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French-speaking Belgium divided over burqa ban

Text by Kattalin LANDABURU

Latest update : 2010-03-05

The debate over the burqa, or Islamic full-body veil, has crossed Frence’s border. In Belgium, it is already banned in the Flemish-speaking region, and Brussels and French-speaking Wallonia could follow suit.

The telephone has not stopped ringing at the offices of “Insoumise et devoilée” (Defiant and unveiled)," located in Verviers, in southern Belgium. "In the past two weeks, sixteen young women have reached out to us," says Karima, who is visibly overwhelmed by her work. When in 2008 she founded the organisation, named after a book she published the same year, Karima never imagined things would evolve so quickly. "It’s proof my story is not an isolated case, as some politicians suggested," she jokes.

Born in Belgium to a large Moroccan family, Karima was forced to wear the veil from the time she was nine. "They ended up sewing it to my hair," she confides. Treated like a maid by her family, she was cloistered, mistreated and forcibly married in Morocco; an existence she managed to escape from, and recount in her autobiography. She says she wrote her story for the girls and women who face the same ordeals.

Today, Karima's organisation strives to provide women who are seeking a fresh start with a network of host families. "When we receive a call for help, we respond immediately, because often the courage doesn’t last," she says. Her work also takes her to schools, town hall meetings and television programmes.

'Privately, politicians support us; in public they drop us'

Her long-term goal is to achieve a ban on headscarves in public institutions. In Flanders, a law imposing such a ban was adopted in September, 2009. But in Wallonia and Brussels, lawmakers are yet to examine the issue.

The two main parties, the Socialist Party (PS) and the Christian Democrats (CDH), are reluctant to move forward on the matter. The first fears a ban would alienate part of its electorate -- Belgium counts 400,000 Muslims -- and the latter advocates a "reasonable accommodation" modelled on policies in the UK and the US.

"Privately, the politicians support us; in public they drop us," explains Karima.

Karima denounces what she claims is a two-faced attitude. “The veil is not just a piece of cloth. Hiding behind it are a host of exclusions, like not participating in biology or gym classes,” she says.

With the debate on the veil still far from over in French-speaking Belgium, a law banning the full-body burqa in public places could soon move to the federal parliament. "We expect a vote before Easter," says parliament member Denis Ducarme of the centre-right Reformist Movement (MR). While all parties agree in principle, some, like the Socialists, say it is best to solve the issue through municipal ordinances.

Date created : 2010-03-05

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