Lifting of hijab ban in southern Belgium offers hope for Muslim women

Anti-Islamophobia activists and organizations welcome the announcement regarding universities and look forward to the lifting of bans in other institutions

Religious symbols, including the hijab, will be allowed in universities in the French-speaking Walloon region of Belgium from September 2021, local officials have announced, in a victory for anti-Islamophobia and Muslim women’s groups fighting against the banned for years.

The decision was welcomed by activists and Muslim women who also acknowledged that new measures were needed to achieve the lifting of similar bans in institutions and workplaces in Belgium.

“This decision was very important, and it will impact many women – It will impact their decision to pursue an education, to be part of society, to be financially independent and to follow their dreams about what they want to become,” said Fatima Zahra Younsi, an activist who has been battling Islamophobia in Belgium for a decade.

“Schools are an important first step, [they help create the kind of profile] which is needed in the labor market. I hope this decision inspires other organizations to change their own rules regarding hijab, I really hope companies follow suit.

Until now, Belgium had banned “religious symbols”, including the headscarf worn by Muslim women in their religious practice, in schools, including higher education.

“We are overturning the principle, in the name of the inclusion of the greatest number, of emancipation and the fight against inequalities”, Julien Nicaise, general administrator of Wallonia-Brussels Education (WBE), a public body which manages French-speaking audiences. schools in Belgium told local media on Saturday, adding that there will be restrictions where “safety is at risk or for hygiene reasons”.

“The general interest must take precedence. We can no longer refuse these young women on the pretext that they wear the veil, prevent them from studying. A diploma is their passport to integration through employment.”

The announcement came after years of campaigning by anti-Islamophobia and Muslim women’s rights groups in Belgium.

“I think it’s a political decision, because we really did a lot of protests, and it’s also a social decision, because more and more Muslims in Belgium are wearing the hijab,” said Younsi, co-founder of the Collective. the 100. Graduates (100 Graduates Collective), an NGO that supports young professionals wearing the Islamic headscarf and facing discrimination. She tells TRT World that her organization lobbied for the lifting of hijab bans in schools and also monitored the impact of hijab bans in workplaces and public institutions across Belgium.

According to official WBE figures, higher education institutions have 50,000 students, including 20,000 in universities and 30,000 in social advancement institutions. Thus, the new decision concerns five universities, five art schools and 29 social advancement establishments.

Although Belgium does not keep official population records based on religion, it is estimated that out of a population of nearly 11.5 million, more than 850,000 are Muslim. Even though not all Muslim women in Belgium wear the hijab, the impact of this new ruling has the potential to affect a large number of women who were previously limited in their education and employment opportunities.

The decision was made by consensus on WBE’s board of directors, which includes representatives from all political parties.

#HijabisFightBack

The news comes after Belgium’s Constitutional Court ruled in June that banning religious symbols, including the hijab, in higher education did not constitute a violation of freedom of religion or the right to education under of the Belgian Constitution and of the European Convention on Human Rights.

This decision was criticized by human rights activists, anti-Islamophobia organizations and collectives of women and feminists, who saw it as a violation of fundamental human rights and an act of discrimination against women.

In response, thousands of people went online to protest the decision using hashtags like #TouchePasAMesEtudes (Don’t touch my studies) and #HijabisFightBack. In July, more than a thousand (some organizations numbered several thousand) gathered in Brussels to advocate for the right to wear headscarves in universities.

Anti-Islamophobia organizations said the court’s opinion could lead to the isolation of Muslims and entrench structural discrimination within the education system.

Belgium is a federal country divided into three regions: Wallonia with a French-speaking majority, Flanders with a Flemish majority and the Brussels-Capital Region. Each region has its own government and legislative body, which decides on housing, education policy, the economy, and other public issues.

There is still no federal legislation protecting the right of Muslim women to wear the headscarf in universities in Belgium.

At the same time, headscarf bans in universities are not widespread. Several higher education institutions, including the prestigious KU Leuven and the Free University of Brussels (VUB), said in July that they welcome students “regardless of gender, origin or social status, with or without scarf”.

However, Belgians have not heard similar statements from universities in Brussels or Wallonia, according to Younsi.

The Islamic headscarf is a contentious issue in many European countries, notably France, where the government has been criticized over decades for policies that discriminate and marginalize Muslim women in the name of secularism (secularism). Studies have shown that anti-Muslim hate crimes predominantly target women. In Belgium, for example, a recent report revealed that 9 out of 10 victims of Islamophobia were women.

“I got so many messages from girls wearing hijab saying, ‘Now I can continue this program’ or ‘before, I thought I wouldn’t, because hijab is forbidden,'” Younsi explains.

“Economically, it will make sense to open school to everyone, regardless of their creed. It makes sense.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies

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