Activists, anti-Islamophobia organisations welcome the announcement regarding universities, and look forward to the lifting of bans in other institutions

Religious symbols, including the hijab will be permitted in universities in the French-speaking Wallonia region of Belgium starting September 2021, local officials announced, in a victory for anti-Islamophobia and Muslim women’s groups who have been fighting the ban for years. 

The decision was welcomed by activists and Muslim women who also acknowledged that further steps were needed to realise the lifting of similar bans across institutions and workplaces in Belgium. 

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

“Schools are an important first step, [they help create the kind of profile] that is needed in the job market. I hope this decision will influence other organisations to change their own rules regarding the hijab, I really hope companies will follow.”

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 reversing 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 that manages French-speaking public schools in Belgium told local media on Saturday, adding that there will be restrictions in cases where “security is threatened or for reasons of hygiene".

"The general interest must come first. We can no longer refuse these young women on the pretext that they wear a veil, prevent them from studying. A diploma is their passport to inclusion through employment." 

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

“I think this is a political decision, as we really made a lot of demonstrations, and it’s also a social decision, as more and more Muslims in Belgium are wearing hijab,” said Younsi, who is a co-founder of Collectif les 100 diplômées (100 Graduates Collective), an NGO that supports  young professionals who wear the Islamic headscarf and face discrimination. She tells TRT World that her organisation has been lobbying for the lifting of hijab bans in schools and also tracking incidences 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 arts schools and 29 social advancement institutions. 

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

The decision was reached by consensus within the board of directors of WBE, which has representatives of all political parties.

#HijabisFightBack

The news comes after the Belgian constitutional court ruled in June that prohibiting religious symbols, including hijabs, in higher education did not constitute a violation of freedom of religion or the right to education under the Belgian Constitution and European Convention on Human Rights.

The decision was slammed by rights activists, anti-Islamophobia organisations, and women’s and feminist collectives, who viewed this as a violation of basic human rights and as a discriminatory act against women. 

In response, thousands went online to protest the decision using hashtags like, #TouchePasAMesEtudes (Don’t touch my studies) and #HijabisFightBack. In July, over one thousand (some organisations counted several thousand) gathered in Brussels to advocate for the right to wear headscarves in universities. 

Anti-Islamophobia organisations said that the court 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: majority French-speaking Wallonia, majority Flemish-speaking Flanders, and the Brussels-Capital Region. Each region has its own government and legislative body, which decide upon housing, education policy, the economy, and other public matters. 

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

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

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

The Islamic headscarf is a contentious issue in many European countries, most notoriously in France, where the government has been criticised over the decades for discriminatory and marginalising policies against Muslim women in the name of laïcité (secularism). Studies have shown that anti-Muslim hate crimes overwhelmingly target women. In Belgium, for instance, a recent report found that 9 out 10 victims of Islamophobia were women. 

“I have been receiving so many messages from girls wearing hijab saying, ‘Now I can pursue this program,’ or ‘before I was thinking of not doing it, as the hijab is forbidden,’” says Younsi. 

“Economically, it will make sense to open school for everyone, no matter their belief. It just makes sense.”

Source: TRTWorld and agencies