‘Ban on headscarves will not make officials more neutral’

Is an EU official allowed to wear a headscarf or turban? That depends on the country. Titia Loenen, Leiden Professor of Human Rights and Diversity, pleads for more equal rights in Europe. And for ‘polder’-style solutions to sensitive issues. Inaugural lecture 15 November.

France shudders at the thought

In the Netherlands, a government official is allowed to wear a headscarf or turban, but this right does not extend to police officers or officials of the Justice Department. In England, headscarves and turbans are also allowed for judges and police officers. France shudders at the thought; even a French official who has no contact with the public has to refrain from wearing this kind of headgear. Loenen investigates gender and multicultural issues at the European level and she studies how the various legal institutions interact with one another.

Semblance of neutrality

In her inaugural lecture, Loenen focuses on the fictive but highly realistic case of Nadine, a French Muslim woman working in a Ministry who is not allowed by French law to wear a headscarf. France’s argument is that government officials should have a neutral appearance. Loenen: ‘This is only a semblance of neutrality, because everything depends on your perspective. Moroccans for instance often do not experience white judges as neutral.’

Sensitive issues

Titia Loenen

Titia Loenen

What can Nadine expect if she seeks help from the European Court of Human Rights? Probably very little, says Loenen. The Court is extremely reticent in this kind of cases, and it gives national authorities a lot of space for their own position. ‘The Court does not dare to get involved with these sensitive issues.’ However, another, relatively new actor has appeared on the scene: the Court of Justice of the European Union. ‘The EU started out as a primarily economic club, but it has since become increasingly involved with human rights; there is an awareness that economical development and social development go hand in hand.’

‘Polder’ solution

The Court of Justice has not yet ruled on a case such as that of Nadine. Loenen is of the opinion that this Court will have to be less reticent to take up a position in such cases. After all, EU law forbids both direct and indirect discrimination on the basis of religion, race or gender in the field of work. In addition, the free movement of employees will be endangered if Muslim women from other EU countries cannot work in a government position in France due to their headscarf. ‘If this issue is very sensitive in a given country, the EU Court might optfor a Dutch-style ‘polder’ solution: forbidding religious expression only for certain functions, such as the police and the Justice Department.’

Are separate counters desirable?

Loenen is also investigating the growing issue of gender segregation in the Netherlands and in Europe, and the room granted to it in legislation. Some municipalities have upon request established separate counters and assimilation courses for men and women. Is this desirable? ‘I don’t generally have such black or white opinions. In this case: gender segregation might help women to cross a threshold, so maybe the first meeting can be held separately, but not the entire course, because that might create expectations for other services. In this case too, a polder-style solution might work best.’

(14 November 2013)

See also


Law, Democracy & Governance: Legitimacy in a Multilevel Setting is one of six profile themes in the research of Leiden University.

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Last Modified: 19-11-2013