Europe, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Religion

Headscarf Is Also a Scarf Over the Head

BRUSSELS, Apr 19 2011 (IPS) - While Belgium’s politicians, academics, business leaders and feminists grapple with the concept and reality of a law banning headscarves in public institutions and beyond, two entrepreneurial women have joined forces to rescue the headscarf from the country’s political debate. Inge Rombauts and Fatima Rafiy run the exclusive hijab boutique Noor D’Izar, which offers women, “a fashionable solution regardless of their reasons for wanting to wear a headscarf,” Inge Rombauts tells IPS.

The daughters of Fatima Rafiy and Inge Rombaut present the headscarf and the scarf. Credit: Carmen de Vos

The daughters of Fatima Rafiy and Inge Rombaut present the headscarf and the scarf. Credit: Carmen de Vos

Fatima who is Muslim, and Inge, a non-Muslim are clear where politics ends and fashion begins. “We don’t want to enter the political debate, we want to transcend it,” says Rombauts. “Women have always liked to drape themselves in all manner of cloth, from saris and sarongs to scarves and headscarves.

“We shouldn’t isolate Muslim women who choose to wear a headscarf or hijab, just as we shouldn’t isolate a cancer patient who wears a headscarf because she has lost her hair after a chemotherapy treatment. What we want to do is take the headscarf out of the political debate and offer modern women, regardless of whether they are Muslim or not, a contemporary new look.”

Speaking to the ladies at Noor D’Izar’s showroom in central Antwerp, it becomes clear that these are women with a mission. “I don’t understand why people feel so threatened by a headscarf. Personally, I am not for or against; people should be able to make their own choices,” Inge says.

Close by, two teenage girls (Inge and Fatima’s daughters, it turns out) giggle conspiringly as they are fitted with a bright purple hijab and a lacy, seventies-inspired floral scarf. Fatima, expertly adjusting the scarves on each girl’s head adds: “Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of pulling the headscarf argument to opposing extremes, we could work toward a solution that is acceptable for both those that are against and those the are for headscarves in public?”

There are many types of headscarves, but the most contentious in Belgium right now is the hijab, a headscarf that covers the hair and neck. While some Western countries have begun to curb the wearing of face-concealing garments such as the niqab or burqa, with Ireland and The Netherlands banning the burqa from classrooms and France recently instituting a ban on burqas in public, many remain unclear how they should deal with the hijab and where it should be positioned in debates about freedom of choice and women’s emancipation.

“People often assume that Muslim men force their women to wear a hijab, or that the Quran demands it, but that is simply not true. I only started wearing a hijab at the age of 24, after I got married and when I already had my first child,” Fatima tells IPS. “The decision to wear a hijab is a very personal one; every woman must decide for herself if and when to do so. My daughter Yassira (17) chooses not to wear a headscarf, and I respect that. If she decides to never wear one, I will respect that too.”

Inge is quick to support her partner: “Are there men who demand that their women wear a hijab? I am sure there are; just as there are men that demand their wife or girlfriend parade at their side in high heels and a sexy dress. The power play between genders is not exclusive to one religion or culture; it happens on an individual level.”

Yassira deftly dons a bright blue scarf that may just provide the perfect answer to the dilemma: a headscarf that can be worn as a closed hijab or, with a few simple swoops, can be transformed to simple headscarf tied at the nape of the neck. Worn like this, it looks nothing like a hijab, yet with two simple swirls it converts back to a traditional hijab that covers both hair and neck. “We didn’t invent this,” shrugs Inge, “our customers experimented with our products and came back with this solution.”

Their way might just answer the question: to headscarf or not to headscarf. There are few sentences that spark a heated debate as easily as this one.

Is the headscarf solely a religious symbol? Does it signify the suppression of women in a patriarchal society and should it be banned from schools and public institutions? Can companies demand that employees remove headscarves while on the job, relegate them to ‘behind the scenes’ functions or even dismiss them if they refuse to do so?

The debate, which has been simmering across Western Europe for the past few years, reached boiling point in Belgium in early March when the Dutch retail giant Hema dismissed one of its employees because she began wearing a headscarf at work – after asking permission from management. The company cited “negative reactions from customers.”

The move resulted in a PR nightmare for the company. Social media staged protest actions, and enraged customers sent a flash mob of headscarf-wearing women to one of the company’s stores.

To date, Belgium has no uniform law governing the wearing of a headscarf or hijab, which covers the hair and neck, in public. Schools are self-governing, as are local authorities, but the country’s biggest party, the conservative Flemish N-VA, recently stated that is in favour of a ban on all religious symbols in the country’s parliament buildings. How it will define religious symbols remains to be seen.

Feminists too have an uneasy truce with the concept of headscarves in public. Those in favour of a ban often say they support the emancipation of Muslim women, while those opposed point out that the headscarf does not necessarily exclude emancipation. And while many Western feminists do not support the wearing of headscarves, many do not necessarily support a ban.

Belgium’s feminist organization VOK (Vrouwen Overleg Komitee) is of the opinion that both religious freedom and freedom of speech are fundamental democratic values that cannot be violated. VOK believes that the freedom of women and girls to make their own choices remains essential.

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