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Professional identity and religious identity. Inter-minority solidarity among future social workers

Notes de l’auteur

This is the press release related to the article from Maryam Kolly, published on March 26th 2018.

Brussels is a city with wide socioeconomic disparities, where there is ethnic segregation from an educational perspective due to the significant cultural diversity of this city-region. In this context, the ties between young people are very strong and are based on identity, with reference to the local level (municipality, neighbourhood) and ethnic origin. Religion may therefore constitute one of the facets of young people's identities, which shape many aspects of their lives, including their professional lives. But what is the connection between these religious and professional identities in their daily lives?

This is the question explored by Maryam Kolly, professor of sociology at Université Saint-Louis – Bruxelles, in the 122nd issue of the academic journal Brussels Studies. Based on interviews with students studying to become social workers, she highlights a "perspective of minorities" of young people who are gradually entering the workforce, who are Catholic or Muslim and whose parents or grandparents are north African or sub-Saharan immigrants.

The analysis shows that the image of the “veiled woman” appears to be an inescapable problem. The veil – "visible religion" – seems to give rise to feelings of suspicion (non-neutrality and being an obstacle to gender equality and the freedom of expression) towards women who wear one. Faced with this, they must prove their professionalism constantly and reaffirm the standard regarding the "good social worker". Furthermore, this tension is nourished by the concrete ways in which this obvious symbol forbids them access to certain higher education institutions or many professions related to social work in the public services. Denouncing the simplistic character of the equation "veil = alienation", the young interviewees speak of the multiple meanings of the veil, its various uses and the various profiles of the women who wear one.

For these future social workers, the slogan "I am Charlie" and the way in which the media have presented Islam since the terrorist attacks have also contributed to the opposition between minorities and the majority, non-Europeans and Europeans. The difference in the media coverage of violence and wars here and abroad triggers an exacerbated need for these young people to assert themselves via their belonging to a minority, in particular the category of African, as a counterpoint to the hegemonic rhetoric of the media.

Through these interviews, the author also examines the compatibility between religious beliefs – "invisible religion" – and social work. It appears that while the students interviewed have clearly internalised the "exit of religion" from Belgian society as well as strong professional ethics, their religion contributes in part to justifying their commitment to social professions. What about the issues which go against their morals (abortion, homosexuality, etc.)? Apparently, in their eyes, professional ethics preside over social intervention, and religious morality should not be an obstacle to providing social assistance. However, there were a few isolated cases in which moral conflict was an obstacle to intervention. The question is raised regarding conscientious objection as a way to get out of difficult situations such as these.

In conclusion, the research conducted by Maryam Kolly suggests that the risks of a future reinforcement of these dividing lines (western world/Islam, Europe/Africa, European/non-European youth, believers/non-believers) can only be counterbalanced by the recognition of the particularities and multiple loyalties of these young people and the awareness of the biased views which they may bring about. This dimension must be fully integrated into education and the organisation of the world of work.

Maryam Kolly, “Professional identity and religious identity. Inter-minority solidarity among future social workers”, Brussels Studies [Online], General collection, No 122, 26 March 2018. URL:

Benjamin Wayens, Senior Editor: bwayens[at]

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