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Despite political chaos, Belgium's parliament passes a nationwide ban of burqas and niqabs almost unanimously.
Feminist activist Yasmina Akhandaf is clearly exasperated by such arguments. Born and raised in the northern city Antwerp, she helped found a group whose name translates as “Boss Over One’s Own Head,” which is suing the city over its ban on wearing any religious headgear in public schools or government jobs.
Akhandaf insisted the pro-ban side’s humanitarian arguments are completely backward. “You can never fight an oppression with another oppression,” she said. She maintained that the majority of women who cover themselves do so by choice, while acknowledging that some are forced to cover their heads and faces.
What ban supporters refuse to grasp, she explained with frustration, is that for those women the burqa, or niqab or headscarf, which is also banned in some Belgian cities, is their passage to freedom.
“That is the key to liberate them,” Akhandaf exclaimed, “to get them out of the house, to get them to school, to get a good job. The only way to free yourself is by being financially independent.”
As for the burqa, Akhandaf said that because there are so few women in Belgium who do cover their faces, she believes the law is designed to be more provocative than practical. She said Belgium is willfully stoking Islamophobia and she is deeply disappointed in her politicians.
“It’s frustrating, it’s embarrassing and it’s kind of frightening," she said. "As a public servant, you are supposed to bring people together, not separate them more.”
Public, legislative and judicial debates over the acceptability of Muslim head coverings have been going on for years in European countries, primarily in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany and the Netherlands. The debates focus mostly on headscarfs, which are already banned in many cities across Europe.
The push for doing away with the full coverings is more recent. Ever more headline-grabbing than the Belgians, the French are moving quickly on their own ban, as President Nicolas Sarkozy has become an ardent advocate. His government has said it will on May 19 propose a law that would cover tourists as well as the estimated 1,000 to 2,000 French burqa-wearers, despite being warned by legal authorities it may well be unconstitutional. Belgium was also undaunted by legal opinions indicating measures like this might not hold up in court.