Some governments are banning citizens or employees from wearing items of clothing that they deem to be inappropriate. Over the past decade, France has imposed limitations on the religious dress of some French people. In 2004, Muslim headscarves were banned at French public schools. Burkinis (full-body swimsuits) were banned from beaches in 2016 and just recently, abayas (robe-like dresses) were banned from schools. In France, the government’s belief is that wearing ‘religious’ clothing in public violates the principle of religious neutrality. Quebec, Canada has similar laws for headscarves. China has just announced a proposed new law that would allow for fines and even prison time for people who offend the government by wearing the wrong clothing. Officials haven’t yet defined what ‘wrong clothing’ refers to but analysts are concerned that this lack of clarity could lead to an infringement of personal rights. Locally, the Islamic Medical Association of SA has expressed concerns after the health department proposed a ban on headscarves to be worn with a nurse’s uniform at state institutions.
Why is it important?
The ban on certain types of clothing raises the issue of civil liberties, and what it means for a society where some citizens are denied equality in certain respects. In France, the idea is nominally to promote neutrality, but in practice the bans discriminate explicitly against particular religions, norms and cultures while permitting others that would be deemed offensive elsewhere. A country that bans modest veiling while permitting topless bathing is arguably, without irony, no less tolerant or more progressive than a society that bans the removal of modesty veils. In China, the idea is that in certain cases, dress can be interpreted as challenging the status quo and this sort of silent ‘rebellion’ should be quashed. In both instances, the countries are telling people how to dress and infringing their rights to express themselves as they wish. This could ironically have the reverse effect and lead to disloyalty and potential rebellion. If we begin to see a company as a country, a similar situation could arise where employees whose religious freedoms are curtailed could look for employment elsewhere and even cause reputational damage to the company.
What can businesses do about it?
We live in a multicultural society here in South Africa and this is reflected in our workforce.
Businesses should tread carefully with regards to religious and cultural diversity. As a leader, it is important to consider inclusivity from this perspective – to understand your staff in order to be supportive of their religious and cultural needs and to avoid insensitivity. Offer reasonable accommodations for employees to practise their religion, such as flexible work hours, designated prayer or meditation rooms, or time off for religious holidays. Ensure that dress code policies are flexible enough to accommodate religious attire, such as headscarves, turbans, or yarmulkes. Fostering an environment that respects and values religious diversity will help with staff morale and retention, which will translate into a more productive workplace. Many studies show that inclusivity is a win-win situation for both employers and employees.
By Faeeza Khan
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