The hijab – the headscarf worn by Muslim women as the minimum form of coverage – should be the subject of a ban in schools under the next legislature, according to federal secretary of state Zuhal Demir. “The headscarf has no place in schools,” she said.
The hijab, derived from the instruction from the Quran for women (and men) to dress modestly, has been the subject of controversy in Belgium for years, from the ban on the garment at a school in Antwerp to a ban on wearing by communal workers who deal with the public – a ban which was extended to include crucifixes and Stars of David to avoid accusations of religious discrimination.
Supporters of the hijab argue that women have the right to wear the garment if they choose, and legislation is a breach of their religious rights. Opponents use the exact opposite argument – women are forced by their communities, and in particular the men, to cover up in public, and have no say in the matter.
Demir, herself a Muslim of Kurdish origins who dresses in a western style, is an opponent of the hijab in schools. “A school, like a home, should be a place where you feel free. So there’s no place for a headscarf.”
Reports coming back to her office, she said, suggest that schoolgirls are beginning to wear the hijab at a younger and younger age. “And that’s a problem,” she said. “That inequality should not become normalised in the classroom. Let them have a taste of equality in school, so they’re able as adults to make their own choices.”
The matter, she said, should be on the programme of the next government, following the elections in 2019. But the proposal has already run into opposition – from Roman Catholics.
“It’s not for the government to ban this sort of thing,” commented Lieven Boeve, head of the Catholic schools network. “That doesn’t mean that a school can’t act independently, for example if there’s evidence of pressure on girls to wear the hijab against their will. But a new political escalation of the question will help neither schools nor students.”
The Brussels Times