Antwerp bans Muslim head scarves

Antwerp, Belgium - A head scarf ban for municipal counter clerks in the northern Belgium port city of Antwerp has raised protest from Muslims and women activists, officials said today.

The city council decided late yesterday that civil servants dealing directly with the public should not wear visible religious symbols like a Muslim head scarf or a Christian cross. Some 150 mostly Muslim women protested the decision late yesterday, and the organisers said they were considering further action.

Antwerp has been a stronghold of the far-right Flemish Interest party, but it was defeated in local elections last October by the socialists, who had run a campaign stressing the multicultural makeup of Belgium’s second-largest city.

Opponents of the ban were disappointed that the coalition of socialists, liberals and Christian democrats who run the city council had outlawed head scarves for front desk staff. ”It was a surprise, especially after a campaign like that,” said Sophie De Graeve of the women’s rights group VOK.

Muslim head coverings have become a touchy issue in Europe since France banned the wearing of head scarves in public schools in 2004.