Nytt

Over hele Europa utkjempes det strider om hvor grensen går for religiøse symboler i det offentlige rom. Muslimsk klesdrakt for kvinner har en særlig mobiliserende effekt. Historien om Athenaeum skole i Antwerpen, sier noe om hva som skjer i Europa.

Dette er en skole med en 200 årig historie, en institusjon i byen.

The handsome stone bulk of the Royal Atheneum, a once-elite state school with a 200-year history, has produced legendary free-thinkers and radicals in its day. Now, however, it is enjoying unhappy fame: as the centre of an experiment in multiculturalism wrecked by intolerance. The story defies neat conclusions.

In September 2001 Karin Heremans became headmistress of the Atheneum, which has students of 45 nationalities. The September 11th attacks on America came ten days after she took charge, and her schoolyard became the scene of «very intense» arguments. Ms Heremans responded by working hard to turn her school into a place of «active pluralism».

Heremans forsøkte å bygge broer, og lage kulturell uveksling. Spørsmålet om religiøse plagg dukket opp. De fleste skoler strammet inn, og til slutt var det bare tre i Antwerpen som tillot tildekking av jenter, Athenaeum var en av dem.

Ms Heremans soon noticed Muslim girls moving to her college. Between 2006 and 2008 the proportion of Muslim pupils at the Atheneum rose from half to 80%.

«At the beginning, I didn’t see a problem,» she explains. But then, a number of «very conservative» families moved their daughters to the school. By 2007 about 15 girls came to school wearing all-concealing robes and gloves, with only their faces showing. Ms Heremans confronted them. «I said: ‘You’re stigmatising yourselves. You’re breaking with society by wearing those clothes.’» The girls replied that she was stigmatising them. Pupils began donning longer scarves. Others started covering up at school, even though teachers saw the same girls walking in the streets unveiled. When questioned, such girls said they felt uncomfortable at school without head coverings. In 2007 it proved impossible to organise a two-day school trip to Paris—a longstanding annual treat for 15-year-old pupils. «Suddenly it was a problem for girls to stay overnight. Their older brothers had to come too,» Ms Heremans says. Most of all, an oppressive, «heavy» atmosphere hung over the schoolyard.

Dette er den interessante biten av historien: toleranse og liberalitet fører til økende radikalisering og ekstremisme: tildekkingen smitter og det oppstår nærmest en konkurranse om å være mest tildekket og korrekt. I neste omgang dukker brødre opp og skal være moralens voktere.

Heremans var nødt for å innse at hennes toleranse ikke fungerte. Hun måtte sette foten ned.

On September 1st Ms Heremans reluctantly reversed herself and banned headscarves at her school. This triggered some nasty protests, including threats from a small clutch of hardliners. The results have been serious: about 100 of the school’s 580 pupils have left. Local politicians have raised fears that some may not get an education at all. On September 11th the Flemish education board banned religious symbols in all 700 secular state schools under its control, including the Atheneum. (Religious schools remain free to set dress codes.) It was the opposite of what Ms Heremans once sought, she admits. «But now I feel supported.» Some older girls quietly thanked her, saying: «You’ve no idea of the pressure we were under.»

Men det forhindrer ikke at en feministisk gruppe, BOE, anklager Heremans for ikke å la muslimske jenter realisere seg selv.

Det går nå mot at Antwerpen får sine statlige, rene muslimske skoler, slik katolikker og jøder har. Det betyr trolig et skritt mot et mer segregert samfunn.

The row will probably lead to the establishment of Muslim state schools in Antwerp: the city already has Catholic and Jewish schools. Patrick Janssens, the city’s mayor, regrets this, saying he is «not particularly in favour» of single-faith schools. He puts his trust in long-term development: as more Muslims go to university, or feel that society offers them equal opportunities, they will be «liberated» and «realise that religion is not dominant over all other values.»

In knots over headscarves

Sep 17th 2009
From The Economist print edition
Antwerp’s cautionary tale about the complexities of educating Europe’s Muslim children