Mon, 14 Mar 2005

Will a Muslim woman ever be more than what she wears?

Mona Eltahawy The Daily Star Asia News Network Dhaka

Shabina Begum, a 16-year-old Muslim schoolgirl who won the right on Wednesday to wear a jilbab to her school in the British town of Luton told the British newspaper The Guardian that she felt like screaming with happiness when she heard the court decision.

I felt like screaming with anger and frustration when I heard about Shabina's case because once again a Muslim woman is in the headlines only because of what she wears. When will this madness end?

Shabina's school did not prevent her from wearing a headscarf. Unlike French schools which have banned the hijab outright, Shabina's school went out of its way to accommodate the needs of students who are nearly 80 percent Muslim, speak 40 different languages and who are from 21 different ethnic groups.

Students could wear the regular uniform or they could wear a shalwar kameez. They could wear a headscarf as long as it conformed to certain criteria. In order to satisfy the needs of the diverse background of its students, the school consulted with pupils, parents, schools and leading Muslim organizations when it was formulating its uniform policy.

And yet this was not enough for Shabina who wore the shalwar kameez from the time she enrolled at the school when she was 12 until September 2002 when she suddenly decided to wear the jilbab, a long loose fitting one-piece item that covers the body from head to ankles.

Her school refused to allow her to attend until she resumed wearing the approved uniform. Shabina took the school to court but her case was rejected by High Court judges last summer. The school had argued that allowing her to wear a jilbab would impact on the rights of other Muslim girl pupils who opposed allowing the jilbab as they felt that it would create a hierarchy of belief at the school.

Her school was right. What has become of our faith that it has turned into a competition over who can cover the most? Who convinces young Muslim women that they must cover more and more, going far beyond what is deemed the modest clothing that Islam requires of men and women?

Shabina switched to a school that allowed her to wear the jilbab and her case went to the Court of Appeal which on Wednesday agreed that her initial school had a right to set a school uniform policy but that it had failed to consider Shabina's rights under the Human Rights Act.

The Guardian reported that Lord Justice Brooke, vice-president of the civil division of the court of appeal, ruled that Shabina's school had: Unlawfully excluded her; unlawfully denied her the right to manifest her religion; unlawfully denied her access to suitable and appropriate education.

Lord Justice Brooke has committed the simplest mistake that a non-Muslim commits -- he accepted at face value the assertion by Shabina and her lawyers that the jilbab, an especially strict interpretation of modest dress, was a requirement for Muslim women. To this day, Muslim scholars issue various interpretations about Muslim dress. After the Sept. 11 attacks, some Muslim scholars in the America even told Muslim women they did not have to wear a headscarf if they felt in danger from anti-Muslim attacks.

Shabina chose to go beyond a uniform that was deemed acceptable for the other Muslims and denied herself the ability to continue attending her school. She claimed that her school's refusal to allow her to attend classes in a jilbab was a result of post-Sept. 11 bigotry. I assert that Lord Justice Brooke's ruling is a classic example of liberal guilt over the ugly Islamophobia that many Muslims have faced since Sept. 11. Instead of standing up to a growing conservatism among some Muslims, many liberals will simply give in rather than appear prejudiced. Sadly, most of the points they give in on have to do with Muslim women.

This is nothing short of the racism of lower expectations -- they expect Muslims to be extreme, they expect Muslim women to be covered. The Guardian newspaper, which I reported for from the Middle East, committed a grave error in reporting Shabina's story. It did not interview a single Muslim woman who could have told them there is more to being a Muslim than a jilbab and that such a jilbab was over and beyond what is deemed modest.

Interestingly, Shabina was represented by Cherie Booth, the wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Some Muslims might see something to celebrate in this and say, "Look, the wife of the British prime minister is defending a Muslim girl's rights." There is no need for celebration.

I wish Cherie Booth had defended a Muslim girl's right to complete her education against a family who was pulling her out of school early to get married, which happens even in Britain. I wish she had defended a Muslim girl against violence at home -- a suffering that is too often ignored by the Muslim community in the West because it would prefer girls and women suffer in silence than bring shame to the community by speaking out.

And what does Shabina think she has achieved? She told The Guardian that the Court of Appeal verdict would "give hope and strength to other Muslim women" and that it was a victory for all Muslims "who wish to preserve their identity and values despite prejudice and bigotry."

My response to Shabina is thanks but no thanks. I wore the hijab for nine years from the age of 16 to 25 and do not feel my identity lies in a piece of cloth. I gain my hope and strength by sharing the excitement of ambitious young Muslim women like my sister Noora who loves her university studies. Noora wears the hijab but she knows that it is what is in her head, not what is on it that is more important.

The writer is a New York-based columnist for the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.