Thursday, June 19, 2008

Good hair day

Islamophobia Watch draws attention to the victory of Bushra Noah in her discrimination case. The young woman was turned down for a job at hair salon because she wears a headscarf. Now, this is a boost for workers everywhere, particularly female workers who are often the target of sexist dress code policies that insist they wear a skirt and so forth. Previous challenges to such policies have been difficult to sustain, but this lays down a precedent. So, not just a victory against blatant employer Islamophobia, but also something that working people will find useful if they want to challenge their employers on discriminatory dress codes. However, the radical firebrands at HP Sauce have been moved to eructate as follows:

Why should a hairdressing salon carry even the risk of losing business because an irrational third party who as decided that showing hair is sinful and thus must be covered up at all times wants to work in the trade?

Surely the the person making bizarre lifestyle choices based on their irrational fears and superstitions should carry the consequent risks and inconveniences - and and not expect someone else to?

This is posed as a "moral question", no less. The tradition that this argument draws on is that embodied in the legal defense of segregation. Why should businesses have to run the risk of losing business by being forced to employ blacks? Why should they have to even allow them in the store if it'll drive away good white customers? Why can't they bar customers at their own discretion? The citation of the holy profit, of the inviolable rights of property owners, is precisely in that usage. (It is, of course, still the case that those who want to preserve the legacy of segregation in the labour market argue against affirmative action and similar legislation as a form of 'reverse discrimination' - thus implying that the prevailing inequality is meritocratic). The interesting thing about this is that such arguments were answered by civil rights legislators, who accepted the narrow terms of the discussion. They pointed out that public accomodations, shops and so forth, were not merely private property but of such a kind that they both were and had to be open to the public. This property is inserted into market relations, which is a sphere of social life that ought not to be restricted on the basis of race or any other irrelevant factor. The tormented souls at HP Sauce are appealing to a conception of property rights that has historically been tailored for the defense of white supremacy, and which would sit as comfortably in the literature of the BNP today.