Religious head coverings for barristers a win for diversity
A small yet significant development took effect on September 1. “Hong Kong barristers given option of forgoing wigs for religious head coverings,” read a Post headline about the announcement.
I would not be surprised if most readers missed the story as it was not front-page news. However, for those directly affected by the change and the many others working with people who face similar issues, it is momentous.
I would like to congratulate the chief justice and Bar Association for securing this exemption, which is a big step for cultural inclusion in a profession seen as highly traditional.
We hope the high-profile example set by the Bar Association will be suitably promoted and given visibility so it can have a trickle-down effect on other organisations and employers. It sets a precedent and is one that should be emulated.
Incidents of unfavourable treatment caused by a dress code, and specifically head coverings, are frequently brought to our notice. The Equal Opportunities Commission has intervened in a case where Pakistani Muslim students in an evangelical Christian secondary school were stopped from wearing headscarves and subjected to disciplinary action.
A survey carried out by local NGO Treats a few months ago among ethnic minorities in Hong Kong cited examples of an employee being berated and banned from wearing a headscarf and others being turned down for job interviews despite being qualified. Respondents reported facing comments about their race, culture and clothing in the workplace.
The Race Discrimination Ordinance prohibits discrimination on the grounds of one’s race in areas including employment, education and in the provision of goods, facilities and services. The ordinance also covers racial harassment such as name-calling and derogatory remarks.
While the legal definition of race does not include religion under the ordinance, some requirements or conditions relating to religion may result in indirect discrimination against certain racial groups, in which case the ordinance may apply, such as wearing a kippah for Jews or the Sikh practice of wearing a turban and keeping a beard.
For people from majority-Muslim populations, a restriction against wearing a headscarf for reasons that cannot be justified would be seen as possible race discrimination, such as against Pakistani and Indonesian women, as Islam and their ethnic identity are closely linked.
The law can be an effective deterrent. However, it can only affect behaviour. What we also need is attitudinal change. Though slow to take effect, it is more long term in its gains. To build a harmonious and equitable society in the long run, attitudes of mutual respect, appreciation of differences and shared values will have to be developed.
While workplaces should reflect the society they operate in, they can also model the values and culture that society could emulate. A work culture that respects diversity and inclusion will filter not just into staff but also suppliers, clients, markets and the extended pipeline.
We see that real change, when it comes to racial diversity and inclusion, comes from on-the-ground shifts taking place in businesses and employment. Through policy, practice and messaging, they are able to affect the equality landscape much more effectively than any law can in isolation.
We certainly need the legal framework, but employers can effect change beyond simply complying with the law. Take the Bar Association case. Without recourse to the law, the change in the head-covering rule for barristers has prevented possible indirect discrimination against people from certain religious groups.
We are not aware of how many people may have been forced to choose between their profession and their religious identity before this exemption. It is an unfair and unnecessary choice to have to make.
I urge all employers, organisations and educational institutions to undertake a careful review of their policies, whether related to dress code, language or anything else. If a policy prevents people from preserving their cultural, religious or ethnic identity while pursuing their employment, education or other endeavours, it needs scrutiny.
I believe most people agree that diversity is a desirable goal. But diversity has little meaning if there is no inclusion. And inclusion has no relevance if it does not stand for embracing that diversity in all its forms.
Ricky CHU Man-kin
Chairperson, Equal Opportunities Commission
(Note: The article was published on South China Morning Post on 18 September 2021.)