Women Under Islam (Part One of Four)
Here begins FSM Contributing Editor Adrian Morgan’s brilliant 4-part series, “Women Under Islam”, with a discussion of body coverings, a practice that has already permeated the West. Are such coverings a religious or a political statement, and are terrorist-linked groups involved?
Women Under Islam
(Part One of Four)
By Adrian Morgan
Behind the Veil
Back in the 1980s, few young Western Muslim women wore the Muslim headscarf, or hijab. In fact it was banned in some Muslim countries for teachers and those employed by the state. Turkey was the first country to campaign against its use. In 1981, Tunisia banned the hijab from public offices and schools, under law number 108. This was ratified by the late President Habib Bourguiba (1956 - 1987). In September 2006 Tunisian authorities mounted a campaign against the Muslim "Barbie" doll called Fulla, who wears a hijab, as it was thought to encourage use of the scarf. A month later, Morocco enforced a ban on images of the hijab in schoolbooks, even though the item can be worn legally. In predominantly Muslim Tajikistan in central Asia, the headscarf was banned from schools in October, 2005.
There used to be a time when only a few Western-born Muslims wore the hijab. Yet progressively over the past two decades, it has become increasingly common and more recently in the West, even the practice of wearing the face-covering veil, or niqab has become more common as well. There are political forces which have promoted the hijab as "obligatory" dress for Muslim women. The group Hizb ut-Tahrir has campaigned in British universities since the 1980s to force Muslim students to wear the item, using physical intimidation and threats to get their way. The group was banned from UK campuses in 1995 but continues to operate under other names. Other groups such as Tablighi Jamaat have been encouraging women to wear the headscarf as a religious obligation. This "missionary" group, founded in India in 1927, has been linked with terrorism, mounting coup attempts in Pakistan and shootings in north Africa.
Two French members of Tablighi Jamaat, states Alexei Alexiev, were among gunmen who carried out the attack upon the Atlas Asni Hotel in Marrakesh, Morocco on August 24, 1999. Two Spanish tourists were killed. Jose Padilla, Lyman Harris, (who sought to bomb the Brooklyn Bridge), and the "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh all had Tablighi connections.
In Morocco, Ilamado Yusef Fikri was sentenced to death on July 12, 2003. He was a member of Tablighi Jamaat, but also headed a terror group called Salafia Jihadia or At-Takfir wal-Hijrah. In letters to local press, he confessed to killing two people for being "against Islam". His terror group was linked with the Casablanca bombings of May 16, 2003, which killed 45 people.
In Waziristan, near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, the Tablighi Jamaat has the support of Pakistan's Taliban, who are linked to al Qaeda. In France since 1972, the group has been involved with the radicalization of Muslim prisoners.
In Britain Tablighi Jamaat has been involved in the political campaign by a young Muslim woman to challenge traditions. Twenty-four-year old Aisha Azmi was employed as a language support worker by Headfield Church of England Junior School in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. She did not wear a niqab (face-covering veil) during her interview. She was employed to assist young children who had poor English skills, but as soon as she started working, she began to wear a niqab. Children complained that they could not understand her, and after only a month, she was suspended. In September 2006 she challenged the decision at an employment tribunal.
On October 19, 2006, she lost her tribunal, where she had claimed that her employers had "discriminated" against her. She said: "It is clear that discrimination has taken place and I am disappointed the tribunal has not been able to uphold that part of my claim." It was then revealed by the Sunday Times that Aishma Azmi had been ordered to wear the face-veil by a Tablighi Jamaat cleric, Mufti Yusuf Sacha, who is based in West Yorkshire. The Daily Mail revealed that Azmi's father Dr Mohammed Mulk had until recently headed the secondary school attached to the Tabighi Jamaat "Markaz" in Savile Town, Dewsbury. The Markaz is the UK headquarters of Tablighi Jamaat.
Mulk's school was criticized by UK government schools inspectors as less a place of learning and more of a "madrassa". Their report claimed that the school's "over-emphasis" on religion meant secular studies were neglected. It wrote: "Teachers showed limited understanding of pupils aptitudes, needs and prior attainments." Mulk had claimed: "Parents send their children here for an Islamic education. They don't want their sons to take exams."
The "spiritual adviser" of the Muslim website IslamOnline is the radical Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is also "spiritual leader" of the Muslim Brotherhood. This website maintains that the hijab is obligatory. Similarly the Muslim Council for Britain, which was co-founded by the Brotherhood's European spokesman Kemal Helbawy, maintains that the hijab is compulsory. The MCB has acted as an adviser to the UK government, with the result that one naive politician - Ruth Kelly, the Communities Minister and Minister for Women - has claimed that there should be more hijab-wearing women on British television.
In France in September 2004 the hijab was officially banned from schools. The ban was general - no other religious items can been worn. On August 25, 2005, French-speaking schools in Belgium banned the wearing of veils. Five Belgian towns have gone further. Ghent, Antwerp, Sint-Truden, Lebbeke and Maaseik have enforced complete bans on burkas and face-veils being worn on the street.
In Maaseik, only one woman refused to comply with the ban, and wore a burka which only allowed a slit for her eyes. This woman was married to a Moroccan terrorist, Khalid Bouloudo, from the group GICM, which organized the Casablanca suicide-bombings of May 16, 2003. On February 16, 2006, Khalid Bouloudo was jailed for five years for assisting terrorist activities. On June 12 last year, Maaseik's ban on the wearing of the burka was upheld in court. It had been challenged by a Moroccan woman, Khadija El Ouazzanik.
The wearing of hijabs and their subsequent bans in schools, followed by legal appeals, have changed the political landscape of the West almost as much as terrorism. Constantly the issue of Muslim women's "rights" have been brought into the public eye through discussion of the hijab. Groups like CAIR have capitalized on the hijab issue to promote their narrow political agenda. In 2005 the group dishonestly doctored a photograph to place a crude hijab onto the head of an unveiled woman.
The political motivations of those who challenge the Western "status quo" are rarely mentioned in news reports. In Britain, a schoolgirl called Shabina Begum insisted upon her right to ignore school uniform guidelines to wear instead a gown which extended down to her feet. This item is called a jilbab. Begum took her case through the courts, assisted by her lawyer Cheri Booth Blair, wife of the then-Prime Minister. On March 22, 2006 the House of Lords overturned a ruling she had gained, which had condemned her school's actions. What was rarely reported was that her case was supported by Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization whose stated aims are to destroy democracy, and her brother (and her legal guardian) was said to be a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a claim he denies.
The situation of appeals and demands about infringement of rights involving wearing of the hijab has gone on in various locations. A bus company in Grand Rapids, Michigan, had to revise its ban on face coverings, a move introduced for security reasons. In September 2005, a Muslim convert called Sultaana Freeman (born Sandra Keller) lost a legal appeal in Florida. She had tried to have her photograph on her driving license displaying herself wearing a hijab and face-veil (niqab). In 2001, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (FDHSMV) had issued a license with a picture of her with only her eyes visible, but had later revoked it. A convicted child-batterer who became Muslim in 1997, Freeman had claimed that her 1st Amendment rights had been violated.
Two months later, the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission (NJMVC) encountered problems when trying to have a photograph taken of a Muslim driving license applicant. Sarah Elfayoumi wears a hijab, and complained that she was asked to move the scarf further back to expose her hairline. She fled to the bathroom in tears before allowing a photograph showing part of her hair. Sharon Harrington of the NJMVC claimed that hijabs are allowed in license photographs, but problems with photographs were more frequent in northern New Jersey, where more Muslims lived.
In Britain in October 2006, Nadia Eweida, a 55-year old employee of British Airways, found herself in a battle to retain her rights to wear a small Christian crucifix, half an inch in diameter. Nadia Eweida is a Coptic Christian. British Airways allowed its Muslim staff to flaunt their religious credentials by wearing the hijab but discriminated against Christians. Nadia lost her appeal in November, but in January British Airways caved in to public outcry and officially removed its ban on crucifixes.
The veil issue in Norway has also raised questions about the mysterious death of a local politician from Oslo. Samira Munir was of Pakistani origins, and was a member of Oslo District Council. She opposed the wearing of the veil, a campaign she commenced in February 2004. As a result she was harshly criticized by Norway's Pakistani immigrant community. In October 2004, she was even pressured by Pakistan's ambassador to explain her beliefs in two meetings. In the second meeting, Ambassador Shahbaz Shahbaz noted that she still had family members in Pakistan. Samira did not give up her campaign. In November 2005 she died under a train at Oslo station. Whether she fell or was pushed has not been satisfactorily explained.
In Turkey, the veil issue has led to Islamist assassination. On May 17, 2006, five judges were shot in the Turkish Council of State (Supreme Court) in Ankara. One judge, Mustafa Yucel Ozbilgin, died of his injuries. Their attacker was an Islamist lawyer, Aslan Alpasan, who objected to a decision to enforce bans on state-employed teachers wearing the hijab. This had been made earlier in the year by Judge Mustafa Birden, who was shot in the stomach. Birden had been subjected to death threats for enforcing the headscarf ban.
The issue of the veil in schools is the most contentious topic across Europe. In Sweden in January this year, the government supported the "rights" of Muslim girls to wear head coverings in classes. In Norway in June last year, the Directorate for Primary and Secondary Education gave permission for the niqab to be banned in schools. The ban was aimed mainly at teachers.
In Germany, North Rhine-Westphalia recently became the eighth of the country's sixteen states to ban the headscarf for teachers. The first state to institute a ban was Baden-Wuerttemberg, which issued the ruling on April 1, 2004. On July 7, 2006, Baden-Wuerttemberg's outlawing of the hijab was overturned by an administrative tribunal.
In Switzerland last September, two Muslim women were employed by the Marie-Therese Maradan school in Fribourg. They were dismissed when they refused to remove their headscarves. Fribourg council ruled in October that the school acted within its rights. Since 1999, religious apparel has been banned for employees of Fribourg city council.
The veil controversy has affected virtually every Western nation. In South Africa in October 2005 a prison officer was sacked for wearing the headscarf. Fairouz Adams was dismissed from her post at Worcester Prison in the Western Cape for not removing the item. In March this year, a trainee prison officer was fired in Quebec, Canada, for refusing to remove her hijab. 19-year old Sondos Abdelatif had been training to be an officer at Montreal's Bordeaux prison. Naturally, the executive director of Canadian CAIR, Karl Nickner, condemned the decision.
Within all this controversy, the involvement of political factions in encouraging Muslim women to wear the hijab, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Tablighi Jamaat and Hizb ut-Tahrir, has been forgotten. Muslim women are portrayed in the media as wearing the veil through their own volition, ignoring the pervasive effects of peer pressure. For example, the biased and leftist BBC "educates" ignorant Westerners with comments from veiled women, such as this: "Yes, I do wear a Hijab and I am covered from head to toe but how does that illustrate I am oppressed? I do not dress this way because I am forced to. Instead, I feel this dress liberates me and makes me feel special because, a woman is a jewel, like a pearl. She doesn't need to be shown off for the world to glare at, her beauty is for the one she loves for the sake of Allah (swt), her husband."
Another woman who wears the face-veil claims that she gains more respect while wearing coverings which only expose her eyes. Rahmanara Chowdhury, a part-time teacher in Britain said: "'It serves as a reminder that I'm Muslim and it helps me get close to God. Since wearing the niqab, I've become a lot more confident. Once you're covered up, people are forced to judge you not as you look as a woman but on your character."
The full-face covering niqab is naturally controversial. In Britain, one 12-year old Muslim girl from Buckinghamshire, assisted by her father, had tried legally to challenge her school's decision to prevent her wearing a niqab. She lost her appeal in February this year. Shortly after this case faltered, British politicians granted schools the right to ban face-veils, on grounds of security. In November 2005 one prestigious London university, Imperial College (which has its own nuclear reactor), banned hooded garments and face coverings for security reasons.
The only Western nation to announce a country-wide ban on Muslim face coverings, including niqabs and burkas is the Netherlands. After much discussion, the Dutch parliament announced its intentions to ban the burka in November 2006, shortly before a general election. The ruling allowed police to enforce a ban on burkas being worn in buses, on grounds of security, or in educational establishments, on grounds of communication hindrances. About 50 Muslims in the Netherlands wear full burkas. The bill has still not become written into national law.
There have already been two cases where the full burka has been used by men fleeing the law. 25-year old Mustaf Jama was a Somali living in Britain as an asylum seeker. He was a prime suspect in the killing of a policewoman, PC Sharon Beshenivsky, during a robbery on November 18, 2005. After his accomplices were convicted, it was revealed that Jama had fled Britain, disguised in his sister's burka and using her passport. Yassine Omar was a suspect who is currently on trial for attempting to detonate a suicide-bomb on London Transport on July 21, 2005, a fortnight after the deadly 7/7 attacks. He had worn a burka to flee to Birmingham, where he had been caught.
Why should a 12-year old girl wear a face-veil, when the original Islamic injunctions about modesty were about protecting women from rape? The Suras which are used to argue that a woman should cover herself are generally considered to be 33:59 and 24:31. 33:59. They state (Dawood's translation): "Prophet, enjoin your wives, your daughters, and the wives of true believers to draw their veils close round them. That is more proper, so they may be recognized and not be molested. God is ever forgiving and merciful."
24:31 states: "Enjoin believing women to turn their eyes away from temptation and to preserve their chastity; not to display their adornments (except such as are normally revealed); to draw their veils over their bosoms and not to display their finery except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons...etc".
The word hijab, literally meaning a "curtain" only appears twice in the Koran (Sura 33:53 and 42:50). The word translated in 33:59 as "veil" is actually the plural of jilbab, the body-covering garment which does not cover the head. The Koran's supposed advocacy of head-coverings, let alone face-coverings, is highly ambiguous and open to various interpretations.
On October 14, 2006 Mohammad Hamdi Zaqdouq, Egypt's religious affairs minister, claimed that the face-veil was not a religious item. He said: "Nor is the niqab a duty deriving from the Sharia. I know I will be criticized for my words but I think some Muslims are committing a fundamental error, focusing on external and superficial aspects, without exploring more relevant themes, and hence providing a distorted image of Islam."
Muslims who go on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca are actually forbidden from wearing face-veils around the Ka'aba, so the position of the burka or niqab as a compulsory item of religious clothing is highly suspect. Women who wear such items in the West are making a political statement, not following the dictates of faith. Unfortunately, political correctness means that such items are viewed by many Western decision-makers as "religious apparel", whose use should never be questioned. In Britain, their use has been approved in court.
Shabnam Mughal is a lawyer, who caused a controversy on November 6, 2006, when she appeared as an attorney in an immigration case at Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire. Judge George Glossop maintained that he could not understand Mughal's speech as it was muffled by her niqab. She refused to remove her face-veil, and the judge sought advisement from Mr Justice Hodge, president of the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal.
David Davies, Conservative MP for Monmouth, said of the case: "You have to stick to the rules of the country you are in. The veil is alien to this country and it is certainly a nonsense to think it is appropriate in the context of a courtroom. I would urge the judge's ruling to come down in favour of common sense. A lawyer must surely have to show her face and be able to speak clearly in court."
On November 9, Mr Justice Hodge ruled that Shabnam Mughal or any other lawyer was allowed to wear a veil in court. This was conditional upon the lawyer having "the agreement of his or her client and can be heard reasonably clearly by all parties to the proceedings, then the representative should be allowed to do so." In April this year, the Judicial Studies Board's Equal Treatment Advisory Committee gave official guidelines, which allowed the wearing of niqabs in court. Decisions were to be made on a "case by case" basis, as long as such items did not "interfere with justice".
On October 5 last year, former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw initiated a national debate about the face-veil. In his weekly column in the Lancashire Telegraph newspaper, Straw wrote that "wearing the full veil was bound to make better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult. It was such a visible statement of separation and of difference." The issue was taken up by other politicians, including Tony Blair and also Gordon Brown, who said he would "prefer it and think it better for Britain if fewer people wore veils".
Even Romano Prodi, socialist premier of Italy, entered the debate. In many northern towns in Italy, face-coverings of any sort are banned, stemming from a ruling made in the time of Mussolini. Days after Prodi's comments, a right-wing Italian politician had to be placed under police protection because of objections to her comments about the niqab or face-veil. Daniela Santanche of the National Alliance had claimed on a TV show that the niqab was "not a religious symbol and it is not required by the Koran" and that it was "not a symbol of freedom". Her comments were attacked by Ali Abu Shwaima, the imam of the mosque in Segrate, Milan, who claimed Santanche was "ignorant, false, an instigator of hate and an infidel". He said: "I will not allow the ignorant to talk about Islam. The veil is an obligation required by God. Those who do not believe that are not Muslims."
The hijab may be seen by many Muslim women as an article of faith, but there is no doubt that in many instances, women and young girls are pressured by family and peers to wear the item. The face-veil and the Burka have little religious justification, other than a desire to separate Muslim from Western women. A British woman wrote in the Saudi-owned Arab News: "I have lost count of the times that I have been admonished, chastised, ordered, requested, advised, politely reminded to cover my face. My usual stance is one of insolence. I invariably refuse with a 'Why should I?' partly because I can't stand being told what to do and partly because to draw a veil over my face just because someone has told me to and not due to religious conviction is nothing short of hypocrisy. Concomitantly, I have had many confrontations with those self-appointed vigilante types who want to give me free spiritual guidance."
Behind the politicking surrounding the veil, and the dubious claims that the face-veil is even "liberating", the position of women in Islamic countries is hardly equal to that of men.
In Part Two, I will examine the roles of forced marriage in Muslim societies.
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