Brussels, Belgium – Five years ago, on the morning of March 22, 2016, three coordinated suicide bombings hit Brussels, killing 32 people and injuring more than 300 others.
The attacks at the Zaventem airport and the Maelbeek metro station were claimed by ISIL (ISIS).
The city was locked down.
Locals were banned from leaving their homes so police could carry out searches.
“I spent the day as a zombie,” said Mustapha Chairi, head of the Belgian Centre against Islamophobia (CCIB). “I just took the metro prior to the one that exploded.”
Chairi suddenly felt powerless as he foresaw the consequences the bombings would have on Belgium’s Muslim minority, having observed the aftermath of the deadly violence at the Bataclan in Paris, France, on November 13, 2015.
There are about some 575,000 Muslims in Belgium, about 5 percent of the population.
Monday marks five years since the tragedy in Belgium, and permanent wounds remain across the country as a whole – and in Muslim communities.
“After the attack, all sort of Muslim organisations have been screened … [stigmatising] part of the population,” said Chairi.
According to the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism (UNIA), which has been documenting acts of Islamophobia for 10 years, such discrimination has not lessened since 2016 in the Belgian capital.
Muslim women who wear the hijab have been at particular risk.
“If the objective of fighting terrorism is noble, in reality, it has resulted in the stigmatisation of a specific community,” said 31-year-old Imane Nachat, a high school teacher in Brussels. “The feeling is of being potentially rejected, at any moment. A friend wearing a headscarf was hit by a driver. They deliberately drove into her and fled.”
Fatima-Zohra Ait El Maâti, a 24-year-old filmmaker and activist who also wears the hijab, said: “I have not lived in a Belgian society which was not Islamophobic at some point in time. We have probably normalised it within us.”
Activist Sarah Tulkens-Azami, 22, said: “At the personal level it feels great to wear the hijab. But as we are more easily identifiable in the streets, we are exposed to discrimination and stares more easily.”
According to the complaints received by the CCIB, half the incidents took place at schools and universities, and at workplaces.
“These are the two main emancipation features for the population, and women are paying the highest price in terms of discrimination,” said Chairi.
Activists say that if women are abused at school and work, it could see them become financially dependent or have to choose between their careers and belief.
“It restricts hopes and ambitions, said Nachat, “in a society that already has a high gender inequality index”.
In recent years, Muslim women have been sharing the names of companies and areas where they have experienced discriminatory practices.
“To be a Muslim woman wearing an hijab, it requires enormous preparation and research,” said Ait El Maâti, who tries to avoid places considered unsafe.
“I need to avoid humiliating situations,” she said. “We shouldn’t have that fear to be outside and be denied entrance.”
‘We are not walking hijabs’
Muslim women are also starting to organise through intersectional feminist movements.
“This needs to be seen as a woman’s rights issue. It’s not about religion, nor politics,” said Tulkens-Azami, who is the founder of the collective Belges Comme Vous (Belgians Like You).
“We are not walking hijabs, we are women and we are being discriminated against as such.”
Nachat is a member of the Collectif Les 100 Diplômées (Collective of 100 Graduates), which fights discrimination against and exclusion of women who have chosen to wear the headscarf.
“Asking not to be discriminated against in the public service is a request that is much more civic than religious,” she said.
Her group was formed after July 5 last year, when more than 4,000 women and girls rallied in the centre of Brussels.
They were protesting against a Belgian court’s ruling to uphold a ban on religious symbols in some higher education facilities.
“We did it because we think it is not normal to have to tone down your ambitions as a student,” said Tulkens-Azami, who co-organised the demonstration.
The decision was finally dropped in January this year, allowing more than 50,000 students to wear what they wanted, from September 2021.
“Now these girls will be allowed to wear a headscarf in school, we can start imagining which kind of future society we can build together,” said Ait El Maâti, who leads the artistic feminist group Imazi Reine, and was once refused access to a class at a higher educational institution due to her hijab.
As the country mourns the victims of the attacks five years ago, some Muslims feel unable to share their grief.
Commemorations of attacks can easily turn into moments for anti-Muslim propaganda, said Chairi.
“I’m expecting that this week there’s going to be a lot of Islamophobic phenomena,” he said, adding harassment has moved from public spaces to social media.
Belgium is remembering the tragedy with an annual ceremony, which this year will take place online because of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, exactly five years after the bombings, the 10 suspects in the attacks will stand trial.
“During this day we tend to make ourselves small,” said Ait El Maâti.