'Either a referee or a player': liberals oppose Equality Commissioner with headscarf

'Either a referee or a player': liberals oppose Equality Commissioner with headscarf
The new Equality Commissioner Ihsane Haouach (left), and MR-president Georges-Louis Bouchez. Credit: Belga

The president of the Francophone liberal MR party, Georges-Louis Bouchez, put the topic of the ban on headscarves back on the table following the appointment of Ihsane Haouach as Government Commissioner at the Institute of Equality for Women and Men.

According to Bouchez, the appointment of Haouach, who wears a headscarf, goes against "the neutrality of the state," and was motivated by electoral considerations by the Francophone green party Ecolo.

"Wearing a headscarf must remain a guaranteed individual freedom, but the neutrality of the state must not be questioned in order to satisfy the communitarianism of parties that want to charm voters," Bouchez said on Twitter.

"It is no problem at all to wear the headscarf freely," he added, "but need we remind you that in certain families or certain countries, a headscarf is a means of dominating women?"

"What must a woman who has fled an Islamic regime think when she sees that the Belgian state is not represented neutrally in such an institution?" Bouchez added. "In certain positions, you have to choose: either you are a referee, or you are a player."

According to the cabinet of Sarah Schlitz, who is the State Secretary for equal opportunities, gender equality and diversity, and appointed Haouach, the principles are not being flouted, and the decision was not motivated by electoral reasons.

"The Government Commissioner has been appointed through the appropriate procedures," political director Jessika Soors told De Standaard. "She is not an employee of the federal government, so a possible ban on wearing religious signs does not apply."

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Additionally, she stressed that Haouach is the right person in the right place. "She has earned her stripes and gained experience in important companies in the private sector and in the association life, which makes her the right candidate for the job."

"She was chosen based on her competencies, not on what she looks like," Soors said, adding that if Haouach had been refused for wearing religious symbols, that would have been discriminatory.

"We regret that Bouchez and others assume that someone wearing a headscarf does not have the right skills to fulfil this mandate," she added.

The debate surrounding headscarves is also causing friction in the Brussels regional government, following the decision by the Brussels public transport company STIB not to appeal a court conviction for discrimination for refusing a job applicant wearing a headscarf.

This decision paves the way for an abolishment of the existing ban on head coverings that signal religious, political or philosophical beliefs, something which has been discussed at length in the past in both Brussels and Belgium, with no real solutions or compromises found.

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