Turbans in Belgian Schools

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Sikh wearing a turban and uncut beard
Picture by Paul Schmid / The Seattle Times

Belgium is divided into two communities - the Flemish (Dutch) speaking community known as Flanders (Vlaanderen) and the French speaking community known as Wallonia. This page solely covers the situation in Flanders until more knowledge is gained about the situation in Wallonia.

Article 24 of the Belgian Constitution provides all pupils of school age (6 - 18) the right to a moral or religious education at the community’s expense. Schools run by the public authorities offer, until the end of compulsory education, the choice between the teaching of one of the recognised religions or a non-denominational ethics teaching. Parents are free to choose whether to send their children to a public school or to a community-based school of their religious preference.

Presently (November 2010), there is no law banning the display of religious symbols in public schools. Individual school boards are allowed, however, to determine whether or not a child may be allowed to wear items associated with or required by their religion. In this case, if a child insists on continuing to wear (display) such religious symbols, the child can, and in many cases in the past has been denied admission to the schools they were attending.

Flemish Education System

In Belgium, schools can be divided in three main groups (Dutch: netten; French: réseaux):

  • Schools owned by individual communities. (GO! Onderwijs van de Vlaamse gemeenschap; réseau de la Communauté française)
  • Subsidized public schools (officieel gesubsidieerd onderwijs; réseau officiel subventionné), organized by provinces and municipalities.
  • Subsidized free schools (vrij gesubsidieerd onderwijs; réseau libre subventionné), in large part such schools are owned by organizations affiliated with the Catholic church. By far, this is the largest group, both in number of schools and in number of pupils.

Schools owned by the Flemish community are organized by the Flemish government and are required by the Belgian constitution to be neutral. This means that everyone should be able to attend and the religious, philosophical or ideological convictions of parents and pupils must be respected. An administrative council, which is responsible for various strategic and operational matters pertaining to all public schools in Flanders is known as [GemeenschapsOnderwijs!][1].

Subsidized public schools includes the municipal education, urban and provincial schools. They are united in umbrella organizations: the Secretariat of the Association of Flemish Cities and Municipalities (OVSG) and the Provincial Education Flanders (POV).

Subsidized free schools consist primarily of Catholic schools. They are united under a body known as the Flemish Secretariat for Catholic Education (VSKO), also known as the "Guimard". There are also Protestant and Jewish schools among others. In addition to these denominational schools, there are also private schools that are not linked to religion eg alternative schools (Freinet, Montessori, etc).

Each city has a group of people such as community leaders, school principals and experts, which meets to discuss individual cases of 'difficult' pupils, with the purpose of giving each student an equal chance at education. This body, known as the [Lokale Overleg Platform], aims to fulfil the Belgian constitution’s guarantee of providing each student an equal opportunity of an education. The head of the LOP in each city is a full-time paid job, taken up by a civil servant.

Religious Symbols

The Belgian constitution requires communities to establish neutral education, which takes into account the philosophical, ideological and religious beliefs of parents and pupils. Moreover, the Constitution provides that all pupils or students, parents, staff and schools are equal before the law or decree. Apart from these constitutional principles, the federal government is responsible for the quality of education in Flemish schools. The schools are widely spread around the country. Usually such schools are referred to as an Atheneum, with the name of the village or city being added.

In practice however, Flemish politics does not meddle in school matters. Most of the decision-making policy rests with the individual school’s board of management. Each school has a set of rules, which contains rules on matters such as admission of pupils, fees etc. The rule most relevant to allowing religious symbols in schools (page 20, nr.21) is:

The school board, the organizing body of the school is in the position to decide whether a headscarf or other religious symbols are to be allowed in the school or not.

History until 2009

Schools have increasingly banned religious symbols in recent years due to various reasons. Originally, this prohibition was applied to prevent Muslim girls from being forced against their will to wear a headscarf. This led to a high concentration of headscarf wearing students in some schools which did not ban religious symbols. It is not known whether or how many schools have been started by other religious communities. The sikh community has not setup a school of its own, probably due to an insufficient number of children living in commutable distance of each other.

Schools containing a high concentration of headscarf-wearing students saw several tensions between moslem students who wore headscarves and those who did not. Several moslem students who did not wear a headscarf reported being threatened by their peers who wore or advocated wearing one. These tensions became so bad that the administrative council GO! made a decision in September 2009 to ban religious symbols in all Flemish public schools starting in the school year 2009-2010. Because some schools had already set the school regulations for 2009-2010, the ban was postponed to school year 2010-2011.

History from 2010 onwards

Upon hearing of this ban, various members of the public wrote to their members of parliament as well as the Flemish education ministry. The Supreme Administrative court of Belgium declared the ban as unconstitutional and ordered GO! to suspend their decision, while the Belgian Constitional Court was asked to examine whether GO!'s decision is in conflict with the Belgian constitution. A decision has not been made as of November 2010.

Following the Council of State's order, members of the Flemish parliament have since proposed tabling a legislation to ban religious symbols in Flemish community schools altogether [2]. The Sikh community wrote to all members of the Flemish parliament explaining their views on the proposed ban and extending their hand to the parliament member for future dialogue. Several members of parliament replied to the letter, acknowledging the problem faced by the Sikh community.

The Flemish education minister, Pascal DeSmet, regularly has organized dialogue sessions with parents from all over Flanders. The Sikh community from Sint Truiden met the minister on 18 May 2010 to signal the difficulties faced by their children due to the schools' independent rulings on religious symbols.

A discussion process is currently taking place within the Commission for Education and Equal Opportunities Commissie voor Onderwijs en Gelijke Kansen to examine the feasibility of banning religious symbols in schools. This panel comprises of politicians and experts on the topic of religious symbols, including Etienne Vermeersch, a prominent Belgian moral philosopher [3][4], who has visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar [5]. The first hearing was on 23 September 2010. As the hearing was open to the public, several members of the Belgian Sikh community were present, but were not allowed to speak in accordance with the rules of the proceedings. In the third hearing, a female dastaar-wearing member of the Sikh community was invited to speak about the perspective of the Sikh community [6]. Hearings are continuing.

Initiatives by the Belgian Sikh Community

The Sikh community in Belgium has organised several initiatives, aimed at ensuring the right of Sikh children to be wear either a patka, a dastar (turban) or a head scarf in schools. These initiatives are listed in the sections below.

Lawsuit

On 1st July 2008, the Hasselt Civil Court overturned a ban on the Patka (a traditional Sikh head covering) that KTA Domein Speelhof (a state school) had imposed on five Sikh schoolboys, since 2005. The school has filed an appeal that is expected to be heard late 2009.

UNITED SIKHS lawyers had filed a case in the Hasselt magistrates citing a violation of the boy’s right to manifest their religion. The lawyers had failed to obtain an emergency relief in the Hasselt magistrates court in September 2007 when they sought an order for the school to allow the affected Sikh schoolboys to wear their turban to school.

Collaboration with the Internationaal Comité

The Sikh community in Sint Truiden started to collaborate with a nonprofit foundation, Internationaal Committe[7], whose mission is to help migrant communities integrate and become more independent in Belgium. The first step was to organize a dialogue session involving parents of Sikh children, local politicians and press and most importantly, members of the education community to hear each group's opinions on allowing religious symbols in schools. The biggest challenge in this project was identifying people as important in this issue and persuading them to attend a dialogue session, which the Internationaal Comité tirelessly led in. A dialogue session was organized on 2 Dec 2010, seeing many Sikh parents and children as well as local politicians in attendance. Unfortunately none of the officials, who under the current rules, actually set the policy - the school principals did not attend - perhaps, no one in the education community will be willing to discuss such a sensitive topic without first gaining a consensus from their colleagues.

Earlier on 4 September 2010, the Sikh community jointly organized a publicity event in the city centre of Sint Truiden. The event was centered around the Golem, a wooden statue built by Belgian artist Koen van Mechelen, which stands for the rights of children. Children inserted letters into the Golem requesting it to hear their pleas to be allowed to wear a dastaar in the class. The aim of the action was to ask for the right of Sikhs to wear their turbans or patkas in school. It was not intended to be a protest, but an attempt by the Sikh community to start a dialogue with the wider community about the issue. According the organizers the event was a success, because several people from the media were present, who had positive interviews with both parents and children. It was hoped by the organizers that the event would clear some misconceptions that most Sikh children are forced to wear a dastaar by their parents.

Golem Event on 4 Sep 2010. On the top right, a sikh child can be seen inserting her letter into the Golem
Picture by Harjinder Singh, maininblue1947.wordpress.com

A few Sikhs are also currently active in the Lokaal Overleg Platform in order to find opportunities for Sikh children which have been refused admission or expelled from schools due to their dastaar.

More News

http://maninblue1947.wordpress.com/2010/10/14/wearing-of-turbans-or-patkas-in-secondary-schools-in-belgium-iv/
http://www.hbvl.be/limburg/sint-truiden/sikhs-voeren-actie-voor-tulband-in-de-klas.aspx
http://www.hbvl.be/dekrant/lezersbrief/extern-sikhs-4.aspx
http://www.belg.be/leesmeer.php?x=8714
http://www.dewereldmorgen.be/artikels/2010/09/04/belgische-sikhs-vrezen-gerechtelijke-steun-voor-hoofddoekenverbod
http://www.internationaalcomite.be/icjo/index.php/nl/persberichten/173-golem-help-mij-ik-wil-mijn-tulband-graag-ook-in-de-klas-dragen.html

Black Book (Zwartboek)

A black book, known as Zwartboek [8] in dutch, is a document detailing information about perceived injustices. A zwartboek [9] was compiled by a few volunteers in February 2010. With the goal of informing any politician, member of the press or public in a systematic manner of the impact of school rulings that prevent children from wearing religious symbols, the document details cases of Sikh children in Belgium who have been refused admission or have been expelled due to a school’s ruling. The current version of this book was released on 25 August 2010. The zwartboek has been cited during press releases by the Sikh community as well as during their interactions with the Flemish parliament.

General Attitude of Belgians to Religious Symbols in Schools

Summary

In summary, the Sikh community has faced many difficulties in Belgium for many years because dastaar-wearing children have been refused admission in several schools or expelled from others. In some cases, children have been given admission to schools which are outside their towns of residence and have to commute up to three hours a day [10]. Key people among the Belgian education authorities as well as politicians are aware of the problems faced by the Sikh community. The Sikh communities are actively involved in engaging politicians as well as local education authorities in increasing understanding of the perspectives of both sides.

This page will be updated with further developments as they occur.

See also

External links

These articles deal with Sikh's Five ks

Kesh (uncut hair) -|- Kara (bangle) -|- Kanga (small comb) -|- Kachera (under garment) -|- Kirpan (sword)