An employer who bans all religious clothing at work is not one I’d want to work for

Janet Street-Porter
Halima Aden appeared on the catwalk in Milan last month for Max Mara: Rex

There is huge excitement in the world of fashion – finally, a beautiful woman who chooses to wear a head scarf for religious reasons has been signed by a top model agency. Halima Aden stars on the cover of a glossy magazine and appeared on the catwalk in Milan last month for Max Mara. Dressing modestly has become big business for the fashion industry, so you could accuse the company of cashing in – even Marks and Spencer have bowed to the trend and produced all-concealing swimwear. Dozens of top designers have rushed to make ‘modest’ versions of their collections for websites like, a high-end site aimed at the wealthy Arab market, which is worth billions.

Modest fashion has become the politically-correct term increasingly used to describe (generally) female clothing that reflects religious beliefs – but any controversy that ensues from deciding to conceal rather than reveal your body seems mostly to apply to Muslims. The modest way that nuns (or indeed monks and priests and archbishops) have dressed for hundreds of years passes without comment, but the partially-concealing hijab (which shows the wearer’s eyes) and the all-enveloping burka seem to polarise public opinion in a way that the wigs worn by Orthodox Jewish women do not.

Far-right politicians have seized on ‘ultra-modest’ clothing as symbols of everything that’s going wrong with Europe. There has been further controversy since the European Court of Justice ruled this week that employers can refuse to employ staff who insist on wearing headscarves – but the implications of the ruling are complex and do not necessarily constitute an attack on one particular faith. Even so, critics, like the Turkish President Erdogan claim this could be the start of a new ‘holy war’. This inflammatory talk is as bad as the fear-provoking bilge spouted by the ultra-right.

All over Europe, a growing number of national governments, local councils, some towns and cities have already banned the full-face veil, generally citing security concerns. The Netherlands, Austria and Germany all want to bring in legislation to ban the full veil in public places. France banned the burka outright in 2011, claiming it violated the liberty of the individual, and the EU rejected an attempt to overturn the legislation in 2014. Belgium banned the full-face veil in public spaces in 2011.

Recent terror attacks have led governments to consider extending the burka ban, but the latest EU ruling about headscarves focuses on the right of an employer to insist on an ‘image-neutral’ policy in the workspace. That means an employer can decide that any religious symbol could be unacceptable, including the crucifix. The ban cannot apply to those already employed, only new recruits. Half the German States already ban teachers from wearing a veil or a headscarf in the classroom. If women want to wear a headscarf, it’s fine by me, but in the end, an employer ought to be able to set a clothing policy, providing there are sound practical reasons for doing so – although it will be extremely hard to police if they have to apply it across every faith – where does a wig worn for religious beliefs fall under this new ruling? And, are head scarf wearers more persecuted than other minorities? After all, it is their choice.

Of course, a teacher, judge, fashion model or bus conductor can all do their jobs perfectly well in a headscarf, but the burka and the niqab are another matter. They are highly offensive to a huge majority of people – because, those people argue, they seem to reduce the women inside them to faceless chattels, property of their partners, in doing so demean the wearers.

I find them utterly repugnant, an offence against an entire sex in the name of religion, and I cannot imagine why the government hasn’t got the bottle to ban burkas in public spaces, at least on the grounds of security. The sight of a woman in one makes me feel nauseous and pushes my tolerance to the limit. In my opinion, they do not belong on the streets of a civilised country.

But as for the latest EU ruling, I am not sure what kind of employers would feel the need to ban all religious clothing at work, and they are probably not the kind of boss I would feel comfortable working for. It is imperative that all religions are treated equally in our society, but it does seem that some are more likely to moan about victimisation than others.