Strasbourg ruling marks a setback for claims of Christian victimisation

But even a defeat can be said to advance campaign groups' narrative that Christians are being "marginalised" by militant secularism.

Today's judgement by the European Court of Human Rights in the cases of four Christians claiming discrimination on the basis of their beliefs is generally a good thing. Score-keepers in the ongoing culture wars will be quick to note a three-one win by the forces of secularism. Of the four claimants, only Nadia Eweida, the British Airways check-in clerk who was told that her small silver cross violated the company's uniform policy, had her claim upheld. But her victory is more than just symbolic. It undermines the one strong argument her backers had that Christians in this country face anything that might be called oppression. The other cases usefully serve to mark out the boundaries between religious self-expression and the wider interests of society.

Taken together, the cases of Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin - a nurse whose similar wish to wear a cross at work was turned down on health and safety grounds - introduce an easily-understood principle. Generally, the judges decided, employees have a right to manifest their religious convictions (their right under Article 9 of the European Convention) by wearing a symbol of their choice. Lawyers of the government had argued, much to David Cameron's embarrassment, that the principle only applies where the symbol is an explicit requirement of the faith or worn openly by a majority of the faith's adherents. The domestic courts had reached much the same conclusion. But for the European judges, it was enough that the cross is a recognised Christian symbol, and that Eweida believed that demonstrating her faith openly by wearing it was important to her. The model upheld is one of individual belief rather than corporate religious identity. The court seeks to protect the believer, not the religion as a whole. This is important.

Chaplin lost, meanwhile, because her employer had a stronger rationale for interfering with her right to manifest her belief, in this case the health and safety of patients. Eweida's relatively discreet cross posed a much more trivial challenge to her employer's corporate identity. BA itself later seemed to acknowledge this by changing the policy.

One consequence of these decisions should be to reduce any perception that the law treats Christians wishing to wear a cross less favourably than members of other religions. Pressing the belief that Christians are getting a raw deal compared to, say, hijab-wearing Muslims or turban-wearing Sikhs has been central to the agenda of campaign groups such as Christian Concern, aided and abetted by the Express and the Daily Mail. Unfortunately, the approach of the domestic courts, which have tended to restrict the Article 9 right to "manifest" religious belief to practices that are central or mandatory in a faith tradition (which wearing a cross isn't) has sometimes fostered this impression. Today's ruling may help to redress the balance.

The two Christians who wished to be exempted from offering services to gay or lesbian clients both lost their case. Lillian Ladele worked as a registrar in Islington but lost her job because she refused to register civil partnerships, while Gary McFarlane, a Relate counsellor, objected to being required to give sexual advice to same-sex couples. In both cases, the court accepted that their refusal in this way was a manifestation of the claimants' religious belief; but it found the interference justified in the light of the wider social goal of anti-discrimination. In these cases, where there was a balance to be struck between competing rights of religious manifestation and non-discrimination, the Court was content to leave matters to the discretion of the authorities concerned.

McFarlane had an especially weak case, having embarked upon a course of training in psycho-sexual therapy in the full knowledge that he would be expected to advise both gay and straight couples. In Ladele's case, however, there was a strongly worded dissent from two of the judges. Noting that when she became a registrar there was no such thing as civil partnerships and that her desire not to conduct them could have been accommodated, the judges accused Islington of having "pursued the doctrinaire line, the road of obsessive political correctness. It effectively sought to force the applicant to act against her conscience or face the extreme penalty of dismissal."

I have some sympathy with this view. There's little doubt that Ladele's objections could have been accommodated and no gay couple would have been any the wiser. Her argument always struck me as somewhat illogical, though: as an evangelical Christian she may have believed that only heterosexual marriage was valid in the eyes of God, but as a registrar she was called upon to pursue a civil function with no religious dimension whatever. All that Ladele was being asked to do was to smile sweetly, say the appointed words, and fill out some paperwork.

For campaign groups like Christian Concern and the Christian Institute, which between them represented the claimants, litigation forms an integral part of what is essentially a political strategy. On the one hand, they make full (many would say over-enthusiastic) use of the legal tools given to them by recent equality legislation as well as the growing number of cases dealt with by the European Court of Human Rights. Obviously they would prefer to win these cases. But even a defeat can be said to advance their wider narrative that Christians are being "marginalised" by militant secularism. It might even enhance their chosen self-image as an oppressed group. And the publicity that these cases inevitably attract (along with others, such as those involving guest-house owners who refuse the custom of same-sex couples) serves to rally the faithful, whether the cases themselves are won or lost.

By "Christians", of course, they mean a particular type of Christian. Not all believers share their particular obsessions (notably opposition to gay equality)  or think of themselves as part of a beleaguered minority. The argument is at least as much an internal Christian one as a debate between Christians and the forces of secularism. That's the point.

 

British Airways employee Nadia Eweida holds her crucifix as she poses for pictures after the court's ruling. Photograph: Getty Images
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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.