London: When Amrit Lalji, 40, British Indian, wife and mother of three, returns to her humble job as cleaner and customer relations assistant at Heathrow Airport’s VIP lounge on Saturday, she will do it as a latter-day heroine.
The tiny stud in Lalji’s nose will be intact. As it winks in the fluorescent glare of the airport lights, the stud will symbolise its newly-realised equivalence in British eyes to the gold wedding band married Christians habitually wear. For, Lalji has speedily won back her job — and the right to wear a nose-stud — within a month of being sacked for the offence of sporting a “facial piercing” while on duty.
Lalji won her challenge to employer Eurest, the giant catering and customer support company, by producing a letter from her local Hindu community to support her contention that a Hindu woman’s nose-stud is not an adornment but an essential statement of her married status. Eurest had ordered her to remove-it-or-removeyourself on the grounds that “Jewellery can harbour bacteria, create a hazard when working with machinery and find its way into the food people eat.”
But on Friday, a Eurest spokesperson said Lalji’s dismissal “resulted from a misunderstanding of rules relating to facial piercings (which are) mandatory only in catering operations”. The company acknowledged that “Since Mrs Lalji is not engaged in catering, her dismissal … is therefore unjustified”. Restrained in victory, Lalji would only say on Thursday night “I am happy I got my job back”.
More bullish than Lalji about the nose-stud challenge, London’s mayor Ken Livingstone, described her reinstatement as a “victory for freedom of expression”.
L ivingstone, who is due to visit India next month to drum up more tourist, educational and business interaction between his megapolis and cities such as Mumbai and Delhi, said Lalji’s “dismissal was a violation of those basic human rights. I am glad that good sense has prevailed and I would urge every employer to respect the rights of their employees to freely express their beliefs”.
Relieved Hindu community leaders here reiterated their view that Lalji was right to insist, as a married woman, on wearing the nose-stud. They reiterated that the nosestud “is an integral part of Amrit Lalji’s faith. Many Hindu women have their nose pierced and fitted with a stud for their wedding as part of the Shringar ritual. These marks are not just the outward symbol of marriage — traditionally they are believed to help ensure the match is harmonious.” But thoughtful commentators say Lalji’s victory underlines officially multi-cultural Britain’s attempt to feel its way towards a more complete understanding of the religious and cultural rituals of its large and diverse ethnic minority communities.