On International Workers Day, protesters took to the streets of Stockholm, Malmo, Gothenburg and elsewhere in Sweden to show solidarity with Aye Alhassani, who was requested by Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) to remove her headscarf if she wanted a job as Traffic Assistant.
Bolstered by the European Court of Justice directive in March which ruled that the prohibition of “any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination”, Scandinavian Airlines offered Aye an ultimatum. The headscarf or the job.
Outrageous of course! Especially considering the reputation of Sweden as a human rights bastion. But the imprecise language used in the directive lends itself to abuse by some employers who wish to introduce a “neutrality” policy as a euphemism to erase, and marginalise identities which bother some people.
I had the good fortune of being present at the march, where scores protesters of all backgrounds poured onto the streets of Stockholm with righteous anger shouting slogans like “Muslim rights are human rights” and “my hijab my rights”. Not content, they even goaded by-standers to take part with slogans like “don’t stand aside come with us”. They all sounded catchier and more melodic in Swedish.
Some even chanted “down with the EU decision”. Be careful I sniggered, else this Eurosceptic soundbite eventually mutate into a disastrous referendum in a few years. #Brexit.
More pleasing still was the ownership Muslim women took of the demonstration, designing banners, contributing to security and order and injecting the much-needed energy and vitality required to ensure the presence of the protesters was felt on the streets of Stockholm. As I looked out over the sea of bobbing heads and banners I experienced a moment of startled pause laced with silent pride at the number of Muslim women present, vocalising their opposition to the ECJ ruling.
A much older Somali woman present at the demonstration, who I briefly spoke with said she could never stand by whilst her fundamental rights and those of her working daughters and sisters where being so grossly impinged upon. As they took part in the rhythmic Nordic chants, I couldn’t help but recall David Cameron’s old “traditionally submissive Muslim women” quip with smug recollection.
Between associations with violence, unemployment and obscurantism on the hand and bearded men on flying carpets and veiled belly dancers on the other, caricatures of Muslims in Europe don’t leave much room for these new voices. In their moment of alarm these young ladies didn’t sit hopelessly by, but took the initiative. With full confidence in their cause, they took to the streets of Sweden with their partners and demanded their rights; they told the world how they expect to be treated. We can all learn from this.
SAS unfortunately haven’t backed down from their position despite the protests and how viral this issue has gone, adding security to their earlier point about neutrality of uniforms. What this does however demonstrate is growing spaces of resistance to attempts by those who wish to force Muslim women to choose between their religious identities and access to the labour market. And an appetite to fight for these rights in wider society as well.
In an open letter addressed to the Ottoman Sultan after he was stripped of his right of succession in Khedival Egypt, Prince Mustafa Fazil said: “Sire, that which enters the palaces of princes with the greatest difficulty is the truth”. So, it is with great deference, that I tell you that Stockholm stood up and played her part in making the voices of those affected by this ruling heard. Stay classy Sweden!
Faisal Ali studied at Cardiff University, completing an MA as a Jameel Scholar at the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK. Following graduation, he has worked as a researcher at MEND, Cardiff University and with a variety of civil society organisations. His interests include trends, popular culture, technology and art.