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Religious discrimination Swiss court: you can’t be fired for wearing a headscarf

A woman with a headscarf stands by Lake Zurich

(Keystone)

A Serbian Muslim woman has been awarded compensation by a Bern court after being sacked for wearing a headscarf. It is the first time in more than 25 years that a Swiss court has had to rule on whether wearing a headscarf in a private company was grounds for dismissal.

The 29-year-old had gone to court, supported by the Swiss Islamic Central Councilexternal link, after an industrial laundry centre in Bern fired her after she started wearing a headscarf at the beginning of 2015, the SonntagsZeitung and Le Matin Dimanche reported on Sunday.

The company, citing health and safety regulations, gave the woman an ultimatum: lose her headscarf or her job. Although the company’s work regulations stipulated that employees must only tie their hair back, the company fired the woman a few days later.

The district court for Bern-Mittelland has now ruled the dismissal unfair and awarded the woman three months’ wages and compensation of CHF8,000 ($8,050).

The judges pointed to freedom of religion and belief, as anchored in the Swiss constitution, which protected the right to wear a headscarf – including during employment in the private sector.

Mixed reaction

Önder Günes from the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Switzerlandexternal link welcomed the decision. “The criterion for doing a job should be ability and not clothing,” he said.

For him the verdict was important in order that Muslim women could also enter the labour market.

However, for Saïda Keller-Messahli, president of the Forum for a progressive Islamexternal link, the decision was a step in the wrong direction.

“The headscarf is an accessory of the Islamists,” she said, adding that the dress code of Islamists shouldn’t fall under the protection of freedom of religion since Islam did not demand the wearing of a headscarf.

The most recent case of a court ruling on wearing a headscarf in a private firm was in 1990, when a machine manufacturer in eastern Switzerland fired a Turkish worker for the same reason. There too the court ruled the dismissal to be unfair.  

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