529. The Man in Blue – ‘Headscarves’ in Belgium

Many secondary ‘Free’ schools (mostly Roman Catholic) and Community (GO!) schools in the Dutch speaking part of Belgium have measures in place that ban religious symbols or the wearing of head-cover.

The result is a ban on the wearing of turban, patka, hijáb, yarmulk etc. Most primary schools either do not have this type of restrictions or do not implement them.

From the 1st of September of this year the GO! Schools are banning religious symbols from all primary and secondary schools under its jurisdiction.

The Sikh community in Belgium joined a front of 25 organisations formed by BOEH! (boss on your own head) and ‘Justice and Democracy’ to act against this blatant discrimination.

We will petition the Raad van State (Council of State) asking it to declare the ban unconstitutional and against the freedom of religion. Some previous rulings by this body give some hope. But we have learned from experience that going the legal way in this country is often costly and ineffective.

In this case we had not much choice as GO! seems no longer interested in dialogue. Because the BOEH! lawyers are very familiar with the subject and can use previous formats in this case, they decided to charge us 4000 Euro only. Although the Raad van State is slow and unpredictable we decided to take the chance.

The Sikhs have collected 1360 Euro so far, with 200 more promised. We are financially supported by two organisations that help the minorities, which means that the Sikhs only have to collect 1500 Euro. We have also two promises to finance any shortfall.

Why are the people in the Dutch (Nederlands) speaking part of Belgium so afraid of the religious symbols of minority religions ? As the northern Dutch speaking Belgians were themselves a discriminated group in the past you would hope that they would have sympathy for other minority groups.

The nationalist NVA party, which might get up to 40% of the vote in the 2014 elections in the Dutch (Nederlands) speaking region, indulges in negative rhetoric both about French speaking Belgians and about immigrants and descendents of immigrants.

The key-problem in this country is that there is no robust anti-discrimination legislation like we have in the UK. This combined with islamophobia and xenophobia leads to escape clauses like the ‘neutrality’ principle which allows companies and organisations to discriminate the wearers of religious symbols.

The message to the religious minorities is that we have to integrate, but also that we are not really welcome. This does not mean that all Belgians have this negative attitude, but those that do seem to have public opinion with them and other parties lack the courage to oppose the NVA.

424.The Man in Blue – London Ieper Sint Truiden

I am writing this article in my room in Gurdwara Sangat Sahib on the 22nd of June 2010. Yesterday was the first day that I had access to the internet since my departure from Southall on the 17th. After clearing the backlog of hundreds of unread emails I am now writing the column that should have appeared on my blog during the last weekend. Later I will again visit the local library and post ‘news-clippings’ and pictures.

I travelled from London with Amrik Singh (Airport), his wife Jaswinder Kaur and his son Dildip Singh and we crossed to France via the Channel tunnel. Amazingly our passports were not checked at all !

From Calais we drove to Ieper, and visited the Menen Gate and Hollebeke.  From Ieper we went via Kortrijk, Gent, Brussel, Leuven and Tienen to St Truiden. We did not rush but due to an early start we were still well in time for Rahiras, Katha and langar.

I was very happy that the Kathavachak was Giani Iqbal Singh (Rajpura Wala), who I met last year during my August visit to Belgium. He does not tell stories, respects the Sikh Rehat Maryada and firmly believes in the Guru Granth Sahib as the eternal Guru of the Sikhs.

Amrik Singh and family stayed in the Gurdwara for two nights and did a tour of Sint Truiden on Friday. I went to Hasselt, the capital of Limburg, for a meeting with a local politician. The main theme of the meeting was the problems that young Sikhs experience because Belgian schools have the right to refuse students who wear any kind of patka, turban, hijab or niqab.

It was a good meeting, the politician was well briefed and he did not just listen but also asked us questions. The youngsters made a very good contribution by talking about their experiences. The grey beards were in the minority but there was the usual minimal presence of female Sikhs.

Belgium is less liberal than the UK or the Netherlands. There are rules on becoming a recognised religion, and these rules are written with the Roman Catholic Church model of organisation in mind. Every resident has to register with the local authorities but if you live in a bedsit or in the Gurdwara where there are more than a certain number of people in a building you cannot register.

If you are not registered it is difficult to open a bank account, to get a contract with a mobile phone company or to join the local library. There are good people here who work hard to support the minorities, and together with them we will work hard for the welfare of all communities. After the recent national elections there is no federal government as yet, but the Flemish government is in place and the work goes on.

Published in: on June 22, 2010 at 1:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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