Thursday, 28 October, 2021

Women's Clothing: Freedom of Choice Stranded in Between

Akhlak-Ul-Islam Tusar and Luknath Pado Sarker

Women's Clothing: Freedom of Choice Stranded in Between

Women's clothing in the 21st century is still a topic of immense debate worldwide, with the women themselves having very little say in it. Whether it is covering or not covering their full body or a part of their body, different societies have their own say and judgments. In fact, so much that the issue is being addressed at the state level and in the courts of even larger jurisdictions. A recent example of it can be found in the Taliban controlled Afghanistan with their extremist views that prefer women to fully cover themselves. On the contrary, there is Court of Justice of European Union with their farfetched view on women not covering themselves with Hijab in workplace to maintain a neutral image.

There is no doubt that women have come a long way regarding their participation in a country's economy or the World as a whole. However, it cannot be denied that women are still facing prejudice in societies in different manners. The most recent and significant instance of such discrimination can be found in Afghanistan, the country that is moving backwards with the specific policies taken by the Taliban, whereas the world is trying to move forward. After taking control of Afghanistan, the Taliban has taken certain policies in their hand, which showed intent not to let women have a say in the economic or political sphere. Though the Taliban claims otherwise, their actions so far have primarily attested to the aforementioned fact. In fact, their intention does not even seem to reduce women's participation in various economic sectors of the state, instead completely end it. With a view to reaching their goal, one of the steps they have taken is to make sure that women cannot wear as they choose to, instead cover themselves completely with Hijab being a mandatory part of clothing.

Furthermore, Gandhara, a local news portal of Afghanistan, on September 6 has reported that the Education Ministry under the Taliban-led government has issued an extensive document directed towards the private universities and colleges of Afghanistan on 5th September 2021. The document contains directions as to a segregated educational system based on gender, wearing of abaya (fully covered black attire with niqab), and gloves to cover the hands of female students, staff, and teachers. There is no doubt that these policies clearly violate a person's freedom of choice. It also creates clear obstacles and indirectly excludes women's participation in different types of work fields.

The contrary scenario can be seen in the European Union. In deciding the case of two companies' (MH Müller Handels GmbH and WABE) ban on wearing Hijab in the workplace, the Court of Justice of European Union on 15th July 2021 has held that if the employers can show that there is a genuine need of banning certain kinds of clothing or symbols professing any kind of religious, philosophical or political ideologies, they are within their rights to ban such clothing or symbols intending to avoid loss and portray a neutral image of their workplace. The Court further held that it does not amount to any direct or indirect discrimination. On top of that, the Court said that the decision of this Court will be applicable in the national Courts of the EU Countries subject to that State's order of priority of rights. Hence, the decision of the EU Court does seem to leave options for the States.

Nevertheless, the decision will certainly affect the women at work especially, Muslim women. The Muslim women might be left in dilemma to either wear the Hijab that they think is a mandatory part of their wearing according to their religious belief or choose to work. As a result, choosing to wear Hijab may lead to de facto exclusion of Muslim women from certain types of employment. Here, we would like to emphasise the right to freedom of choice over the right to freedom of religion. The right to freedom of choice of women regarding their clothing has been significantly undermined in this judgment of the EU Court. Although Hijab may seem to profess a particular religious sentiment, it is still a part of a woman's clothing. Therefore, the freedom of choice regarding clothing is more than a relevant issue in this particular matter.

The World at the moment is trying to move forwards. For instance, one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the 5th Goal, aims to ensure gender equality. It targets to empower women and take appropriate policies as well as enact legislations to achieve the target thereof. These SDGs are expected to be achieved by 2030. However, as we have seen in the above discussion, even women's clothing is still a matter of debate. Interestingly, it is not only in the conservative societies but also in the societies which claim to be torchbearers of the free world.

The forces like the Taliban want women to wear clothes that fully cover them while on the other hand, the institutions like the Court of Justice of EU allow the ban on wearing Hijab at workplace with the reasoning of keeping a neutral image of it. Although both situations may not hold the same gravity, they undermine the same kind of right, i.e., the right to freedom of choice of women. Thus, it is high time that the world let go off the worries of what a woman should wear and instead focus on more pressing issues fundamental to the betterment of the world as a whole.


The writers are Students, Department

of Law, East West University