The first veiled woman to take her seat in the Brussels parliament was sworn in amidst a growing controversy over the wearing of the Islamic dress. But she says the debate diverts attention from the real issues.
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM (JUNE 23, 2009) REUTERS -
Brussels swore in its first veiled Member of Parliament on Tuesday (June 23), the same day the French next door were setting up a parliamentary mission in the Parliamentary Assembly, to decide whether or not to outlaw the full veil, burqa or niqab.
The 26-year-old Mahinur Ozdemir, a Christian Democrat (CdH) of Turkish origin, is the first veiled woman to take a seat in the regional parliament of Belgian capital Brussels.
Ozdemir says the debate that raged in the Belgian media and parliament over her veil overshadowed the main political issue: her political programme for Brussels.
Several members from the right and the liberal parties want all "religious or philosophically distinctive signs" to be banned from the realm's Assemblies.
Some schools in Flanders have already banned the veil but the decision remains in the hands of directors as it is not enshrined in the law.
The swearing in comes a day after French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the burqa was "not welcome" in France.
The National Assembly in Paris has six months to write a report which could lead to the banning of the full veil.
Sarkozy also said he believed it was a symbol of subservience, not faith.
The debate has cut France through the middle. One French deputy, Corinne Lepage, describes the full veil as a "mobile prison'. Human Rights Watch in Paris says a burqa ban would violate human rights because it is a religious choice.
In Brussels, socialist deputy Caroline Desir says Ozdemir is far from being submissive. Her wearing of the head scarf was a personal choice she made when she was 14.
"It is a personal choice and so, can we talk of submission or something that is imposed on women or an aggression for us, in this context here it is very hard to think of such a thing," Desir said.
After the swearing in, Ozdemir said she was sad of the attention the media gave to the veil and invited the press to meet her in six months time to look at her achievements instead.
"Unfortunately I was reduced to nothing more than this veil and frankly it is hard to remove yourself from it and in the end it has got to be very heavy because underneath this veil there is a personality, there is someone who is engaged, who wants things to change, who wants to move forward, who wants to carry out loads of projects for the people of Brussels and who was rather keen to talk about those projects. Now it is not the case and I hope that after this I will be judged on my work. And I give you rendez vous in six months, not even one year," Ozdemir said.
Her mother, Malak Guler, also said the veil pressure had been hard to bear sometimes.
"It is impossible to explain this moment" (Q: And is the pressure beginning to lift?) (she giggles) "yes now it's ok." (Q: Hamdulillah?) "Hamdulillah. We are breathing a little, we are breathing, because it has been two months that we are in front of the media, and the pressure about her scarf, that I won't forget it, but now, we are going to forget this case and now we need to talk about her projects and nothing else." (Q: Are you going to breathe now?) "I am going to breathe. Inshallah," Guler says.
But with the French having brought the issue to the heart of politics and government the debate is unlikely to abate and Ozdemir is most likely to be back at the front line of the Western nations' veil-and-burqa debate for at least the next six months.