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.