaoui's case faces a history of precedent that does not work in her favor. The Economist reports that French national law works to keep religious insignias out of the public and private sectors.
As of 2004, citizens cannot wear religious symbols, including head scarves, in public institutions. Then, in 2010, the French outlawed wearing full face coverings in public in its controversial "burqa ban."
Critics often accuse France of oppressing religious expression and forcing a Western interpretation of female oppression onto Islamic values. However, French citizens maintain that Islam is incompatible with the country's values of secularism.
“The European Court of Justice has a hot potato on its hands,” Nicola Countouris, professor of European law and labor law at University College London, said to The Times. “My money is that the Sharpston view will win out, but it may upset the French authorities.”