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Hijab-wearing Belgian lawmaker courts controversy

Text by Kattalin LANDABURU

Latest update : 2010-03-12

Hijab-wearing Mahinur Ozdemir, the youngest deputy to serve in the Belgian parliament, attracts her fair share of attention for her attire and views. The 27 year-old is of Turkish origin.

At 27, Mahinur Ozdemir is by far the youngest deputy to serve in the Belgian parliament in Brussels. As the debate about the Muslim headscarf rages on in several European nations, she has also become a lightening rod for controversy.

“I am an example of social integration, and yet I wear the headscarf,” says the Belgian national of Turkish origin.

When she was sworn in on June 23, 2009, pledging to uphold Belgian laws while clad in her hijab, murmurings of discontent could be heard among her detractors. The news of her confirmation attracted much media attention, particularly in Turkey. “At home, she would be dismissed from parliament,” noted one incredulous journalist, who had travelled from Istanbul to cover the event.

But neither the attention on her veil nor the accusations of her having rejected the Armenian genocide seem to perturb the young lawmaker. If anything, she seems surprised at the interest in her.

“Underneath this scarf is a head full of ideas,” she said in an interview with RTBF, Belgium’s French-language public television channel. “Even if it hides my hair, it should not hide my personality. I am an active Belgian citizen and I want to move things forward; I am at the service of all inhabitants of Brussels.”

Hailing from a family of small shopkeepers, Ozdemir was born in Scharbeek, one of the most culturally diverse areas of the Belgian capital with no less than 150 nationalities represented and where 40 percent of the city's Turks live. With support from her father, an administrator for the community’s Turkish cultural association, she studied political science. She gave up studying law after learning that she could not plead cases in court while wearing the hijab. At 23, she was elected community counselor while a student at the Free University of Brussels.

She believes the scarf is a part of her identity and says she has worn the head covering since 14 “without obligation”. Neither her sister nor her aunts wear the scarf.  

‘Not the Nazi era’

Ozdemir toed her party (Humanist Democratic Centre) line during the debate over headscarves in public schools, saying “it should be forbidden during primary school education.”

But when asked about recent moves by the new Popular Party, which has proposed banning the hijab within private firms, Ozdemir was less reticent. In an interview with the satirical weekly Pan, she was unequivocal: “They do not realise that this is not the Nazi era.”

Her comments sparked a row. The Popular Party asked for clarification from Ozdemir’s Humanist Democratic Centre, saying it would otherwise seek redress in the courts. The left-leaning Reformist Movement also joined in the fray. “To equate the democratic value of secularism with Nazism is unacceptable,” said four of its liberal deputies in a joint letter.

The latest controversy is bad news for Ozdemir, who had promised to lead “a calm discussion” on the matter.

Date created : 2010-03-11

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