Sunday, October 08, 2006

Walid comments about discrimination & wearing the head scarf

US debates accommodation of Muslim women's modesty

October 8, 2006

DEARBORN, Michigan, USA -- For some women, it can be a little creepy to have men watch them exercise at the gym. For Ammerah Saidi, it's a violation of her religious beliefs as a Muslim. So when her local gym started letting men work out on days that had previously been reserved for women only, Saidi complained.

At first, the management at the suburban Detroit Fitness USA balked at concerns that the women could be observed from the small area where men were allowed to exercise. But after Saidi presented a petition from over 200 members - and the story hit the local news - a wall was built so the women could exercise in privacy.

Moves such as this have spurred a debate about the intrusion of religion on public life and public space. Several bloggers proposed a boycott because the gym had "caved" to the demands of "extremists," but even more moderate observers are concerned.

"Private businesses should not be coerced by a minority," said Zudhi Jasser, founder of the Phoenix-based American Islamic Forum for Democracy. Jasser, a practicing Muslim, said that while it is important to protect the right to practice religion he fears the affects of allowing religious beliefs to dominate how people interact in the public sphere. It can lead to ghettoization and isolation among those who impose the beliefs and a backlash among those who feel imposed upon, he said.

Federal laws protect Americans from being discriminated against based upon their religion and Muslim women have long been allowed to wear a hijab in official identification photographs, a freedom that Jasser welcomes.

Local governments with large Muslim populations have also begun to alter the rules to accommodate modesty restrictions. The Dearborn, Michigan school district instituted same-sex only swim classes in 1992 and a Michigan county changed its public swimming pool swimwear rules earlier this month to accommodate Muslim women who want to cover themselves fully.

The problem is when practices become exclusionary, Jasser said, such as when private Muslim schools ask that men be banned from watching when girls play sports games against other schools.

"If you tell fathers they can't come to see their daughters at basketball games it's going to in the end create embitterment," he said, noting that "these demands are not representative of the majority of Muslims."

In a country where the president asks the country to pray and where court battles are fought over public school prayer and the right to post the Ten Commandments in government buildings, it can seem odd to focus on the infrequent demands of the small but growing Muslim community.

Saidi bristled at the controversy over her request for a wall at her gym and said it was simply a matter of asking a company to adhere to its promise of gender-specific workout facilities.

She blames the media for creating a false image of Islam as an extremist faith followed by militants and terrorists that has led to a general hatred and mistrust. "This is also why I understood why my asking for a partition in the gym was met with such distrust and opposition in the US - because my reasons for wanting it were religiously justified," she said. "Too bad I chose Islam as the
religion to justify my reasons."

Rising levels of discrimination following the terrorist attacks of September 11 led a number of Muslim women to stop wearing their headscarves in public for fear of attracting unwanted attention, said Dawud Walid, director of the Michigan branch of the Council on American Islamic Relations.

But it has also created a new kind of backlash as previously assimilated Muslims fought to protect their rights and to examine their roots. "Young adults attached themselves more to their Muslim identity than their parents, so while the older women were taking off their head scarves, the younger women started to don them partly out of rebellion but also many people began to reexamine their religion,"
Walid said.(MORE)

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