Silence after the storm

‘A working woman wearing a veil is actually a role model’'

8 minText Katrien VerreykenImage Sarah Van Looy

In short

 

  • The Antwerp University Association (AUHA) recently called upon companies to discontinue – where applicable – their bans on wearing religious symbols.
  • Some students with headscarves are having trouble finding an internship.
  • All too often the ban is an unnecessary, disproportionate form of freedom restriction. Pragmatism is required in this context.

The Antwerp University Association (AUHA) recently called upon companies to discontinue – where applicable – their bans on wearing religious symbols, as some students with headscarves are having trouble finding an internship. Meryem Elyahyaoui (Master of Teaching) is one of the unfortunate students concerned. ‘This ban is an unnecessary, disproportionate form of freedom restriction,’ says moral philosopher and religious scientist Patrick Loobuyck, who advocates a pragmatic approach.

 

Emancipatory measure

 

The ban on religious symbols in professional life – 95% of the time it concerns the headscarf ban – has been a talking point for years and the last word on the subject hasn’t been said yet. First things first: what are the arguments of people who are in favour of such a ban? ‘Supporters of the ban on wearing a headscarf in public service positions reason that such attire could fuel the suggestion that the government isn’t neutral enough,’ moral philosopher Patrick Loobuyck explains. ‘According to them, citizens have the right not to be confronted with religion in their contacts with the government. As some see the headscarf as a symbol of female repression, they also think the ban is an emancipatory measure.’

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If you send people the signal their religious identities aren’t welcome, this hampers integration.

Patrick Loobuyck

Reflection of society

 

And what are the arguments of those opposing such a ban? ‘A ban like this has perverse side effects,’ says Loobuyck. ‘If you send people the signal their religious identities aren’t welcome, this hampers integration. What’s more, misrecognition can cause them to fall back on their own communities. Incidentally, the ban on wearing headscarves in education fuelled the desire to have separate Muslim schools. Those that oppose the ban believe that the work floor is allowed to reflect societal diversity, that one should provide optimal opportunities for integration and employment to minorities, and that women in headscarves can actually be role models. These days, more and more women wear the headscarf as a feminist statement: “I’m a woman of age and I decide how to dress.” The connotation of submissiveness or female repression has gone out of the window in these cases.’

 

Companies not neutral

 

Loobuyck therefore thinks AUHA’s call for companies to discontinue the ban is justifiable. ‘In a legal sense, it’s not easy for private companies to refuse people wearing religious symbols anyway. If you, as a company, nevertheless decide to make this choice, you have to include this motivation in your statutes, there needs to be a clear need and you must be able to justify your choice objectively. This could be the case if wearing religious symbols were to put pressure on people, if it were to lead to social conflict, or if it were to result in a major financial disadvantage.’

But those arguments have to be fleshed out in writing. ‘If you’ve never thought about this as a business, you can’t enforce such a ban. Having said that, not all legal professionals are on the same page about this issue. Most of them think companies don’t have to be neutral. Above all, they shouldn’t discriminate and must treat everyone equally. Anyway, right now we’re seeing that necessity knows no law: as there are many jobs for which it’s impossible to find anyone, employers are sort of “forced” to hire people with headscarves.’

 

Debates in education

 

Loobuyck does assert there’s a difference between the private sector and education. ‘Although that same pragmatic reflex has also made its way into education. We’re facing a teacher shortage, so what do we prefer: no teacher or a teacher with a headscarf? There’s also a considerable difference between free Catholic education and public education: whereas in the latter the ban applies to both pupils and teachers, Catholic schools cannot ban religious symbols. So the administrative top of Catholic education has given the schools autonomy in this respect.’

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We’re facing a teacher shortage, so what do we prefer: no teacher or a teacher with a headscarf?

Patrick Loobuyck

Many schools choose to use overarching rules of attire – no headgear – to ban headscarves. Is that legit? ‘That’s up for debate, just like the general ban in public education. The Constitutional Court is of the opinion that a ban is appropriate in this domain, but the Council of State has repeatedly condemned schools for banning the wearing of headscarves by pupils. You see where it gets tricky? On the one hand you advocate active pluralism, but on the other hand you do ban religious symbols.’

 

Neutrality of action

 

Must neutrality necessarily be expressed through neutral outward characteristics, or is neutrality of action enough? ‘Neutrality of action is mandatory,’ says Loobuyck. ‘People must be treated equally, also in commercial situations. But does that neutrality also need to be visible?’ Loobuyck calls for a pragmatic approach. ‘If your job is to interview asylum seekers newly arrived in our country, I think it’s a token of respect to dress neutrally and try to put them at ease. But if you work for the public employment service and you’re helping people find a job, you can actually serve as a role model by wearing religious symbols. To me, the general ban that’s currently in place is an unnecessarily disproportionate form of freedom restriction.’

Meryem Elyahyaoui studied Biomedical Sciences at our university and is currently enrolled in an extra Master of Teaching. However, her path to graduation is somewhat obstructed by her inability to find a second internship at an Antwerp school that will admit an intern with a headscarf.

‘It really bothers me,’ says Elyahyaoui. ‘During my Biomedical Sciences programme I never had any problems finding internships. It simply wasn’t an issue. When I did an internship at Antwerp University Hospital (UZA), I did have to wear a nurse outfit for hygienic reasons, but they were very flexible there. For instance, I was allowed to wear a turtleneck sweater underneath my uniform to cover my arms, with the head cap replacing my headscarf. But the internship in the Master of Teaching is another matter entirely.'

 

No internship

 

Elyahyaoui actually needs to do two internships, at two different schools. ‘Unfortunately, in Antwerp there’s only one school that admits teachers with a headscarf, the Lucernacollege. But I need another internship position, which isn’t available in Antwerp. So for that I have to go to Brussels, Mechelen or Turnhout. Easier said than done, because I already have a fulltime job in Antwerp.’

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I’d think a woman in a veil who makes her own money and doesn’t depend on others is a very important role model.

Meryem Elyahyaoui

Elyahyaoui also ran into problems with job shadowing. ‘At one school I was allowed to do the shadowing with my headscarf without any problems, but at another secondary school the director wanted me to leave right away if I wasn’t willing to remove it. And that’s after I had told the supervising teacher I wore a headscarf.’

 

Sticking to principles

 

Has Elyahyaoui considered removing her headscarf to get an internship? ‘I’ve already completed a master programme and don’t want to set my principles aside for an extra degree. I don’t understand the way the schools are responding, what with the teacher shortage and all. We’re living in a multicultural society; nobody’s neutral. Even if you wear so-called neutral clothes, you still have your own identity and the corresponding standards and values. Isn’t a Muslima in a headscarf as a teacher the epitome of emancipation? I’d think a woman in a veil who makes her own money and doesn’t depend on others is a very important role model, no? I can’t help but feel education is missing out on a lot of talent this way.’

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