Belgian city allows bandanas, keeps headscarf ban

Brussels, Belgium - Muslim women working in nurseries in the Belgian city of Antwerp who have been banned from wearing headscarves will now be allowed to cover their hair with a bandana, city officials said on Wednesday.

The city decided earlier this year that all people employed by local authorities who are in contact with the public would not be allowed to wear any symbols of their religious, political or philosophical beliefs, including headscarves and crucifixes.

"If you go to get a passport, it's important that you feel that the person behind the counter is neutral," said Deputy Mayor Marc Van Peel. "That is not the impression given by wearing these symbols."

He said wearing bandanas had been approved for those working in childcare. City authorities were now trying to decide if other female Muslim employees would be allowed to wear them.

The headscarf ban caused an outcry in Antwerp, where racial tension has been high since 2002 riots and where the far-right Vlaams Belang wins around one third of the votes in local elections. Some Muslim women say their religion requires them to cover their hair.

Belgium's Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism believes wearing bandanas is a welcome compromise.

"If this is a solution accepted by both parties then that's good," said Jozef De Witte, adding that a bandana was a more neutral garment with no religious connotations.

"We can talk about square inches of textile here... but in a certain way maybe a bandana can have another message."

He said the debate detracted from the more important issue of keeping Muslim women in work.

"We should go back to the real discussions like how do we guarantee the participation of these people in the labour force and not deny the diversity we have."