Challenging Islamophobia and Discrimination…..

On a recent July afternoon Rashida and two of her hijabi friends entered the newly opened restaurant “The Lounge” in The Hague, the Netherlands, which offers customers a menu of “multicultural dishes.” Ironically, their colorful presence was not appreciated; after having found seats they were approached by a waitress who told them she could not take their orders because of the restaurant’s policy against head coverings. The girls felt forced to leave the restaurant and Rashida filed a complaint with the Dutch Office of Discrimination Affairs. In the ensuing weeks ten more complaints about the head covering policy of The Lounge were received by this Office as well as the Dutch Commission of Equal Treatment, who are now considering the legality of the restaurant’s regulations.

Legal Escape Route
As the hijab has become an increasingly common sight in all areas of the Dutch public domain, the legal ambiguity lying at the heart of cases such as the one described above, has become a recurrent concern for Dutch legal aid institutions dealing with hijab discrimination. Although a large majority of the Dutch parliament rejected the call by the right wing LPF party (established by the economist Pim Fortuyn, who was murdered in 2002) for a general French-style ban of the hijab, individual court cases dealing with instances of discrimination of Muslim women wearing the headscarf are frequent. The tension lies in the conflicting implications of the constitutional provisions of freedom of religion and expression and the conditional right of private schools, businesses, restaurants and similar places of leisure, to determine their own dress code and safety regulations. The latter provision offers a legal escape route for those who have a problem with the hijab and partly explains the sporadic success of Dutch institutions to “keep out” covered Muslim women. However, the vast majority of instances of hijab discrimination escapes the scrutiny of the law altogether, as the general attitude towards hijab allows for imperfect implementation of legislation and Muslim women lack knowledge of their legal rights which heightens the threshold for legal action.

Headscarf Discrimination
It is this lack of knowledge and, consequently, action that led Hendrik Jan Bakker (Yahya Abubakker), a Dutch convert to Islam, to establish the volunteer-project ‘Headscarf discrimination’, which was recently launched on the Internet. Up to now the project’s main aim has been to assist girls who are facing problems at school because of wearing the headscarf; for example not being allowed to wear the hijab during physical education-even special sport headscarves which conform to safety regulations- or not being allowed to wear hijab in school at all. Recently the project has been extended to include assistance for hijabi women in the workplace. The assistance provided by the project is free as girls and women are required to take the crucial steps toward dialogue and legal action themselves. Hendrik Jan chose to start off by dealing only with hijab in the educational sphere because official dress regulations are more clearly defined in this field and so are easier to defend: In 2003, the Dutch Ministry of Education formulated a dress guideline which is to apply to all public schools in the Netherlands. The guideline unambiguously states that the Islamic headscarf cannot be prohibited in public educational institutions. Another benefit of the project may be that the threshold for seeking legal support will be lower for Muslim women when assistance comes from an organization having an Islamic base.

Starting from the principle that Dutch law sufficiently protects the right of religious minorities to publicly practice their religion, the project aims at researching how far schools are ignoring the dress guideline and assisting Muslim girls who face problems because of wearing the hijab to negotiate with their schools and, if necessary, file a complaint with the Commission of Equal Treatment (established to safeguard the fair implementation of the General Laws on Equal Treatment). Hendrik-Jan hypothesizes that it is not necessarily the case that schools are structurally ignoring the law; in some cases Muslim girls may be transgressing dress regulations without realizing it or their feeling of being discriminated has a psychological background rather than being based on an actual violation by the school.

Hendrik-Jan lucidly motivates his strategy in an email I received from him: “I set up this project because existing Islamic organizations do not seem to want to take action. I also believe that to truly solve practical problems through, for example, judicial support, is more effective than to arbitrarily organize demonstrations and write petitions which happened right before and after the French prohibition. I believe that here in the Netherlands these kinds of actions are more likely to cause irritation than solve problems. The existing legislation sufficiently protects our right to practice our religion so there is really nothing to demonstrate against. All we need to do here is to make sure the law is implemented.”

“A survey carried out by one of the major Dutch newspapers concluded that around 81 percent of the population knows little or nothing about Islam and that tolerance towards Muslims increases as people know more about Islam. This indicates that it would be useful to set up an educational campaign. Possibilities include: organizing workshops on Islam in schools, publishing interviews with highly educated Muslim women, providing articles by prominent Muslim personalities, and setting up a poster campaign. However, especially the last mentioned project requires sufficient funds and being just a small group of volunteers without regular funding we are not ready for that yet.”

The Project has managed to recruit 19 dedicated volunteers within just a few months. They are based in different parts of The Netherlands and are mobilized when someone requests the project’s help in dealing with discrimination. The volunteers are required to have a sound knowledge of the Dutch anti-discrimination legislation in order to effectively enter into a debate with the school or employer in question.

Discrimination in the Workplace
Setting up an action plan for the business sector proved a much tougher challenge as regulations are much less standardized than in the educational sphere. Hendrik Jan explains:

“For the business sector there are as yet no separate regulations. Employees and their lawyers usually call upon the General Law of Equal Treatment which–as reflected in several verdicts passed by the Commission of Equal Treatment and other judges–is open to varying interpretations. Furthermore, it is not always easy to prove that a Muslim employee has indeed been fired or rejected after a job interview because of her headscarf. This requires extensive investigation by lawyers.”

In spite of all this, there is hope for Muslim hijabi women pursuing a professional career; the Commission for Equal Treatment is currently preparing a dress guideline for the business sector similar to the one being applied to educational institutions. The guideline intends to create more clarity for employers and employees alike.

Anticipating the new Guideline, Hendrik Jan has recently expanded his website to include the much needed legal assistance for working hijabi women and Hendrik Jan has high expectations for the potential of “Headscarf discrimination” to provide Muslim women with the knowledge and tools to act.

The importance of the establishment of the first Dutch initiative to structurally defend the constitutional rights of Muslim girls and women should not be ignored. Hopefully the Muslim community in the Netherlands will give the project the support it deserves and realize that the results to be achieved through demanding the rule of law reach far beyond the right to march in the streets.

This article has been written by Rahma Bavelaar who is assistant editor and new staff writer for She holds an MA in African Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), UK. You can reach her at Copyright Islamonline

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