Antwerp: Following headscarf ban, imam calls to boycott Flemish schools

Antwerp: Following headscarf ban, imam calls to boycott Flemish schools

On Tuesday two municipal schools in the Antwerp area announced their decision to ban religious symbols (ie, headscarves) starting in the upcoming school year.  The decision caused an uproar - as the Antwerp school is the last one in the city which allowed headscarves.  Antwerp imam Nordine Taouil called on Muslims to boycott all Flemish schools, a call which caused a political uproar as well.  I summarize the various responses below.


On Wednesday 300 students of the Royal Athenaeum of Antwerp, half the student body,  threatened to leave the school.  80% of the student body is Muslim and half of the girls wear a headscarf.  The principle is unfazed by the threat and says the students will fail if they drop out before the end of the school year.  So far, the threat did not materialize.

The students also organized a protest against the ban.  Nordine Taouil, Antwerp imam and chairman of the Muslim Council called on Muslim parents to keep their children home starting September 1st.

"By boycotting Flemish schools we protest against the headscarf ban and show our solidarity with the Muslim girls in the Atheneum," says Taouil.  "We will keep our children home until the headscarf ban will be lifted.  With that ban Muslim girls are oppressed.  Good education is only possible if there's freedom of religion."

The ban was announced after the exams, so as not to distract the students, and after the regional elections - so that politicians won't make an issue of it.

According to principal Karin Heremans she had no choice.  Her school is slowly becoming the only school in Antwerp where headscarves are allowed.  "In the past five year the number of Muslim children doubled by us.  We are becoming a Muslim school."

Heremans says that children without a headscarf beg to be moved to a different class because don't feel accepted anymore.  The social pressure on Muslim girls to cover their heads is also great and so she says they had to take measures.


On Wednesday evening the school organized a meeting about the ban.  The principal was confronted with 500 angry students, parents and representatives of Muslim organization who demanded she rescind the ban or they'll leave the school during the summer.

Imam Nordin Taouil called to take up democratic actions, preferably uniting all Muslims together.  He wants to ask the future Flemish education minister to grant more rights to the Muslims and to end what he calls "organized discrimination".  "We must continue to protest without violence," says the imam, who fears such measures lead to radicalization.

Imam Taouil: "Freedom of religion is a universal right.  The headscarf is not a symbol but part of the identity of the girls."  It disturbs him that a public school bans headscarves.  "This school is paid with tax money.  Muslims also pay taxes."  He announced new protests if the school won't reverse itself.

Several students spoke against the ban. "We are not feather-brains who  accept everything just like that," said one.  "This decision mortgages our future, because many Muslim girls will not graduate their school," said another.

Some asked to establish their own schools, because according to them the expansion of Islam is inevitable and the headscarf wearing girls can't go anywhere.

A spokesperson for a radical Muslim group even called the ban a 'criminal act'  and said they'll sue the school administration.

The parents also expressed their indignation.  Spokesperson Mina Chebaa said parents don't have a voice in the Antwerp schools and is organizing a new protest Sunday.

Heremans does not intend to rescind the ban and says that she protects the free choice of girls.  She is disappointed in the attitude of the indignant Muslims and says that as a school they gave so many more extra classes for immigrant student.  "If one time you then ask for something back, and you get such an answer, it's painful."

She gets hope from the headscarf wearing Muslim mother who told her Thursday morning that she's ashamed of her coreligionists.  "She told me her daughter will yet have enough time to wear a headscarf.  But not in school or in class."

In any case, the principal is not pressured by the threat, saying that there is no other school in Antwerp which allows the headscarf.

According to imam Taouil there are 101 solutions.  He says that Belgium has compulsory education, not compulsory schools, and that if need be, they'll establish their own institutions, or invite the teachers to the children's homes.


Farid El Machaoud, spokesperson for the Muslim League in Belgium and chairman of the Union of Mosques says that they do not agree with the call of the Antwerp imam to all Muslims not to send their children to school in September.  "The appeal runs counter to the basic principles of Islam."

El Machaoud says they oppose a ban on wearing a headscarf in school and that they naturally can't force the school to do anything.  Such a ban does not help integration at all and causes more discrimination and ghetto formation.

He says some girls might experience social pressure, but the majority wears a headscarf due to religious convictions and because they want to.


Vlaams Belang does not want imam Taouil to continue as a talks partner for the Antwerp and Flemish governments, says Filip Dewinter.  According to Dewinter the imam's irresponsible call illustrates the aggressive and arrogant attitude of a certain portion of the Muslim community.  "The government should not submit to such attempts at blackmail".

The party says that Muslims parents who refuse to send their children to school because of the headscarf ban should be sanctioned by taking away children benefits and eventually scholarships, if necessary.


The Lijst Dedecker party wants politicians to take responsibility in the debate.  Party head Jean-Marie Dedecker says that if municipal schools can't muster the authority to impose a clear social measure anymore, than the government should step in.  Dedecker thinks that the politicians systematically hide behind the autonomy of school principles, and says he wants a secular state following the French model.

The party points out the main reason for the failure of immigrants in the job market is because they fall behind in language and education, and therefore they think it's outrageous that an imam dares to advise Antwerp Muslim girls not to go to school if they can't wear their headscarf anymore.


N-VA chaiman Bart De Wever and Flemish parliament member Kris Van Dijck says imam Nordin Taouil overstepped the line.  They support the administration of the two Antwerp schools: if they determine that there are more and more Muslim girls who wear a headscarf and pressure other girls to do the same, they have a right in the interest of harmony in their schools to intervene.

According to Van Dijck the imam send a completely irresponsible signal with his call.  Van Dijck says that calling parents not to send their children to school is irresponsible and threatens the future of these already weak youth.  As if the current situation of many immigrant youth who fall behind is not bad enough.

The N-VA does not deny the right to wear a headscarf, but says that right is not absolute.  "Freedom of religion is a very important principle, but this does not mean that a certain religion can impose all external distinguishing marks of that religious conviction on our society," says Bart De Wever.

Sources: GvA, Volkskrant, HLN 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (Dutch)

See also: Antwerp: Two schools ban headscarves

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