Religious Observance and Employment: Headscarves

Headscarf Employment Barriers @ higheradvantage.orgThrowback Thursday: a classic Higher blog post about a fundamental of our work.

Addressing religious beliefs that present barriers to employment is tricky.  Religious expression is personal and individual.

Finding the right balance between addressing potential barriers to employment and respecting religious freedom can feel uncomfortable, especially when speaking to someone with different beliefs than your own.

Click here to read a great TedTalk explanation of how headscarfs have become the symbol of a stereotype and the diverse motivations Muslim women feel for making their own choice about how to dress.  It will definitely help you understand, empathize and feel more comfortable talking to clients about this.

3 Talking Points You Can Use

Here are three practical talking points that will help you address barriers to employment around headscarfs in the workplace:

1. Women will not be forced to work with their heads uncovered or dressed in other ways that go against their beliefs.  Discrimination based on religion, nationality, gender or ethnic origin (among others) is illegal.

Click here to read the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidance on Religious Garb and Grooming in the Workplace: Rights and Responsibilities.

2. There are many legitimate reasons for employer concern that go beyond discrimination.  We can help address those.  Often, concerns are related to hygeine and safety because loose clothing and flowing scarves can get caught in equipment or dangle into food or cleaning chemicals. Safety laws protect workers and customers.  Employers are required by law to follow them.

3.  Shorter, more tailored headscarfs, often in colors matching uniforms are widely available.  You can work with employers to provide examples and even find online sources to order them.  This goes for uniform options like loose pants, long skirts or modesty aprons, too.

One Employer’s Experience and Solution

Employers need to ensure that all employees are treated fairly. If some are given special privileges to dress differently, others might see it as discrimination against them. Here’s an example of how one employer addressed the issue with Muslim employees and their colleagues:

When a hotel partner provided loose uniform pants, longer, more modest tops and matching headscarfs for Muslim women housekeepers, some of their non-Muslim colleagues complained. Previous requests for permission to wear pants, bandanas or baseball caps had been denied.  It didn’t seem fair that some colleagues received special privileges. The hotel invited an Employment Specialist (also a Muslim) to speak at a staff meeting about the basic tenets of Islam around women and clothing. They also requested help to identify a source of specialty uniforms.  We were able to ask another hotel partner to share their previous experience and solutions with the HR department. In the end, the hotel opened the option to wear uniform pants for all women housekeepers but continued to forbid any kind of head covering except for religious purposes.

(A great conversation with Church World Service colleagues motivated a new occasional series of posts to help address common issues we face around religious observance and U.S. workplace norms. Please get in touch to request topics or volunteer to contribute a guest post about some aspect of the topic, that will cover a number of religions, not just Islam.  Comment on this post or send email to and stay tuned for more.) 


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  1. Helpful and informative.

    Just reading the referenced Title VII article will clear up many misconceptions and misapplications, I think.

    In preparing students / clients for work, I try to help them make a distinction between religion and culture: religion remains the same everywhere, at all times; culture changes or can change.

    A possible example could be that a particular religion requires a man to have his head covered at all times, inside and outside, from sun-up to sun-down. A man who wears a soft cloth hat in accordance with that religion would have to be accommodated in accordance with Title VII. However, the man’s employer could require the man to wear a hard hat on a construction job, or require a baseball cap with a company logo, even if the man refused, by arguing that so long as the man’s head is covered by *something* then the man is in conformance with his religious beliefs (unless, of course, the religion specifies a soft cloth hat).

    Our clients, employers, and we ourselves need to learn how to distinguish between religious and cultural practices, and how to balance the needs and desires of employers and employees.

    And we all need to remember that our choices, whether religious or cultural, all have consequences.

    In the context of this article, I think it could be argued that a Muslim woman who wears a head covering for religious reasons should be accommodated, but a woman who refuses to wear anything but a long, flowing, loose head covering because doing so makes her feel culturally uncomfortable need not be accommodated.

    Again, this was a helpful and informative article.

    • Lorel Donaghey says:

      Thanks, as always, Chris. How goes the new job? I’d love to get other comments about this to know what others think. Lorel

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