Fatima-Zohra Ait El Maâti, a 24-year-old student and documentary filmmaker, is at the forefront of a campaign that has put Belgian universities under pressure to announce whether they will uphold the controversial headscarf ban on campuses or join a small group of universities who have opted to defy it.
The campaign recently paid off as ten Belgian universities declared that they will flout the rules set on June 4 when a court order prohibited the use of headcoverings in higher education. The Belgian Constitutional Court’s ruling sparked a backlash on social media. People protested it by using hashtags such as, #TouchePasAMesEtudes (Don’t touch my studies) and #HijabisFightBack.
“We have to be politically involved -without wanting to be- because our basic rights are being taken away from us and we have no representative to do this for us. We only have CCIB (The Collective Against Islamophobia in Belgium), who have been doing enormous work for years. We are not grassroots in this movement, but we have to confront the politicians that are not doing their job” said El Maâti, a founder of feminist collective, Imazi.Reine.
El Maâti and her friends are organising a legal protest called, “Hijabis Fight Back”. It will take place on July 5 in the middle of their final exams, despite the fact that she and some of her peers may still be in the process of sitting examinations at the time. But, she explains, as members of Imazi.Reine, they are also busy with their advocacy work.
Fatima-Zohra Ait El Maâti (second from the left) along with her fellow activists associated with the feminist collective, Imazi.Reine.
The constitutional court did however maintain during the ruling, that banning headscarves in higher education was not contrary to the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The legal tussle began as Muslim students petitioned the Francisco Ferrer Brussels University college for prohibiting people from wearing headscarves within their grounds, citing the general ban on wearing visible religious symbols as an explanation.
The Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en Belgique (CCIB) published a statement condemning the court decision, calling it “an unprecedented breach of fundamental rights in terms of religious and philosophical convictions.”
CCIB claims that this decision is proof that Belgium does not respect its international engagements when it comes to human rights, nor does it truly uphold the basic principle of non-discriminatory behaviour towards all Belgian students.
Speaking to TRT World, Layla Azzouzi, a first-line assistant responsible in the CCIB said, “We hoped for a decision of the Belgium Constitutional Court that reaffirmed a strong constitutional framework, a type of common ground of mutual respect and of openness, in which the high schools and all of the institutes of social promotion have to elaborate inclusive solutions. Instead, this unbelievable decision has the effect, if not the intention, of maintaining the structural discrimination in our educational system and of putting many Muslim adult women wearing a headscarf in precariousness or of keeping them on the margins of society”.
Ironically, while Belgian institutions deny Muslims their right to wear headscarves on campuses, in May Belgium saw anti-racism protests in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement against the police brutality that claimed George Floyd’s life in the US. The Constitution’s “discriminatory legislation” came just a week after. One twitter user said, “Belgium is sooooo retarded, 10,000 people have started protesting against racism and what is Belgium doing? Prohibit headscarves. Good job”.
Someone else tweeted urging universities to confirm their position against the ban. “Now and not after you’ve received the entry fees,” the tweet added. This prompted a trend for various institutions to respond below outlining their position.
El Maâti argues that such suppression is hindering Muslim women’s social participation.
“Is it up to us now to bring the neutrality? But we are citizens, we are already entitled to be at these institutions. It is not our responsibility to make higher education a safe space for everybody. This is their job! What we have to do is; to go to university, be ambitious, prove our intellectual capacities and get a diploma. Rather than striving for our ambitions now we have to address the limitations of the state. This is unfair and again it is exposing us to mental pressure than Muslim women experience ”
The Islamic headscarf has been a contentious issue for many years in several European countries, notably France, where the laïcité (or secularism) principle is an integral part of their contemporary political DNA. However, similar anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rhetorics are found elsewhere across Europe, notably in nations whose far-right political parties appear to carry clout.
But for Muslim women like El Maâti, lives feel as though they are in limbo: “Mentally it’s very hard for Muslim women completing to think of their future as possibilities like which schools will accept me or which employers will choose me. Now we have lists circulating on social media with the names of companies or institutions that are accepting us with headscarf. This proves how much effort we need to put into to be able to invest in our futures.”