On 4 June 2020, with the arrêt 81/2020, the Constitutional Court of Belgium has concluded that the Article 3 of the Decree of the French Community of 31 March 1994 on the “neutrality of education” does not violate the Belgian Constitution nor the European Convention of Human Rights, which guarantees the freedom of religion.
The Court has thus validated the decision of the educational institute Haute Ecole Francisco Ferrer in Brussels to ban students from wearing religious symbols. The institute’s appeal to the establishment of a “totally neutral environment” has in reality resulted in the disregard of gender equality and human dignity as well as in an instance of indirect discrimination as defined in the Employment Equality Directive.
Indirect discrimination – where an apparently neutral provision, criterion or practice would put a given person at a particular disadvantage compared to others. This concerns measures which may look neutral and unproblematic at first sight but nevertheless have a discriminatory effect on a particular group of people.
Education is a key factor to employment and in a time where societal polarization is increasing at a frightening rate and instances of anti-Muslim bigotry have become the norm, supporting exclusive policies such as the one adopted by the Haute Ecole cannot but be seen as a multiplier of societal discriminations and a hindering factor to women’s access to the job market.
The rights of women all over Europe, and especially the rights of Muslim women to education, is also at risk. Women that want to have the freedom to express their identity and to have the right not to uncover their bodies in order to access education are obliged by segregating policies like the Haute Ecole’s one to choose between their integrity on one hand and their education on the other.
Access to education represents one of the key doorsteps to becoming a productive member of society. Preventing women from education means preventing them from their right to work and independence. The decision of the Constitutional Court risks creating a legal precedent for other higher education institutes to justify the exclusion of Muslim women from education.
FEMYSO is thus deeply concerned over the far-reaching consequences of this decision and the negative effects that this will have vis à vis the idea of a diverse and inclusive society.
We the undersigned call upon the Belgian government and community leaders to make a decisive step in addressing this issue. We urge student leaders to continue to protest and protect the values of self-determination and personal expression. We the undersigned will continue to advocate for a Europe that protects the rights of women and Muslim youth, and ensures unrestricted educational access to all.
Forum of European Muslim Youth and Students Organisations
World Student Christian Federation, Europe Region