Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Brussels in recent days, following a constitutional decision to allow the banning of headscarves in Belgian universities.
The June 4 ruling states that the ban does not constitute a violation of the right to human dignity or to the right of religious freedom, as defined by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
But several anti-racist, feminist organizations and activists — such as Belges Comme Vous, La Cinquième Vague, Imazi.Reine, the Council of European Muslims (CEM) and the Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en Belgique (CCIB) — have voiced their opposition to this decision.
Using the hashtags #HijabisFightBack and #TouchePasAMesEtudes (Leave my education alone), activists are using social media to highlight the ban’s discriminatory and sexist impact.
“Women are always the ones taking this kind of blow,” said Fatima-Zohra Ait El Maâti, feminist author and founding director of Imazi.Reine, in an interview with Vice. “It is funny, though, to think that at the age of 24, there are people who think about liberating me — and especially, who think they can do it better than I can.”
In a press release, the CCIB described the ban as “an unprecedented breach of fundamental rights in terms of religious and philosophical convictions.”
Muslim students have also petitioned the Francisco Ferrer Brussels University college to challenge the ruling.
The headscarf has become a contentious issue in many European countries — such as France, where the longstanding principle of laïcité (secularism) comes into play, and where social life is based on a definition of citizenship which negates individual particularities for the sake of equal treatment.
In Belgium, however, headscarf bans are not widespread, but recent Burkini and Burqa bans in neighboring countries have fueled an existing anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rhetoric that carries clout across Europe. The recent rise of right-wing parties could be further exacerbating this issue.
Over 1000 people protested in Brussels against a court ruling allowing a ban on headscarves in universities pic.twitter.com/qopkxWVM6z— Middle East Eye (@MiddleEastEye) July 8, 2020
Activists argue that these measures are harmful, restrict access to equal opportunities in the public sphere, and could exclude Muslim women from social life and education. They contend that women who wear the headscarf might drop out of school or avoid going altogether because of the ban.
“Some will, unfortunately, give up on their dreams,” the CEM stated about the Belgian court ruling. “And some will be forced to remove the hijab to get an education.”
The court still decided to uphold its decision and does not plan on overturning it.
So far, however, 12 Belgian academic institutions, such as the Free University of Brussels (VUB) or the Catholic University of Leuvenhave, stated they will continue to commit to protecting religious freedom.
These institutions have stressed that they will keep welcoming all students — regardless of their religion, gender, or social status.