524.The Man in Blue – Turban problems in Belgium

Many have written and spoken about France and its laïcité policy and the resulting ban on the wearing of religious symbols in schools. Not many people seem to know that there are similar problems in Belgium.

The anti-discrimination laws in the UK are based on EU directives, but in Belgium the interpretation of these directives is ‘creative’. Here the excuse for discrimination is neutrality. To give an example: as part of a neutrality policy religious symbols are banned for all those who work for the city of Antwerp.

Of course the neutrality principle also applies in the UK: whether you work for a local council, a police force, a supermarket or whether you are a judge, those wearing a turban should not show any preference for people of their own tradition.

This is how creative Belgium works: a store employed a lady who wore a híjáb, and she was dismissed because of it. The lady took her employer to court and won her case. Since then store has adopted a neutrality policy which makes it legal to discriminate people who chose to wear religious signs.

Trying to explain that neutrality is in behaviour rather than in the presence of religious signs seems to be a waste of breath.

The situation in primary and secondary education is pathetic. The community schools in the Dutch speaking part of Belgium have adopted a neutrality policy and from 01/09/2013 new students are not allowed to wear hijábs, turbans or patkas.

Many of the Catholic schools have an anti head-cover policy, which was meant to stop pupils wearing hats or caps in schools. This is now also used to ban the wearing of híjáb, turban or patka. Although these religious symbols also ‘cover the head’ they clearly do not belong to the same category as caps and hats.

Although both in the community schools and in the Catholic schools we have found good people who are against discrimination of people who wear religious symbols, they are powerless to stop the widespread islamophobia/xenophobia that seems to be at the root of the problem.

We have been campaigning together with other groups asking schools to allow people to wear their religious symbols under the condition that all students fully take part in the school curriculum.

Many of the Moroccan and Turkish Muslims in Belgium are villagers like many of the Sikhs that live here. They are natural conservatives who do not like their girls to go swimming or take part in school excursions. This is less of a problem amongst the Sikhs, but some Sikh girls in secondary schools also opt out of the swimming lessons.

There is one little light shining in our darkness: those that want to wear a turban or a patka on their ID cards or passports can do so if they produce a letter from their Gurdwara stating that they are part of the Sikh community.

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