'Don't they wear burqa's in your country then?' asked Mrs. Aziz Fatima in amazement, while she showed me how to put on the Afghan style burqa. She had no concept of Europe or where my country Belgium is, never having ventured outside her own neighbourhood in Karachi, Pakistan. Little did she know that in my country since 2009, community schools banned all religious symbols, including a headscarf. Or that since 2011 Belgium has a burqa banning law. A woman wearing a full face covering veil can be jailed up to 7 days or get a fine of 150€. It's estimated that only around 200 to 250 women in Belgium wear this type of veil out of a Muslim population of over half a million. So why did we need this drastic legislation?
The 'veil' has become a very contested and loaded symbol. Discussions are near impossible and are often very polarized. It remains a story of 'Us versus Them', with communities at odds that don't know each other and hardly interact. Not only in Belgium, but all over Europe, an anti-Islam feeling has spread rapidly. Nationalist and sometimes extreme right parties are on the rise again and exploiting the economic crises and the resulting feelings of fear.
In my project 'Us/Them' I want to explore the world of Muslim women in Belgium. Especially since 9/11, veiled women and Islam in the West are increasingly perceived as a threat. People feel uncomfortable when they see women with headscarves in the street, on the tram or behind the counter of a shop. In Genk a woman even lost her job because clients didn’t like the fact she sat behind the cashiers with her veil despite her being friendly, helpful and polite and doing her job well. All I hope to do with this project is to create a bit more understanding and have a bit more ‘We’ instead of ‘Us and Them’