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Belgium: Students Protest for The Right to Wear the Headscarf

Belgium: Students Protest for The Right to Wear the Headscarf

Around 1,000 people, mostly students, gathered in Brussels at the weekend to advocate for the right to wear headscarves at universities. The protests took place after a court in Belgium permitted a university to enforce a ban on religious symbols, including the hijab.

The majority of the protesters were young women, both with and without hijabs. The protesters argued that women are, once again, being judged on the basis of what they wear.

Disgraceful: Belgium’s Constitutional Court ruled that the ban on religious symbols in education does not violate religious rights

The protests began after the Constitutional Court in Belgium shockingly ruled that the prohibition of religious symbols, including the hijab, in higher education, does not violate freedom of religion or the right to education under the Belgian Constitution and European Convention on Human Rights. The decision was made after a group of Muslim women rightfully challenged the Francisco Ferrer College for not allowing its students to wear head coverings.

Although the enforcement of the ban on religious symbols is not widespread in Belgium, there are fears among advocates that the law will make such bans more widespread.

The decision is “infantile and liberticidal”

For the women involved in the protests, the court’s decision represents another example of women’s attire being policed by authorities who seem to be somehow threatened by it.

Commenting on the topic, Katarzyna Falecka from University College London, said that the issue of the headscarf, which will be the main item impacted by the ban on religious symbols, has become “a screen on which Europe’s political fears and struggles are being projected.”

Those who attended the protest agree this sentiment. Speaking to Urban Muslimz, Isabelle Praile, the Ex-Vice President of the Muslim Executive of Belgium, said that Muslim women are “taken hostage” between two extremes, “one being the Taliban who impose the burqa and ban access to education and the other being the secular extremists who forbid them to wear headscarves, depriving them of access to education.” She described both sides as the same process of violence and infantilizing of women.

Praile explained that the right to practice one’s religious freedom in private or in public is in the Constitution of Belgium and described the headscarf ban as being ideologically motivated. She said that since restrictions against wearing the headscarf at school and work first passed in the 1990s, efforts by schools and businesses to prohibit wearing the headscarf has picked up, limiting the spaces Muslim women can participate in public life even as they are being criticised for not doing so.

Indeed, those in the protests carried slogans such as “Don’t judge a woman by her cover!” “Why should I be neutral?” and “Where is the freedom if I can’t put on whatever I want?”

Numerous universities and higher education institutions in Belgium backed the protesters. Among them are the Free University of Brussels (VUB) or Catholic University of Leuven who said that they welcome students “regardless of gender, origin or social status, with or without a headscarf.” We applaud them.

In their own words: why are women out protesting?

Since the weekend’s protests, a number of women taking part in the protests or supporting them have spoken to Urban Muslimz. They tell us that the exclusion of the hijab is in fact a systemic problem.

“Due to the hijab ban in universities, many girls are forced to study while in a negative state. This will of course impact the way they study and therefore their future. We ask for the freedom to wear the headscarf in a country which claims to hold freedom and humanity very dearly,” said Sarah Mahdi when asked why she came out to protest. She said that being allowed to wear the headscarf was a matter of basic rights. We agree with her.

Another protester, Amineen Hussain, highlighted that this was an issue she had to face all through her life. “I was in a school establishment where sometimes, the teachers were imposing that I take off my headscarf. Each time I had to take it off, I wasn’t feeling well, I cried a lot. Why?! Why did I have to take it off? My headscarf is a part of me! I felt very vulnerable, it was really difficult!”

She explained how she had to choose her studies and professions based on the permissibility of her headscarf, including giving up on her dream of being a midwife, since the institute had banned the it. She said that she is lucky, as she found a programme of study that she likes, but she still worries about internships and says that being forced to choose between her identity and access to education is not right.

Similar thoughts were shared with us by Saadiya Alhilou who explained that in the past, only a handful of schools prohibited the hijab but warns that the number is slowly growing. She says that today, there are only a few schools of high academic standing that permit the hijab. She acknowledges there are private schools, but they cost a lot more, meaning families are forced to choose between their faith and finances.

Saadiya also pointed out that schools are not the only problem areas. Similar bans are taking place in hospitals and the healthcare sector, which is of great impact to Muslims given the sheer number of Muslims who work in the industry. Even the hospitality sector is enforcing restrictions, leaving practising Muslim women with increasingly limited opportunities for work. She has been concerned that nobody in Belgium seems to be speaking out about these issues, with most people believing that these restrictions are limited to neighbouring France.

“How can I follow my dreams? I’m being prevented from doing so”

Children are also negatively impacted by the situation. Speaking to Urban Muslimz, 12-year-old Zainab, who is currently in middle school, was dismayed when she learned that the headscarf will not be allowed in her school anymore. She feels that is wrong. To her and others like her, wearing the headscarf is something that is important and that she feels this is something that should be respected. She feels it is already hard enough for her to find an accepting school and is scared of being bullied by other kids because of such policies. She is also worried that in the future, it will force her to give up on her dreams. She asks, how can she follow her dreams when she is prevented from doing so? She feels that all girls with the headscarf are being forced into the same jobs because there are limits to the kinds of jobs she and others like her have access to.

Ultimately, the protests in Belgium are not only raising awareness of the hijab bans in some universities but against an on-going trend that has seen Muslim women in Belgium lose out more and more from gainful employment, forcing them towards having to choose between either compromising on their culture and faith or their careers and futures. Nobody should have to do that.

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