“Where are you from?”
“Yes, you live in Belgium, but what’s your cultural background?”
“I was born and raised here in Brussels, Belgium, by Moroccan parents.”
“Oh, so you’re Moroccan.”
“I’m Belgian and Moroccan.”
When I was a teenager, I often got sad when I was systematically reminded of my Moroccan origins over my Belgian belonging. It was like there were the “real” Belgians, and the “not real ones”, like me. I felt like I couldn’t be considered as a Belgian, while born and growing up in Belgium.
Same goes when I was in Morocco, while visiting during the summer holidays. People there used to tell me that I was from “the other side” of the Mediterranean sea, from “al kharij” (literally meaning “the outside”), that I wasn’t a “real” Moroccan.
“Basically, in Belgium, I’m a Moroccan, and in Morocco, I’m a Belgian”, the 16-year-old girl I was concluded a bit confused.
This conclusion, and, above all, this feeling of “belonging to nowhere” I had – at that time – led me question my sense of cultural belonging.
Then I started refuging in something that seemed to me more secure, something that would erase all the barriers imposed by so called cultural borders: religion, and later, spirituality. I started at that time wearing the hijab, practicing and learning every day more about Islam, and later at university, getting in-depth knowledge of History and historical criticism, Arabic, social sciences,…
Wearing a hijab had not been that easy when you’re a young woman living in Europe as it’s banned from most of the schools and workplaces, making the access to education and work for Muslim women really difficult. Only a few schools allow religious signs, but let’s admit it, the quality of instruction is not that good, not to say that those schools look like ghettos. Thus you have to choose whether you want to go to a highly-ranked school to benefit from a high-quality education (and take your scarf off) or to be free of practicing your faith, in a ghetto school.
I made a choice: I took my scarf off. Having a good education mattered to me most (also as I’m convinced that it’s a priority actually), but I keep thinking that it’s so sad to be left with little choice.
For example, I would have loved to teach in a school, but it was not not possible. All the public institutions forbid any sort of religious sign among their employees. Same goes with the majority of private companies (recently The European Court of Justice has ruled that employers are allowed to ban employees from wearing visible religious symbols in the workplace).
Here again, you face a cornelian choice: to keep your scarf on knowing that only a few private companies or centers allow it or to take it off and work ‘everywhere’. I guess I got lucky to find a job in one of those rare private centers where pluralism and cultural diversity are encouraged. I feel blessed.
Furthermore, being a Muslim allowed me to experience what it’s like to “belong” to a community, with all aspects it has to offer, good and bad: fraternity, solidarity, benevolence, building strong social links, but also the pressure of social and religious conformism. Indeed, I faced many intolerant remarks within my own community; especially on my way of dressing and wearing or not the headscarf (see my short pieces: “Compassion”, published on the blog).
Undoubtedly people’s reactions shaped the way I perceived myself, my identity, my choices. On the one hand, it made me hold on to certain elements of my identity (my faith, for instance). On the other hand, it made me rethink and question everything: my perception of what is called “identity”, the reasons of my belonging to one in particular, my role in society as a Belgian from Moroccan origins, as a woman who has been raised in a Muslim household, or simply as a woman…