Monday, July 6, 2009

Saving Muslim Women from the Opression of the Headscarf, by Killing Them

I never intended to write about the scarf/veil/hijab/niqaab. Like a lot of people who write about the Middle East and North Africa (Muslim and otherwise) I roll my eyes at the Western preoccupation with the scarf, which seems to dominate the discourse. The Islamic practice of covering seems to excite the imaginations of both Judeo-Christian/nationalist/conservatives and (largely) white/western/feminists, an unlikely alliance that occurs from time to time around representations of women (as in pornography, for example). I will admit that I do not understand this preoccupation... I am not a Muslim so I have no religious or cultural investment in covering one way or the other. For me, the scarf is just clothing. This may be because many of my Muslim neighbors in Brooklyn cover to varying degrees and I see them going about their lives, just like everyone else. When you are standing behind a veiled woman in line at the supermarket and you see her trying to keep her kids quiet with one hand while she organizes coupons with the other, the whole thing seems pretty ordinary, at least in my part of the world. As far as I can tell, I have only one neighbor who goes about fully covered, while others wear their scarves in very different styles, depending on their preferences, home countries and cultures. It is very common to see Moms with their heads covered while their little girls are bounding around in jeans and Dora the Explorer t-shirts, but there are a few little girls with their heads covered as well. Two or three summers ago I was walking down the street and a hijab-wearing 11 year old girl went whizzing past me on a Razor scooter, scarf and dress flapping, face split with a giant grin. Despite the wide range of styles, these women and girls all seem to socialize together and I have seen zero indication of the isolation and division that are often assumed to be part and parcel of the practice of covering. I know there are issues with the scarf in Islamic cultures, and it is not my intention to minimize them, none of my female Muslim friends and colleagues wear it and some have spoken against it. But my assumption is that any intra-cultural issues around the practice of covering can be addressed by the women it impacts directly, so I feel no pressing need to climb on to my white horse with my American flag clutched between my teeth.

So even when French President Sarkozy floated his wrong-headed hijab-ban I never thought I'd write about the scarf. It is annoying that so much of the conversation, not to mention the ban itself, is based on perpetuating Islamophobic and Orientalist stereotypes (even among people who should know better) but again I thought, "Not my fight."

And then Marwa Sherbini was murdered.

Sherbini was an Egyptian woman living in Germany who sued a white German man for calling her a "terrorist" last year because she wore a headscarf. Last week the man, identified as "Axel W." attacked Sherbini, who was 3 months pregnant, and stabbed her 18 times, killing her in front of her 3 year-old son and husband, who tried in vain to protect her. Incredibly, the attack took place in a German courtroom, where Axel W., Sherbini and both of their families were gathered as W. appealed the
750 euro ($1,050) fine that resulted from Sherbini's suit. In the chaos that ensued a security guard shot at Sherbini's husband when he tried to stop W from killing her because he assumed her husband was her attacker. Her brother Tarek told an Egyptian television station, "The guards thought that as long as he wasn't blond, he must be the attacker so they shot him." According to the BBC News, "German prosecutors have said the 28-year-old attacker... was driven by a deep hatred of foreigners and Muslims."

Yeah, no kidding.

So I find myself w
riting about the scarf after all. About how little it matters to me how Muslim women dress and how crazy I think it is for people who have no connection to the practice of covering to obsess over it. About how funny it is that participants in a culture in which women of means willingly and enthusiastically paralyze their facial muscles criticize the hijab/niqaab with a straight face (pun intended). And further, how such a (to me) bizarre practice as voluntary facial paralysis can be presented as "empowering" with no irony whatsoever. Who needs the Taliban?

It is easy to consider each little racist and ethnocentric test balloon floated by European governments in the last few years, like the ridiculous Italian measures to "safeguard" Italian culture by outlawing "foreign" foods or Sarkozy's misguided efforts at outlawing the veil in France, as mere blips, but Sherbini's murder reminds us of the old Orientalist and Islamophobic hatreds simmering just beneath the surface of European society.

Marwa Sherbini took advantage of the court system of her new country to defend her rights under its democratic system. These are the values and behaviors that Europeans say they want in their Arab and Muslim minorities. And she was murdered for it.

Here is a link to the BBC News article about Sherbini's murder. And here is a link to the Huffington Post's coverage of the aftermath of Sherbini's murder in Egypt (fair warning: the comment thread on the Huff article is nauseating. It takes exactly three comments for someone to mention Danny Pearl AND 9/11...)

Our friends at Muslimah Media Watch have written a great article about Marwa Sherbini's murder. Here is the link to that post, written by Sobia Ali.

Safiya has written a response to the UK Guardian article melodramatically titled "The Burqa is a Cloth Soaked in Blood" on her great blog Outlines. Here is the link to her post, "How Do You Soak Yours?"

This essay has been cross-posted at Racialicous.


  1. I find I have strong feelings about covering. It feels threatening to me in much the same way the people who want to outlaw abortion feel threatening to me. Neither will probably ever affect me directly and yet, I have an irrational fear that they will, somehow, be used to control me, my life.

    But I recognize it is irrational. I have Muslim friends who cover and ones who don't. And, I've watched Muslim women I know who cover criticize those who don't. And my friends are still my friends, whether I can see their hair or their faces. (Even if, occasionally, in my deepest self, I feel the urge to shake them!)

  2. Meg,
    I appreciate your honesty, although I think your metaphor with abortion foes is backward in this case: it is the government of France who are trying to control what women do with their bodies, not observant Muslims. I recognize how strange the practice of covering is from a historically western point of view, which is why I included my own observations about my neighbors in this post (I barely even notice it at this point). As I said, I don't have much invested in this fight, but Sherbini's murder has convinced me that, no matter how silly--and therefore easily dismissed--they are, arguments about food and dress are a thin veneer over a very dangerous situation for Arabs and Muslims in Europe right now.

  3. I'm a Muslim mom of three who doesn't wear the hijab - quite secular in my beliefs, saving religion for a private sphere. That notwithstanding there's little difference between me and the moms in your neighbourhood who go about their daily lives, covered and I respect them. That being said, is this crime really about the headscarf? Or is about a crazy lunatic who killed an innocent woman? Is this crime being isolated as an act that will only take place against Muslim women wearing the hijab and therefore not as "scary"? That's where there is racism. That's where the headscarf issue is being used to remove the humanity of this innocent woman, a woman who happened to be a mother, a wife and oh yeah, a Muslim who wore a scarf.

  4. Shahla,
    I get where you are coming from--and this is a question that comes up around hate crimes in the US quite often. The logic being a special category for, say, murder, which is already illegal, isn't necessary. But I think the understanding of Sherbini's murder as a hate crime is valuable because it illustrates the anti-Muslim and Arab hatred bubbling under the surface of so many European cultures. As far as Axel W is concerned there is no mystery about his motives, he was clear that Islamophobia was his motivation.

  5. This is great, Joseph. You provide excellent commentary on this atrocious murder and you make a great point on the topic of covering in Muslim society, i.e. it can be addressed by the women it impacts directly.

    This is definitely a hate crime and a case of Islamphobia since Sherbini would never have been in that court if her attacker didn't call her a "terrorist." As you pointed out, she is killed for simply standing up for her rights.

    Meg - It's important for all of us to overcome our irrational fears because it is fear that generates prejudice, especially towards things that we have a limited knowledge about. It is important to make efforts to engage in dialogue with your Muslim friends rather than perceiving their dress as something "threatening." You may see other Muslims (who aren't your friends) wearing the same kind of clothing, but being "threatened" by their choice of dress merely attaches unwanted stereotypes on them ("oppressed," "uncivilized," "uneducated," etc.) and subsequently degrades them into something less than fellow human beings.

    I think it would be best if you told your Muslim friends how you feel rather than expressing on a blog comment that you have an "urget to shake them." I am a Muslim, and it would really bother me if my friends found my lifestyle "threatening" to them and they didn't tell me. I would feel like I'm being treated differently simply because of what I believe. Friends deserve to be treated like friends.

  6. Jehanzeb,
    I really appreciated Meg's honesty-- I don't read her remarks as stereotypic, but rather an honest appraisal of her own irrational fears. I'm glad she wrote about her discomfort, it raises the level of this conversation. I understand why it might be hard for you to read, but I think you are assuming too much about the way Meg is with her friends, based on this post.

  7. Great post. This issue is currently being talked about over at American Bedu's blog. You can find it with google. She is an American married to a Saudi who lives in Riyadh.

    Anyway, I remember being back in Germany a few years ago. I was born in Germany and the town I was in was Berlin. I remember seeing graffifi on the walls in some of the suburbs of Germany and thinking that things were going to get out of control pretty quick here.

    This is just the tip of the iceberg. This guy wasnt just a murderous lunatic, it was a man with a long standing hatred of immigrants, especially Muslims.

    The investigation is still going on, but the feeling in the Muslim community there is that not enough was done to protect her, and when the attack happened the lady's Muslim husband was actually shot by the police because they worked on the assumption that a Muslim lady being must have been the husband.

    If that plays out to be true that adds a whole new aspect to the issue, both public, private and institutional racism. Germany has a long history of it.....only recently could even third generation Muslim immigrants hope to get a German passport.

  8. Abu Sinan,
    I was hoping you'd comment because I remembered you were German and I was thinking of you when I read about this case. I have traveled in Europe to speak and perform a bunch over the last few years and I agree... things are getting worse. I haven't been to Germany but I've seen first hand the tension and open hostility toward Arabs and Muslims on the streets in Northern Europe.

  9. really liked the post! I am a muslim Egyptian girl who wears the headscarf; I see the case of the Murder of Marwa Al Sherbini not only a hate crime but an indicator of how bad is the situation! while traveling around especially in airports simply being a girl with a head scarf on does not only attract attention but you might be treated with in such an inhumane way under the title of Security issues! In addition to the fear of people, I recall there was a baby girl looking my way so I smiled at her -which is a very ordinary gesture by any human towards a baby- her mom saw my smile n she freaked out and she looked at me in such a horrific way that made me wonder if I were not veiled, would that be her reaction!
    No matter who you are! being veiled you will be dealt with as an oppressed young woman, who will be forced to marry blindly and most probably abused! Even if you are a politcal Scince student at one of the top universities of the world, living independantly and not being forced to marry anyone n has only seen abuse in hollywood movies n the news! Maybe Sherbini's death will draw more attention towards the Heijab, understanding it more and accepting the difference and the idea of heijab being the way we like to represent our religion and culture !
    RIP Mawara

  10. A commenter named Melantrys contacted me off-site (which I do NOT recommend) because Blogger has a problem with Open IDs. I liked the comment because it comes from an actual German so I am publishing it here:

    *smiles brightly*

    Hi there,

    I tried to comment on VS. THE POMEGRANATE, but discovered that Blogger STILL hasn't fixed their issue with Open ID, and I do not wish to comment as "MyID.config.php" with that "name" linking into the place on my server where Open ID is situated...

    I just spent some time composing my rant, so you'll have to endure it in some way. :P
    Post it on your blog, think "Those crazy Germans, using my art site to comment on my blog" and ignore it, whatever.

    Here goes:

    Well, I did once write a post about the hijab to express my mixed feelings about it.

    I strongly object to it in cases where the wearing of it gets forced upon the women (which occasionally unfortunately does happen).
    As for the majority of women wearing the hijab..... last time I checked we still had religious freedom in Germany.

    That said, what I am reading about this case more and more sickens me.

    First it didn't really get mentioned, except on Muslim blogs maybe.
    Then it hit the media, but by that time it had "thankfully" been established that the murderer is a Russian immigrant of ancient German descent. Seeeee, it's not a problem of Islamophobia in German society, it's something else entirely! One ethnic minority attacking another one. And we all know how backwards those Russians are in condemning Islamophoboa over there (Do we, now?).
    Oh, he said he voted for a German nazi party, although the average fascist ethnic German from Russia seems to prefer Russian nazi groups? Let's just not mention that.

    And some people so totally miss the point...
    Yes, she was wearing the hijab. Which, unfortunately, surely made it a lot easier for her murderer to identify her as "the enemy" at that first confrontation in the playground.
    Finding comments like "The main problem is that Muslim women have to veil themselves because Muslim men are so horny that otherwise they'd rub on their own sisters. Here a leather muzzle around his best piece would work wonders. Then Marwa could walk around without a barn owl (lit. veil owl) outfit and would still be alive." on a German blog makes me seriously doubt the sanity of my fellow Germans though.
    That comment implies that it's her fault she got killed. Or possibly her husband's. Or Egypt's. Or Islam's.
    Well, excuse me, but the only fault lies with the murderer and him being a &*%&**$%*$% fascist.