Simon Barrow

Should religious dress and symbols be banned at work?

By Simon Barrow
November 19, 2007

So here we go again. There was the 'silver ring' case of a girl barred by her school from wearing a piece of jewellery which turned out to be more a campaign symbol than an essential expression of faith. Her parents lost her case, but are appealing. There have been a couple of complaints about airlines, religion and dress codes. Now there is the matter of a Sikh girl told that she cannot wear a bangle to school.

Each of these instances is different. Some involve what looks like the politicisation of the 'presentation' issue, while the latest seems to be about the definition of equal and fair treatment for different sections of the community in relation to specific company or organisational policy.

As for Sarika Watkins-Singh, aged 14, a pupil at Aberdare Girls’ School, who has refused to remove her kara, which reminds its wearers to do good, her case has been backed by the non-religious civil rights group Liberty. So trying to turn this into a catch-all complaint about 'religion' won't work, either. It has wider ramifications for free expression. There are race equality considerations, too.

With some activists trying to push to 'keep religion out of the workplace' altogether, and some religious lobbyists using the power of symbolic representation to reassert themselves at a time when they perceive their influence to be under threat, there is a danger that all sense of perspective and proportion will be lost.

Until recently, with the odd exception, most organisations have come up with pragmatic approaches aimed at keeping everyone on board and included within the bounds of a common (legally sound) policy. That is how it should be, and it is the situation we need to encourage. Less heat, more light for everyone to share.

We should not look at religious clothing and symbols as if they are something entirely separate from the way in which we dress generally, either. We live in a consumer-driven society that encourages us to be distinctive, to be individual, to express ourselves in ways that are different to other people as well as peer-associated.

It seems extraordinary for someone to feel threatened just because one expression of difference (or solidarity) in an intentionally plural society is religious. In monocultural, illiberal or theocratic orders the issue is quite different, of course.

In a fast-changing world, there will always be things that appear strange to others. If it’s not the way people dress, it’ll be the colour of their skin; if it’s not the colour of their skin it will be something else, such as customs, patterns of thought, or language. The question is: how can we learn to cope with that, and even benefit from it?

You cannot and should not ban something just because it makes you feel uncomfortable. Instead of building walls, we should build relationships. We should strive for a situation in which people are prepared to be open towards others, including the variety of their appearance and presentation.

People dress in all sorts of ways that reflect their lifestyle. And it isn’t always straightforward to identify what is, or isn’t, inspired by religion. For example, some people wear a cross for religious reasons, while others wear one simply as jewellery.

I am certainly not opposed to a company or school having a dress or symbol policy that reflects corporate image, equal respect or health and safety concerns. Nevertheless, the idea of introducing a blanket ban on religious symbols in public institutions (such as the Iranian campaigner Azar Majedi has advocated) is only dealing with something by repressing it, rather than by encouraging people to understand each other better, which is the principle a modern, peaceful and fair society should be built upon.

So long as the form of dress is not dangerous, unhealthy, contrary to the needs of the task undertaken, or deliberately designed to menace or threaten someone else — in which case it becomes a public order issue — then we should seek to allow it wherever possible. That should be the default, though there will be exceptions and local circumstances.

Mediation and mutual adaptation should be viewed as the appropriate way forward, rather than prescription and litigation.

I personally feel great sympathy with the view that some Muslim veils can be seen as a tool of oppression. Complete covering is also not part of the tradition, and compulsion is to be deplored. Muslims have argued that, too. But I also respect the views of some women who say that it can be about protecting themselves from the invasive gaze of a male-dominated order.

As a plural society, we’re not going to reach an agreement on whether such veiling is a good or bad thing — but a ban wouldn’t solve anything. It would simply push the issue underground, up the ante for those who wish to squeeze political capital out of it, and cause more bitterness.

Indeed, the debate over religious symbols and dress is often a proxy for more complex political and cultural concerns. In some cases is has been picked up by groups with bigger agendas linked to racism or xenophobia. For individuals, a small fight over a personal item might reflect a sense of injustice about wider issues that are not being addressed.

We should acknowledge that living in a multicultural society has made some individuals feel anxious about their identity. But that anxiety - about self or toward others - will not be resolved by legal measures.

Like Azar Majedi, I believe in the positive virtue of secularity in the public square. But for me that does not mean one in which religious (or indeed anti-religious) expression has to be hidden away — it is one in which we acknowledge that we have to share public space and find ways of communicating with one another across our differences.

(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His blog is at

Part of this article was originally written for Business Spotlight magazine and published in the Spring 2007 issue.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.