Banning the Burqa

March 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Reuven Firestone

While on sabbatical as a family in Egypt a couple of years ago, we quickly became accustomed to seeing women wearing head coverings on the street. Nearly every single Muslim woman over the age of 12 wore one. The general word for these is hijab, which is a quranic term meaning “barrier” or “screen.” In a famous verse (33:53) it refers to a partition in the home of the prophet Muhammad to separate the women of his family from the eyes of the many people who would come to Muhammad’s home seeking an audience with him. Its meaning is basically the same as the Hebrew word mechitzah, the barrier that separates the women’s section from the men’s section in traditional synagogues.

The intent of the Quranic verse was to protect the women of Muhammad’s family from the intrusion of strangers and the possible embarrassment that could result. Because of the egalitarian nature of Arabian society in general, religious interpreters applied the notion not only to the family of the prophet, but to all Muslim families, and soon the term was applied to a common form of modesty practiced also among Christian and Jewish and Zoroastrian women at the time — covering the hair. The purpose was to encourage modest dress and protect women from the prying eyes of men.

We found the issue of modest dress curious in Egypt. Modesty in Cairo today means covering every inch of skin aside from the face, hands and feet, and that includes covering the hair. But at the same time, teenage girls and young women often wear tight tops and jeans that reveal every bump and wrinkle of their bodies. It is rare to see a niqab in Egypt, the full-face covering or veil.

Burqa is an Arabic term that refers to any face covering with eye openings. It is common today to use burqa to refer to the Afghan garment that envelops a woman’s entire face and body except for a small square area around the eyes that is covered by a concealing net or grille. The more accurate term for that is actually chadri.

In any case, niqab or burqa refers to a piece of clothing that covers the entire face, or all the face except the eyes. The issue of covering has been a point of contention for Muslim religious scholars for many centuries. While all consider modest dress required, some scholars also consider covering the face obligatory. Others consider it highly recommended but not required. Still others actually consider it forbidden, and the issue continues to arouse debate in the Muslim world.

Surprising as it may seem, France has decided to weigh in on the issue and has begun the process to issue its own version of a fatwa on the matter. Already in 2004, Parliament passed a law banning the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in French government-operated schools. This outlawed not only the Muslim headscarf, but also kippot and outward wearing of the crucifix.

Last July, President Nicolas Sarkozy targeted the burqa as an affront to human and civil rights. “The burqa is not a religious problem,” he told the French Parliament. “It’s a problem of freedom and the dignity of women.” Later that same day, while visiting Muslim graves at a WWI cemetery, he said, “Islam is today the religion of many French people…. France can’t allow French Muslims to be stigmatized.”

Those are astonishing words. I don’t understand how banning religious expression is not a religious problem, and I cannot for the life of me understand how banning a garment indicative of Muslim modesty is not an act of stigmatization.

I do understand, however, why people might consider banning the burqa to be supportive of Muslim women’s dignity. We naturally want to help people who we imagine are being persecuted. But condemning the burqa is imposing one set of culturally and religiously defined values or an aesthetic standard onto people who may not agree. How do we know that wearing a burqa is a humiliation? How is it shameful? How do you or I know how a woman wearing a full-face veil feels about it? Personally, I find many outfits that are worn in Beverly Hills among a variety of men and women to be humiliating. Why not pass a law banning the wearing of miniskirts and low-cut tops among sagging, aging women? Or black toupees on graying old men?

Here’s an example closer to home. I personally find the practice of shaving a beautiful young woman’s head, even if intended for modesty, to be an act of chillul haShem. We were created in God’s image. We desecrate God’s image whenever we purposefully disfigure our bodies. And halachah does not require shaving married Jewish women’s heads. It is only custom, and only within some communities, yet it would be a terrible and unethical act of interference on the religious and cultural rights of Jews for any government to ban the practice.

Two weeks ago, a government commission in France recommended banning the burqa in public buildings such as schools and hospitals, but not on the streets. Jean-Francois Copé, leader of Sarkozy’s majority party in Parliament (the UMP) explained, “The two reasons why we have to implement legislation is to respect the rights of women and, second, it’s a question of security. Who can imagine that in a country like ours, people can walk everywhere in the country and also in our cities with a burqa, without the possibility to recognize their face?”

Banning someone from wearing a veil is not respecting a woman’s rights. It is exactly the opposite: It is a blatant act of disrespecting her right to choose what to wear. Security may be another matter, but if wearing a full-body burqa is forbidden in public buildings but allowed in the streets, how is that increasing security when a terrorist could walk anywhere on the streets of Paris wearing a burqa packed with explosives? I admit that I would make a terrible suicide bomber, but it seems to me that if I wanted to smuggle body explosives into a public place, I would wear a trench coat rather than traditional Islamic or Arab dress. Why invite scrutiny in the current climate?

These new developments in France remind me of a similar move almost exactly two centuries ago when Napoleon called a Grand Sanhedrin in 1807. That was when an assemblage of Jewish notables was put under intense government pressure to change thousands of years of Jewish tradition in order to conform to French sensibilities. The Jewish leaders were asked 12 questions that were intended to determine whether Jews were worthy of French citizenship. They included such questions as whether it was acceptable in Jewish law for Jews to marry Christians or whether Jews were allowed to be usurious toward non-Jews. The Jewish leaders fudged their answers, wrote in vague language and were not entirely forthcoming (to say the least). Their answers nevertheless passed muster, but “passing” required, among other stipulations, that the Jewish leaders condemn all “false interpretations of their religious laws.” How would that be determined? Who would rule on the so-called “false interpretations?” The trade-off for citizenship was the denial of the unique value of our religious culture and the vibrant nature of Jewish religious discourse. The result was, among other things, a huge wave of assimilation and loss of Jewish identity.

No, banning the burqa is not an attempt to protect the dignity of women or to increase security. It is an attempt to make “ethnics” conform to a flat and unimaginative sense of what it means to be French. It is legal enforcement of an outdated and oppressive ideology that does not respect the fundamental freedom to express one’s religious identity in public.

Reuven Firestone is a professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

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Who is Aafia Siddiqui?

December 10, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

By Mauri’ Saalakhan

As someone who has been a human rights advocate for most of his adult life, I have seen many cases come and go; few have been as heart rending and consequential as the mysterious case of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui.

More than six years into this saga there still remain many unknowns. What brought the US government’s attention to this soft-spoken, unassuming woman? Why was she abducted and secretly held for five years? Why did Pakistan hand over one of its citizens to the US? And given the nature of the allegations that were being made by US authorities around the time of Aafia’s disappearance, why have none of those terrorism-related innuendos found their way into the criminal indictment that was finally brought against Aafia in a US federal court?

Dr. Siddiqui and her three children (two of whom are American born) disappeared in March 2003 following their abduction from a taxicab in Karachi Pakistan. No one would know of their whereabouts for the next five years. As time passed, however, and tales began to spread about a mysterious woman being held at Bagram (Afghanistan), identified only as Prisoner 650, pressure began to build toward indentifying who that mysterious woman was.

Investigative journalist and human rights activist Yvonne Ridley – who produced an excellent documentary on the subject (“In Search of Prisoner 650”) – dubbed her “The Grey Lady of Bagram.” Shortly after Ridley traveled to Pakistan to build mass support for an investigation into who the grey lady really was, a disheveled and degraded Aafia Siddiqui reappeared on the streets of Ghazni, Afghanistan in July 2008, only to be drawn back into a deadly web of intrigue.

One of the most riveting parts of “In Search of Prisoner 650,” for this writer, was Ridley’s interview of Ghazni Counter-Terrorism Police Chief Abdul Qadeer. The chief recounted that on the day of Aafia’s re-arrest 12 to 13 Americans were given permission to interview her. After one went behind the curtain where she was being held, all of a sudden there was gunfire. Aafia was shot and seriously wounded.

The official story was that Aafia had tried to pick up a rifle to fire upon the investigators, but ended up being shot in the stomach herself. According to the report, she received emergency treatment only because Afghan authorities insisted on it. In the documentary, Abdul Qadeer expressed suspicion about why she was removed from their (Afghan) custody. When the Governor of Ghazni Province, Dr. Usman Usmani, was confronted with this question by Yvonne Ridley, he gave a rather confused and clearly uncomfortable response.

Who is Dr. Aafia Siddiqui?

Aafia Siddiqui is a 37 year old Pakistani national who did her graduate and post-graduate work in the United States, graduating from MIT and Brandeis University, where she received her PhD. Those who knew her in Boston (who this writer has spoken to) have had nothing but glowing things to say about her. Quiet, soft-spoken, focused; a devoted mother, excellent student, and committed muslimah who was known for her charitable work in the Boston community, is how she is invariably described.

She was married to a Pakistani doctor, but they were divorced (under acrimonious circumstances) by the time of her abduction. The two youngest children from this marriage are still missing to this day. The oldest, a now 12 year old son, was returned to his family just this past summer and now resides with Aafia’s sister, Fauzia.

What brought this young mother to the attention of U.S. authorities remains a mystery. Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, in a press conference years ago, described her as an “al-Qaeda facilitator.” And yet, now in custody awaiting trial, Aafia Siddiqui does not face even one terrorism related charge! 

What we can do

This case involving Dr. Aafia Siddiqui is one of the most important precedent-setting cases confronting the Muslim-American community post 9/11. (Laws are established on the basis of precedent.)

In 2002, Deputy Attorney General Viet Dinh – a prominent member of the Justice Department’s “cartel of conservative lawyers” – was the first high level official in the Bush-Cheney administration to openly admit the government’s use of “profiling” (both racial and religious) in the so-called “war on terrorism.” When questioned on the criteria employed, his response was, “The criteria Al-Qaeda itself uses; eighteen to 35 year old males who entered the country after the start of 2000 using passports from countries where Al-Qaeda has a strong presence.”

In his address to the American Bar Association conference in Naples, Florida earlier that year (Jan. 2002) he stated quite emphatically: “We are reticent to provide a road map to Al-Qaeda as to the progress and direction of our investigative activity. We don’t want to taint people as being of interest to the investigation simply because of our attention. We will let them go if there is not enough of a predicate to hold them. But we will follow them closely, and if they so much as spit on the sidewalk we’ll arrest them. The message is that if you are a suspected terrorist, you better be squeaky clean. If we can we will keep you in jail.”

Clearly this has been the policy of the U.S. government for Muslim males post 9/11. With the case of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, that policy was expanded to include Muslim females as well. If they can get away with what they’re doing to Aafia today, it will be others tomorrow.

A demonstration is being planned for the courthouse on the day of opening arguments in January 2010. The two most important things we can do for Aafia at this point are to keep her in our prayers, and show up on the date of this mobilization. As our beloved Prophet (pbuh) said: “Tie your camel, and have trust in ALLAH.”

Mauri’ Saalakhan serves as Director of Operations for The Peace And Justice Foundation. For more information on the upcoming mobilization call (301) 762-9162 or E-mail peacethrujustice@aol.com.

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Rashida Tlaib Fundraiser

December 10, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Adil James, MMNS

West Bloomfield–December 6–As the only Muslim woman ever to have been elected to the Michigan legislature, Rashida Tlaib has a natural base of support outside of her district in Southwest Detroit, the 12th congressional district, and she met with a few of those supporters this past weekend at a house in West Bloomfield.

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Citing the need to get her campaign organization in full swing before other Democratic challengers emerge, she kicked off her campaign season at the home of Dr. Safwan Badr, and about 20 well-heeled Muslims from many communities of Michigan were present to show support for the legislator and attorney who rose from humble beginnings to a level of power never before reached by a Muslim woman in Michigan.

Rep. Tlaib has a very quick mind and a clear grasp of the personalities and issues in Lansing, and this was clear from her easy and fluent answers to questions on various issues such as the upcoming governor’s race in Michigan, in which she announced that likely Michigan House Speaker Andy Dillon would contest against other likely candidates such as current Michigan secretary of state Terry Lynn Land and Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard.

Rep. Tlaib described her intentions to build a campaign staff, and went into detail about the demographics of her own district, describing it as roughly one third black, one third white, and one third hispanic, with a small percentage of Yemenis. 

Her mere presence in Lansing’s legislature is of benefit to Muslims in Michigan, just by the fact of her example, as a Muslim woman who makes salat and is “not even hiding who I am.” 

Influential people from the community were in attendance, such as for example Ghalib Begg, who has maintained close ties across all of Michigan’s ranks of politicians.  Professor Saeed Khan of Wayne State was also there.

Rep. Tlaib can use your financial support and would welcome volunteers. Contact rashida4rep@yahoo.com, 313-297-8800.

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On Being a Muslim

September 24, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Kari Ansari

Villa Park, IL (USA)–“On Being a Muslim”

ansariSince becoming a Muslim many years ago, I have been compelled to strive for the potential I was born with, but up until that time did not use. My connection with God, through the teachings of Islam, has given me gifts of character and spirituality that I still find surprising.

Islam has made me smarter. God gave me a brain, but Islam gave me the reason to use it. For instance, being a Muslim woman has demanded that I grow intellectually. The Quran tells us over and over, “these are words for those who think.” Islam is a religion of thinking, questioning, revising our opinions, and considering the world from different perspectives. Over the years, I have listened to Muslim thinkers, scholars, and teachers who have changed, moderated, and enhanced their understanding of Islam as they themselves changed, moderated, and grew older and wiser. Islam has room for this. The message in the Quran is so layered and rich with meaning that it begs the reader to dive into the words over and over, only to surface each time at different places in its sea, leaving us gasping for breath from the complexity and simplicity that coexist simultaneously.

Being a Muslim has broadened my worldview. Being a Muslim in America means that I am part of a faith group that encompasses people of wildly different cultures and ethnicities. I have made friends and have worked with people from virtually all corners of the world. Since becoming a Muslim, I no longer view people through the lens of a television or movie camera, edited for my sensibilities; instead, I get to learn about them firsthand. I have friends who have transported me to their native land with a simple cup of tea and a little conversation. As an American Muslim, I have learned that the world is full of warm people who would give you their last meal, simply because that’s the way they have always lived.

Islam has taught me true empathy. I grew up in America’s safe neighborhoods, attending excellent public schools. With this advantage, I never experienced discrimination or disrespect from others until after I embraced Islam and wore the hijab, the Muslim headscarf. By taking on this visible identifier, I learned what it feels like to be the “other.” When someone spit on the street as I passed, just after the 9/11 tragedy, I experienced a little of what Catholics and Jews and other religious minorities in America went through in decades and centuries past. When my husband, a native of India, and I were swiftly refused a previously promised lease on a house after we faxed in our driver’s license photos to the out-of-town owner, I understood the resentment and frustration felt by those who suffer insidious bigotry. When I was made to stand with my arms and legs spread like a criminal for a physical pat down in plain view of other air travelers, I understood the humiliation of being profiled simply because of my faith. However, I consider these experiences a privilege, as they have taught me empathy for those who have suffered simply for being.

Islam has made me a stronger feminist. Contrary to common perceptions, being a Muslim woman demands that I become educated, one who questions authority and the status quo. The women who lived during the time of the Blessed Prophet Muhammad were constantly questioning the meaning of the revelations; they wanted to know where their place in society lay, and they asserted their intelligence in defining themselves. They asked the Prophet questions about their lives. They did not ask by means of their husbands or fathers; they spoke directly to the Prophet. Islamic teachings elevate women to equal status with men — the only qualifier of merit is one’s conviction of faith and actions. Islam leaves room for women to assert themselves in all aspects of community life, and while Musli ms in America are struggling against the misogyny brought from overseas, Islam gives us the strength and framework to claim equal standing with men in the mosque and in the greater society.

Islam has taught me real humility. Muslims are taught to perform each prayer as if we are in the presence of God — whose magnificence is more than any of us can fathom. Muslims must pray in a prescribed manner, and the most intimate position of the prayer is called sajud, where one kneels down and places the forehead and nose on the floor. In the very beginning for me, an American raised with a large amount of pride, it was difficult to pray in this position. I thought to myself, “This is humiliating,” but was told that this is the purpose of sajud. I performed the prayer as taught, but was disheartened when I did not find the solace promised. A wise Muslim woman told me to continue with the ritual, regardless of whether it felt hollow or not. So I persisted. Weeks passed, and I went through the motions of the daily prayers, until one day — all in an instant — I felt myself in the presence of God while in sajud. During those brief moments I gained everything I would ever need in this world — the eternal longing for that most intimate connection with my Creator.

My husband and I named our son Sajid, which means one who prostrates to God.

This article first appeared on American Public Media’s Speaking of Faith feature, Expressions of Muslim Identity.

Hell Hath No Fury…

August 20, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS) Mideast Correspondent

jahra As William Shakespeare wrote, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”

Those words came to life this past week in the state of Kuwait as a raging fire engulfed the tent of a wedding party that was in full swing following the nuptials of a young groom and his beautiful new wife. The swiftness of the blaze took everyone by surprise as the tent–where bride, female guests and children were celebrating–was turned to ashes within three minutes.

There was little chance for victims to escape as the burning tent collapsed on those who were unable to find an exit, then the electricity failed, thus cloaking any rescue attempt in darkness. More than 20 fire trucks and emergency personnel were dispatched to the scene. But it was already too late. Anyone who did not get out at the start of the blaze was shrouded in what remained of the melted tent. Even more victims died in the stampede to get out of the engulfed tent. The death toll stands at 46, with more than 80 injured with severe burns. Authorities expect the death toll to rise, as many victims remain in critical condition. The bride managed to escape, but her mother and sister both died in the blaze.

As the story unfolded the following morning, with some saying that it was just an accident possibly caused by the air conditioners used to cool the tent, it was difficult for even investigators to be sure of exactly what happened. That was until the arsonist turned herself into the authorities. She turned out to be the first, and recently divorced, wife of the groom. So far her name has not been released to the media, however the 24-year-old woman fully confessed to the crime based on the ‘bad treatment’, which was meted out to her by her husband and his parents during the marriage. In her confession, the first wife said that she only intended to disrupt the celebrations. When the police told her that more than 45 people had died and that it was one of the worst disasters to ever hit Kuwait in the past 40 years, she collapsed in tears. Eyewitnesses have since given the police more incriminating evidence. The woman’s housemaid said that she had seen her carrying a large bottle of gasoline and had asked the housemaid to bring her the day’s newspaper. Authorities now believe that she soaked the newspaper in the gasoline and then ignited it outside the tent.

In her confession she revealed that she took two separate taxis to the venue of the marriage. She hid outside of the tent and doused the gasoline around it before lighting a match and fleeing. The arsonist also revealed that she had exchanged SMS messages with her former in-laws during the day and was further incensed by their replies. She even told her ex-husband that she would burn the wedding tent down, but he did not believe her.

Doctors specializing in the treatment of burns have already arrived in Kuwait from Britain and Germany. And the Ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Kuwait has offered to transport victims of the fire to Bosnia for treatment or dispatch a team of doctors from his country to Kuwait. In a new development both Kuwaiti citizens and expatriates have rallied together to donate much needed blood to the victims. An estimated 1,100 people have donated blood at the country’s blood bank since the fateful incident.

Family members of the victims have already buried their dead in local cemeteries with many praying openly that the arsonist will receive the full punishment from authorities. Kuwait Airways has also stepped in to offer immediate flights for family members of the hospitalized victims, who are on vacation in different parts of the world, to help them return to Kuwait as quickly as possible. His Highness the Amir of Kuwait has sent condolences to all of the victims and their families. The Amir has also said that he will not receive congratulations on the upcoming Eid-al-Fitr holidays to show solidarity and express his remorse for the victims.

It remains to be seen what justice the arsonist will receive as she has not yet been put on trial. However, her vengeful actions have forever changed the course of innumerable lives, including her own.

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His Maternal Instinct

July 23, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

By Nicholas D. Kristof, The New York Times

shershah syed

Dr Syed with Ashrafi Akbar.

Nicholas D. Kristof (The NYT)

She is an illiterate woman from the tribal areas of Pakistan who almost died in childbirth a year after marrying at the age of 12. She suffered a horrific injury during labor called a fistula that left her incontinent and smelly, and for the next 13 years she was confined to her house — never stepping outside for shame at the way she was leaking wastes.

He is a famous Pakistani ob-gyn who was educated in Ireland. After spending eight years there, he returned with plans to set up a fertility clinic for rich patients and zip around in a Mercedes-Benz. But he was so shattered by the sight of women dying unnecessarily in childbirth that he decided to devote his career instead to helping impoverished women like her.

So they met in one of the hospitals established by the doctor, Shershah Syed, and he has been helping the young woman, Ashrafi Akbar. She is scheduled to undergo a final repair of her fistula in that hospital today.

People in the West are properly outraged by Taliban oppression of women in parts of Pakistan. But some of the greatest suffering of women here isn’t political or religious. It comes simply from the inattention to maternal health care.

Here in Pakistan, a woman dies every 35 minutes because of problems from pregnancy or childbirth, according to United Nations figures.

The underlying reason is that maternal health has never been a priority globally, either to poor countries or to foreign aid donors like the United States. The only exceptions are Britain and Norway, and I hope the Obama administration will back them up.

In this part of Pakistan, Sindh Province, there is a saying that goes: If your cow dies, that is a tragedy; if your wife dies, you can always get another.

“This is simpler than an atomic bomb,” Dr. Shershah said, speaking of improving maternal health in Pakistan. “We have an atomic bomb, but we haven’t done this because the government isn’t interested. The day the government decides it doesn’t want maternal deaths, we will have no more mothers dying.”

Ashrafi’s case was typical: She tried to deliver at home with the help of an untrained birth attendant. But her pelvis wasn’t big enough to accommodate the baby’s head, so four exhausting days of labor produced nothing.

Finally, the family took Ashrafi to a clinic, and the baby was delivered dead. Then she found that she was dribbling urine and stool through her vagina. She smelled, and the salts in her urine left sores on her thighs.

Ashrafi had heard that doctors in Karachi might be able to cure her, and she asked if someone could take her. Instead, Ashrafi’s husband divorced her. Embarrassed and humiliated, Ashrafi fell into a deep depression. She locked herself up in her parents’ home and refused to see anyone.

Thirteen years passed. Ashrafi says she didn’t leave the house once. I asked her, and a cousin of hers whom I reached by telephone, how she spent her days. The answer: sewing, caring for her sick mother — and crying.

Finally, she prevailed upon her brothers to take her to Karachi, where she was examined by Dr. Shershah. At 56, he is one of his country’s best-known doctors and is president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Pakistan. But three times he has been pushed out of his job, he said, for saying that resources would be better spent on education and health than on atomic weapons or F-16s.

With government support nine years ago, Dr. Shershah started a top-level maternity wing in a public hospital in Orangi, an impoverished Karachi neighborhood that by some reckonings is the largest slum in the world. The hospital now handles 6,500 deliveries a year — yes, 6,500 — and accepts women from hundreds of miles away. Several years ago, a half-dead woman came from Baluchistan Province — by camel.

In addition, Dr. Shershah is hitting up friends to try to build a new maternity hospital on the grounds of a former madrassa on the edge of Karachi. So far, he has built a wing to repair fistulas free of charge and to train midwives. He says that in five years or so, as the money trickles in, the hospital will be complete. (Friends in America have set up a tax-deductible charity, National Health Forum. For more information, please go to my blog, www.nytimes.com/ontheground.)

In addition to his regular work, Dr. Shershah repairs fistulas there every Sunday, and that is how he encountered Ashrafi. Her case turned out to require a series of operations because of the long wait. But after six months of surgeries, she should be repaired and ready to go home by the end of this month.

Already, the nurses say, she is different from the shy, morose young woman who arrived. Now she smiles and sometimes laughs, and she spends her days outside in the hospital courtyard, bathing in the sunlight that she missed for 13 years.

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Niqabi, Interrupted

July 13, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Wearing my niqab is a choice freely made, for spiritual reasons

By Naima B.Robert

Niqab3 I put on my niqab, my face veil, each day before I leave the house, without a second thought. I drape it over my face, tie the ribbons at the back and adjust the opening over my eyes to make sure my peripheral vision is not affected.

Had I a full-length mirror next to the front door, I would be able to see what others see: a woman of average height and build, covered in several layers of fabric, a niqab, a jilbab, sometimes an abayah, sometimes all black, other times blue or brown. A Muslim woman in ‘full veil’. A niqabi.

But is that truly how people see me? When I walk through the park with my little ones in tow, when I reverse my car into a parking space, when I browse the shelves in the frozen section, when I ask how to best cook asparagus at a market stall, what do people see? An oppressed woman? A nameless, voiceless individual? A criminal?

Well, if Mr Sarkozy and others like him have their way, I suppose I will be a criminal, won’t I? Never mind that “it’s a free country”; never mind that I made this choice from my own free will, as did the vast majority of covered women of my generation; never mind that I am, in every other respect, an upstanding citizen who works hard as a mother, author and magazine publisher, spends responsibly, recycles and tries to eat seasonally and buy local produce!

Yes, I cover my face, but I am still of this society. And, as crazy as it might sound, I am human, a human being with my own thoughts, feelings and opinions. I refuse to allow those who cannot know my reality to paint me as a cardboard cut-out, an oppressed, submissive, silenced relic of the Dark Ages. I am not a stereotype and, God willing, I never will be.

But where are those who will listen? At the end of the day, Muslim women have been saying for years that the hijab et al are not oppressive, that we cover as an act of faith, that this is a bonafide spiritual lifestyle choice. But the debate rages on, ironically, largely to the exclusion of the women who actually do cover their faces.

The focus on the niqab is, in my opinion, utterly misplaced. Don’t the French have anything better to do than tell Muslim women how to dress? Don’t our societies have bigger problems than a relative handful of women choosing to cover their faces out of religious conviction? The “burka issue” has become a red herring: there are issues that Muslim women face that are more pressing, more wide-reaching and, essentially, more relevant than whether or not they should be covering with a niqab, burqa or hijab.

At the end of the day, all a ban will do is force Muslim women who choose to cover to retreat even further – it is not going to result in a mass “liberation” of Muslim women from the veil. All women, covered or not, deserve the opportunity to dress as they see fit, to be educated, to work where they deem appropriate and run their lives in accordance with their principles, as long as these choices do not impinge on others’ freedoms. And last time I looked, being able to see a woman’s hair, legs or face were not rights granted alongside “liberté, egalité et fraternité”.

As a Muslim woman living in the UK, I am so grateful for the fact that my society does not force me to choose between being a practising Muslim and an active member of society. I have been able to study, to work, to establish a writing career and run a magazine business, all while wearing a niqaab. I think that that is a credit to British society, no matter what the anti-multiculturalists may say, and I think the French coul d learn some very valuable lessons from the British approach.

So, three cheers for those women who make the choice to cover, in whatever way and still go out there every day. Go out to brave the scorn and ridicule of those who think they understand the burka better than those who actually wear it. Go out to face the humiliating headlines. Go out to face the taunts of schoolchildren. Go out to fight another day. Go out to do their bit for society and the common good. Because you never know, if Mr Sarkozy and his supporters have their way, there could come a day when these women think twice about going out there into a society that cannot bear the way they look. And, who knows, I could be one of them.

And, while some would disagree, I think that would be a sad day.

Na’ima B. Robert is the founding editor of SISTERS , a magazine for Muslim women and author of ‘From My Sisters’ Lips ‘, a look at the lives of British Muslim women who cover.

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South Florida News, Vol. 8 Iss. 42

October 12, 2006 by · Leave a Comment 

“Bravest Woman in the World” Mukhtar Mai to speak at FIU

Miami–Cries heard all ‘round the world came from here, first of shame, then of indignation, and finally cries for justice that were answered despite obstacles.

The South Florida community will get a chance to hear an inside perspective on one of the world’s most widely publicized recent cases of human rights abuse against a Muslim woman on Saturday, Oct. 28 as local South Asian women’s organization Sahara hosts Mukhtaran Mai, named “The Bravest Woman in the World” by Glamour, and one of TIME Magazine’s “100 People Who Shape Our World.”

Gang raped by her local tribal counsel in Pakistan as punishment for a crime allegedly committed by her younger brother, Mai took the tribal council to court and won – making her the first woman in Pakistan to have won such a case.

Since then, she has traveled the world raising awareness about violence against women.

The event will be held at 7 PM at Florida International University’s South Campus. It is also being presented by the Women’s Fund of Miami-Dade’s Women’s Advocacy Project, The Asian American Network Against Abuse of Human Rights (ANAA) and Glamour. (For more information, call Sophie Brion at (305) 441-0506 or email sophie@womensfundmiami.org) 

“Many strong and successful efforts have been made to develop our group,” says Brion of Sahara, the fledgling group aimed at helping to faciliate minority and immigrant women’s social services in the area for about a year now. “Sahara has collaborated with several organizations and has received assistance in fundraising, outreach efforts to the South Florida community, and with direct services to assist victims of domestic violence. We hope to continue to grow and reach our goals to assist Asian women in distress.”

In August 2006, Sahara established a phone help-line where victims can leave a message for one of the group’s counselors, who can then provide them assistance and direct them towards resources & services. The phone number for the hotline is 1-866-567-7635. A training session for those interested in becoming phone counselors was held on Friday, Sept. 15 at the local Safe Place Shelter, and the group continues to seek more volunteers.

The group’s most recent general body meeting was held on Sept. 18 at the home of one of their Muslim volunteer couples, the Shakir family, and it has organized a number of other events and activities over the summer. It also has a new website up at www.saharafl.org, which is being renovated with the help of SFINdians.com.

“Wow, the amount of growth/progress with this group is really impressive,” said Sahara volunteer and local social worker Syeda Naqvi. “I remember attending the second meeting or so when the idea was being hashed out and look at it now.”

Turkish Cultural Center hosts 2nd Interfaith Dinner

Ft. Lauderdale–South Florida’s youngest Muslim cultural organization continued to make in-roads with local community leaders this month, as The Anatolia Cultural Center (ACC) held its 2nd Annual Interfaith Dialogue Dinner on October 5 at the Fort Lauderdale Marriot North.

The event brought together a wide of range of speakers and guests from various faith backgrounds including: Richard Agler, senior rabbi at the Congregation B’nai Israel, Jack Noble, senior pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Pompano Beach, Cengiz Alacaci, associate professor of Mathematics Education at Florida International University, and George Earhart, paster at Shepherd of the Coast Lutheran Church in Fort Lauderdale.

In the vein of the three year old ACC’s monthly Turkish coffee nights, the evening Including presentations, dinner, dessert and conversation. Organizers made a special point that the event was not a fund-raising dinner.

“Our faith is a significant part of our culture and the ACC is dedicated to promote mutual understanding and respect between people of different faiths,” said the center’s director Mustafa Sahin. “The Annual Interfaith Dialog Dinners bring leaders of various faith-based organizations together opening the doors to conversation and tolerance.”

The Other Side of “Normal”

Everyday reflections of a young Muslim social worker

By Syeda Feiza Naqvi,
Special to TMO

Funny how we have the capacity to become so jaded that even the abnormal comes to wear the face of “normalcy”. Working as the supervisor of volunteers at the Guardian ad Litem Program, I see a lot in an “average” day…or rather, hear a lot. But my second encounter with the same exact prostitute, in the same exact week, at the same exact gas station has made me reflect on just how wide a gulf there is between who I am today vs. who I was three years ago, when I first got my job.

“Yesterday” the sight of the billboard sign on the way to work was enough to make me quake in my shoes and seriously question whether I even wanted to go for the interview. ‘Twas no ordinary billboard sign, oh no: it was one that showed the picture of a serial rapist, asking for any info on his whereabouts.

But today, I look at a prostitute and can tell, immediately, that she’s on a high from a recent “date” with a joint or two. I can’t pick up the familiar smell of weed on her (oh yes, I have come to know that scent quite well by now), but her strung out appearance and tipsy steps give her away. She is all angles, and taut skin, but I can still see the last, faint vestige of beauty on her face. She could have been…must have been, beautiful once. Now she trades on those remnants for food, pointing to a sandwich as a price for her time.

And I just walk on, about my business, as if all of this is normal.

I’ve seen too many parents, too many adults, fall victim to their passions, obsessions, addictions, to believe in the capacity to save any of these lost souls. Because I know too well the underbelly of their deeds: the innocent children who are neglected or abused or severely endangered as a result.

Sometimes it scares me, the dark sense of humor that lurks within me, making note of the stupid, stupid ironies existent in some of these cases: the junkie mother who, ironically, works as a substance abuse counselor at a local college; the huge, buff, drug dealer father reduced to tears, as if he’s five, because he’s scared silly by the machinations and aggression of his tiny, pencil-thin wife; the mother who comes to court and tells the judge that she thinks she’s being followed by aliens…

Sigh.

I think a sense of humor is a necessary coping skill, because you either have to laugh or just put your head down and CRY.

I’ve driven past the scene of a break-in/shooting at the same grocery store about three times now. Note to self: never go grocery shopping in THAT particular store.

And none of it even registers anymore…it’s like the backdrop to a very normal, very average day.

None of the cases I get surprise me anymore….child raped by father? Been there, done that. Kids beaten up by parents? Happens all the time. Schizo mother unable to care for kids? Please, what else is new? Criminal parents with violent tempers? Lord, who ISNT a criminal, tell me that? Domestic violence disputes? Sigh. Lost causes. ‘Cause you know the woman is just going to go back to her no good husband.

What particularly amuses me is how people continue to underestimate me, until I open my mouth in court.

Oh, these parents. They just never learn.

They see the hijab and assume I’m some submissive, meek, nice type, and it ends up costing them. I imagine it’s rather like thinking you are talking to a nun, only to have her whip the habit off suddenly, catching you off guard.

They seem so stunned.

Well, good…if that’s the wake up call they need to get their act together, then fine, so be it.

Syeda Feiza Naqvi is a local writer, a leading veteran of local and regional Muslim organizations. For more info on how to serve as the voice for an abused child, please go to www.nationalcasa.org.