Headscarves: Can the Belgian police truly be diverse and neutral at the same time?  
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Headscarves: Can the Belgian police truly be diverse and neutral at the same time?  

Tuesday, 27 July 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
© Belga

The police is constantly looking for ways to improve communication, contact and cooperation with citizens by maintaining good relationships. As a part of this strategy, the Federal Police and an increasing amount of Belgian police zones are making changes to diversify their workforce.

This includes initiatives like the Rainbow Cops Belgium fighting for the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community within the institution, the signature of The Chart of Diversity by the Federal Police to fight gender discrimination, and the campaign “The Force” of the local police Mechelen-Willebroek to facilitate the recruition of officers with a more diverse ethnical background.

Unfortunately, the implementation of certain diversity segments, like police officers wearing religious signs at work, still draw a big debate that hinders the benefits of a truly diverse policy. We ask ourselves if police can truly be diverse and neutral at the same time. And does it have to be?

Inner and outer neutrality

The police tries to increase its legitimacy by mirroring the organisation after the society that it serves and protects. They want citizens to recognize themselves in their police officers through a workforce that (visibly) reflects different ages, genders, races, sexual orientations, and physical abilities. Different campaigns act as symbols for this diversity. At the same time the police want to stay neutral, not only through actions, but also through appearances.

This last point is relative, since a woman who reports sexual harassment may feel judged by male police officers. A member of an ethnic minority group may feel disadvantaged by Caucasian officers, or vice versa in the case of a Caucasian citizen and an ethnically diverse officer. So experiencing neutrality by the police is never a one shoe fits all.

In the case of wearing religious signs as a police officer, this is deemed as a line that crosses the perceived neutrality. By prioritising visible diversity anyway, but through highlighting certain groups and hiding others, the police is engaging in a biased neutrality policy. So, religious diversity is possible as long as it stays visibly ‘neutral’.

Protecting and accepting diversity, not tolerating it.

As a superdiverse and post-secular society, the government maintaining an exclusion-discourse on visible religious diversity sends a strange message. Everybody’s welcome, as long as they don’t stand out. This is what’s being done when only allowing certain diversity to show by homogenizing police officers.

Erasing anything that can be erased (behaviour, religious signs, etc.), sends a strong sign of paradoxical toleration. Diversity, how it actually manifests itself in society, then stays an abstract thing outside of the workforce. Visible religious diversity like the headscarf then only applies to the ‘other’, the citizen, the alienated, the unknown, the different and, seeing their job, often the troublemaker. Colleagues without headscarf are then differentiated as Muslims that are more ‘integrated’, ‘fitting’ and like their peers.

We should instead teach inner and outer diversity by normalising this and making it a more prevalent part of the in-group. Having close ties to colleagues who wear the headscarf or other religious signs would habituate police officers to it in a positive context. This is likely to increase trust and openness within the police force, and familiarisation and normalisation with diversity in society, the way it truly manifests itself.

Religious signs v. political/social activism signs

So why would we support opening the police up to religious signs, but not these other two categories?

They are very different in nature. Religious signs are part of a conviction, a way of life and an identity in a way that you can’t compare to other categories. The prohibition applies to everyone, but Muslims with the headscarf get disproportionately affected. They have usually constantly been wearing this for many years. It’s a part of their identity and their comfort zone, not an accessory.

Many don’t join the police force because taking off the headscarf means going against their principles and negating a part of who they are. Some decide to take the job anyway because they worked hard to get to that point and out of passion for the job. But from those who do take it off, we often hear about a feeling of loss and humiliation. Some of them even admit that this forms a psychological hindrance when performing their job. Because of this, the police force loses out on recruits with a lot of potential.

To conclude: The police doesn’t have to look neutral, but be fair

Despite agreeing with the idea of a police that treats all citizens equally and in an unbiased way, we see ‘diversity versus neutrality’ as a false dilemma. Police, in Belgium or elsewhere, is not, and has never been, fully neutral. Cases of discrimination stay abundant despite all diversity training. This could be reduced if the police started to fully embrace religious diversity – in the way that it actually manifests itself – in its own workforce.

This in itself is counterproductive to the religious diversity training. But can the police be truly diverse and experienced as neutral? Not in all cases, but it doesn’t have to be. We should embrace both the risks and advantages of being esthetically diverse. When it comes to neutrality, it’s time to aim at acting fair instead of looking neutral.