Language Games: On Neutrality and the Hijab

By Andie Alexander

I came across this article on the The Independent on the ruling of  European Court of Justice which allows for businesses to ban employees from wearing hijab in the workplace.  Here’s the video of Koen Lenaerts, President of the ECJ, discussing the ruling:

While there are several aspects of this clip that could be addressed, what initially caught my eye was the “neutrality” language employed in the ruling.

Such an internal rule by a private business could constitute indirect discrimination … unless that provision is objectively justified by a legitimate aim, such as the employer pursuing a policy of political, philosophical, or religious neutrality with their clients…

What strikes me as somewhat puzzling is the businesses’ concerns of neutrality, for in their attempt to be neutral, they are definitely biased. I’m not here to pass judgment necessarily, but I am intrigued by the work being done with this rhetoric. While “neutrality” is a loaded term already (for no one is ever really neutral, i.e., we all have some sort of perspective on matters), I would argue in this instance, this rhetoric is, under the guise of objectivity, reifying the status quo with regard to Islam.

These instances of hijab-wearing women being asked to leave their place of employment occurred in Belgium and France (the latter — not unlike many nations — already having a complicated history with Islam and the hijab, et. al.). By asking these employees to leave on the basis of a company “neutrality policy,” these employers are necessarily taking a stance saying that Islam (and any representation of it) are non-normative because they lie outside of the delineated “neutral” zone. The rhetoric of “neutrality” only works if there is a non-neutral counterpart; however, that language has largely negative connotations, thereby designating Islam as “other” at best and threatening at worst. Of course there are many racial and gendered aspects of this ban also, as discussed here on Al Jazeera, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll limit my focus to the effects of language. This “neutrality” rhetoric is, of course, anything but neutral: It marginalizes, others, and delegitimizes Islam and Muslims whether implicitly or explicitly.

Furthermore, considering this recent history in France, this response from François Fillon, the former French PM and current conservative presidential candidate, is also somewhat telling:

What is particularly telling about Fillon’s comments is that somehow Islam antagonizes something called “social peace.” Or rather, the outward expression of Islam (the hijab, et. al.), threatens public peace. Put differently, Muslims are free to believe as they choose and follow Islam so long as it doesn’t manifest publicly (i.e., the hijab). But of course, this notion of personal belief that is individual and private is very closely tied to conceptions and practices of Christianity. That is, despite French laïcité, religion is still understood and defined in largely post-Reformation Christian ideologies. The idea that Muslims must practice Islam privately and internally necessarily marginalizes Muslims in these countries.

In this ruling, the ECJ, much like these companies, is taking a definitive stance on religion and religious practices despite notions of neutrality. Of course, this isn’t unfamiliar to those of us here in the U.S., having seen similar issues with regard to private businesses and their interactions with clients. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that private businesses, while separate from the state or government, still operate and function within them, and are public inasmuch as they work within that system. The private is always public. Regardless of one’s thoughts on the role of private businesses, we need to take seriously the language of those in positions of power (because it’s anything but neutral), so to see the sorts of rhetorical work being done to delegitimize and marginalize certain groups and practices while reifying the dominant and normative ones.

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Andie Alexander is an M.A. student at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research focuses on identity construction, discourses on classification and boundary construction, the practicality of definition, and public/private discourses with regard to issues of social group formation and nationalism in the U.S. She also contributes to the Studying Religion in Culture Grad blog. Read her posts here. Andie is also the Online Curator here at Culture on the Edge.

2 Replies to “Language Games: On Neutrality and the Hijab”

  1. Fantastic. The idea of “neutrality” could be explored at length… how is western business attire considered “neutral”… what outward expressions of Christian beliefs are normalized (wearing a cross pendant, adhering to modesty guidelines, etc.) versus the villainized act of wearing non-Christian symbols of religion.

    1. Thanks! Yes, I agree — the word “neutrality” is very loaded, so exploring its implications are would be very good.

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