Islamophobia in Belgium
The headscarf ban implemented by the Constitutional Court in June 2020 in Belgium has shed light on the presence of Islamophobia around the country. It prohibits Muslim women from wearing a headscarf (the decision to wear one is tied to religion) in the tertiary education sector, although there are a select few universities like the Free University of Brussels and the Catholic University of Leuven who welcome students with or without a headscarf. Nevertheless, the government, influenced by Western media to adopt an Islamophobic mindset in the post-9/11 climate, placed the ban. It is an inherently discriminatory policy that oppresses Muslim women and restricts their freedom. The ban is just one example of how Muslims experience discrimination in Belgium.
Muslims have long been discriminated against in Europe. There is no doubt that the events of 9/11 triggered Islamophobia around the world, the media depicted members of the Islamic faith negatively and generalized them as terrorists. Even though 9/11 happened almost 20 years ago, the effects are still being felt today in the West, leading to the discrimination of Muslims. Ongoing tensions in Iraq and Syria have only exacerbated the situation as the media continued to portray Muslims negatively. An increasing number of politicians have fed into the Islamophobic rhetoric. In the case of Belgium, far-right parties are prone to enacting these kinds of discriminatory policies.
Islamophobic attacks are frequent in Belgium, with an attack reportedly happening every two days. The easy accessibility of social media and the Internet has enabled around one-third of the attacks to take place online. Not only are Muslims targeted on social media, but they are also subject to physical violence and even places of worship are attacked. Many Muslims live in low-class municipalities, with a large proportion of them living in poverty. However, many municipalities have a Muslim majority, so there is a feeling of community among the population, where they can provide each other with comfort and support.
As the headscarf (hijab) is perceived as a symbol of Islam, society largely excluded Muslim women because of prevailing Islamophobia—the ban is evidence of this. Currently, the burqa, an outer garment that covers the entire body, is already banned in public places. The headscarf ban does not allow some Muslim women from working as teachers, clerks, police officers or judges, because workplaces do not allow them to wear headscarves. Many women choose to work in places where they can wear headscarves. As a result, Muslim women face one of the highest rates of unemployment in Belgium. After the ban announcement, protests occurred around the country, with members of the public calling upon the government to recall their decision. It sparked the #HijabisFightBack movement on social media as people yearned to see a more inclusive Belgium.
The headscarf ban demonstrates how prominent Islamophobia still is in Belgium. Wearing a headscarf can be a very personal experience for Muslim women as it allows them to express their identity and feel connected to their religion. Many Muslim women consider the headscarf to be a feminist statement in itself. While the headscarf was once a symbol of oppression during the colonial period, it is now a symbol of liberation. However, as long as the headscarf ban exists, Muslim women are another step away from liberating themselves.