Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Demonizing hijab-wearing Muslim women for politics

The battle against religious extremism is getting stranger by the day.Seemingly running out of ideas, new catchphrases and the energy it takes to root out terrorists cells, Western governments have discovered a novel way to attack the apparent root of all evil: the hijab.

I can’t think of a single item of clothing that has gotten government leaders so up in arms that they feel the urge to pass laws banning it from being worn in public places. Religious conservatives and Western lawmakers alike are responsible for turning the hijab into a potent political weapon.

The conservatives are calling Marwa Al-Sherbini, the Egyptian pharmacist murdered in a German courtroom, as the “headscarf martyr” because she died wearing the hijab. She had sued and won a judgment against a man who was convicted of attempting to remove Sherbini’s hijab and calling her a terrorist.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is now leading the charge to ban the burqa in France, equating it as a symbol of oppression against women. France already banned the hijab in public institutions in 2004. Even Sarkozy’s urban policies secretary, Fadela Amara, a Muslim who should know better, is on board to ban the burqa! “I am for the banning of this coffin which kills basic freedoms,” she said.

The hijab, the burqa, or the niqab that a Muslim woman wears, is not a political weapon to be used by governments to wage their battles of ideology. And I, for one, want my hijab back. Wearing it is my choice and nobody’s business but my own. As a Muslim woman I wonder why I must listen to a stranger, a man who probably never had a conversation with a hijabi, tell me what I should and should not wear.

There is a real, although not completely rational, fear among European conservatives of the so-called creeping Islamification. British tabloids raised a stink a few weeks ago that “85 Shariah courts” were operating in the United Kingdom, apparently forgetting that about 80 were simply arbitration panels to settle business and domestic disputes. But the message was clear that Islam was slowly taking over government.

To counter these fears, government leaders are targeting the hijab and burqa as the most obvious symbols of Islam. If law enforcement is seen as incapable of finding basement terrorists or existing laws can’t prevent the migration of Muslims to urban centers because it conflicts with democratic ideals, then banning the burqa and further suppression of the hijab will help placate a jittery public. I suppose the logic here is that if one can’t see symbols of Islam then the threat of violence by Al-Qaeda doesn’t exist.

This Band-Aid approach to a complex issue is kind of like the US government’s habit of passing stiff drug sentencing laws without addressing the root causes of drug abuse. It gives the appearance of action by putting people away for decades without solving a single thing.Worse, Sarkozy’s misguided attempts to “free” Muslim women from “oppression” by making wearing the burqa illegal shines an unnecessary spotlight on these women.

The burqa ban, if indeed passed by French lawmakers, will further victimize Muslim women. Sarkozy’s supporters seem to say that they apparently know better than Muslim women what they should wear or not wear.These proposed laws generate negative attitudes towards the burqa and hijab. Women today already struggle for equity in society, whether it’s in the East or West, but now they will be subjected to further scrutiny for what they wear. I don’t envy the hijab-wearing black woman who inevitably will have three strikes against her while she attends a parent-teacher conference at her child’s school in a predominately white neighborhood.

For all of the West’s insistence that Muslims assimilate into their society, governments have a tendency to set minorities up for failure by throwing enough obstacles in their path that makes integration almost impossible.

I was in California this month and visited a Catholic Church in Los Angeles while wearing my hijab. The earth didn’t shake and the sky didn’t fall. I was treated warmly by the parishioners. During my visit throughout the state I attracted the usual stares from non-Muslims, but I also received a compliment or two. Not once did I feel threatened or treated in a hostile manner.

Yet I wonder whether that friendly climate will change if the US or another Western nation restricted my choice to wear the hijab or banned my sisters from wearing the burqa. Regulating clothing suggests that there is something wrong with it and instantly places the wearer on the wrong side of society’s rules.The rules change depending on the whims of lawmakers who feel the urge to demonize a segment of society.

The West has a long history of demonizing minorities. The Jews, Poles, Irish, Italians and Mexicans can attest to that. Even today there is a movement in the US to deny US citizenship to US-born children of Mexican nationals despite a Constitutional amendment protecting them. Yet California streets and cities bear Spanish names, supermarket shelves are stocked with Mexican foods and virtually every restaurant serves Mexican food. Clearly assimilation has taken place.

But for now demonization seems to be necessary to fight ideological battles. That demon today appears to be the Muslim woman.


Eleanor said...

I think it would be helpful to better explain sharia law to those who have expressed concern by understanding the origin of their (mis)conceptions. Britain is a country that has historically referred to as a 'paradise for women' in comparison to Italy and Spain from the early modern period onwards (with a slight blip in Victorian times). The idea of womens rights has been core to British society- although not always law- and I think any perceived limitation on those rights sets off a wave of media hand-wringing. An example would be when male doctors recently commented on the rising use of automatic epidurals and elective caesarian sections during childbirth. Cue an outraged protest about men "forcing women to endure hours of agony" and other such hysterical reactions.

My rather laboured point is that it would be helpful for British society as a whole to address some of the aspects of Sharia law that they find the most problematic, ie.

1. does a husband really have to agree to a woman's request for divorce when a man can divorce his wife by text then change his mind?

2. clarification of custody rights for the children of divorced couples.

3. is a woman's testimony really only worth half of a man's?

4. underage and polygamous marriages.

The tabloids are getting themselves into such a rightwing bother because of issues such as (but not limited to) the above. It would be useful and informative to clarify that sharia rulings (especially family and marriage arbritration) would not make British Muslim women submit to laws that are inherantly not equal and contrary to the law of Britain.

Just my $0.02.

Anonymous said...

First of all, let me apologize for commenting anonymously. I believe in identifying oneself when commenting but I cannot seem to make the registration tools appear in English and, since I don't read Arabic, am unable to register.

I have been reading these blogs since I arrived in KSA and I always am amazed to see how many times America or Americans are dragged into these arguments. And, again, in this article America has been referenced. I was relieved to see that you mentioned the friendly climate toward apparel associated with Muslims then, unfortunately, you mention a 'long history of demonizing minorities'. Unlike Saudi Arabia Americans are able to express their viewpoints freely even if those viewpoints are highly critical of the government and people in power. The reference you make to deny US citizenship to US-born children of ILLEGAL aliens is our way of expressing our dismay at the high cost of caring for people who are in our country ILLEGALLY in a time of economic distress. Will we truly deny them citizenship? Probably not because we value our Constitution even more and our Constitition gives these children citizenship. Will we ever deny these women the right to dress as they wish. Maybe. But only if there is strong evidence that their right to dress as they please violates our rights. Is that likely? Probably not. You stated that 'not once did you feel that you threatened or treated in a hostile manner' by Americans. Why not return the favor?

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Victor Purinton said...

Hijab bans are wrong for a variety of reasons. But so, for the same reasons, is the enforcement of hijab. Agreed?

Anonymous said...

Reading the comments here I ca see there's a lot of ignorance

in response to the comment above, Muslim women wear the hijab because it is a religious requirement, not because it is 'forced'

Victor Purinton said...


And yet it is legally enforced in some societies. My question was, is this justifiable? Should Muslim women have the choice to wear or not to wear hijab?

Anonymous said...

I can only presume you will now rush to defend those Muslim women who are being told what they "should and should not wear" wear by Muslims as well.. you could begin with your homeland, but perhaps more urgently Sudan, where they're dealing out lashes for wearing jeans. I await your condemnation, but of whom I'm not sure..
As usual, this burqa issue would appear not to be about equal treatment of religions and their followers, not even equal treatment of all people, and not even about equal treatment of all Muslims, but about Muslims and their issues with non-Muslims.

Anonymous said...

I must preface this by saying I have never been to the Middle East, but would I as an American woman be able to wear what I want in Saudi Arabia? Would I be allowed to wear my necklace with a cross that was given to me by my Grandmother? If not, then seems hypocritical that western women must abide by dress codes when visiting your country, but then claim discrimination if eastern women must abide by dress codes when visiting our part of the world. Referencing the 'demonizing of minorities in America' may have some truth to it, but most countries including Saudi Arabia have a less than stellar history when it comes to the treatment of minorities. Thank you for writing your wonderful blog, and PLEASE don't misinterpret my frustration at what I see as the East criticizing the West while overlooking their own faults as a personal attack on you.

Best wishes for you and your family,