Sunday, October 29, 2006

Walid comments on double-standard of freedom of expression relating to covering

Wearing of niqab, hijab causes furor
By: Aatif Ali Bokhari

DETROIT - For Muslim women who wear the hijab and niqab (headscarves and face veils), it's been a rough last three weeks, both here and abroad.

Europe's leading Muslim thinker, Tariq Ramadan, said that the growing debate over the headscarves is a sign of polarization between the Western and Islamic world.

"The atmosphere has deteriorated in the last year or so. It's not only a British reality, but European and American," said the Oxford Professor.

It all started when British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw encouraged Muslim women to stop wearing face veils, saying that the practice made "better, positive relations between two communities more difficult," adding it was "such a visible statement of separation and difference."

The London-based newspaper "The Guardian" said that Straw, "a likely candidate for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party, and whose Blackburn constituency has a large Muslim population, said that he had chosen his words carefully.

"'We are able to relate to people we don't know by reading their faces, and if you can't see their faces that provides some separation', he told a local radio station. 'Those people who do wear the veil should think about the implications for community relations'."

Although Straw said that he never demanded veiled women visiting his office remove their religious attire, his remarks raised criticism from among both Muslims and non-Muslims that politicians should keep their noses out of other people's religious choices.

"This is going to do great damage to the Muslim community, again we are being singled out by this government as the problem. Women have the right to wear the veil and this is just another example of blatant Muslim-bashing by this government," said Reefar Bravu, chair of the Muslim Council for Britain's social and family affairs committee.

British Secretary of the Communities Ruth Kelly defended the wearing of the veil as a "personal choice," while Lord Adam Patel, Britain's first Asian peer, said, "I don't agree with Jack that he should ask women to take off their veil."

At the same time, Muslim secularists in England applauded Straw for his comments and spoke out against the practice of veiling. Such a stance is nothing new but it seems to have hit a crescendo of late.

"Some Muslim women say that it is their choice to wear it; I don't agree.

Why would any woman living in a tolerant country freely choose to wear such a restrictive garment?" asked Saira Khan in the "London Times."

Said Khan, "What these women are really saying is that they adopt the veil because they believe that they should have less freedom than men, and that if they did not wear the veil men would not be accountable for their uncontrollable urges - so women must cover-up so as not to tempt men."

"It is an extreme practice. It is never right for a woman to hide behind a veil and shut herself off from people in the community. But it is particularly wrong in Britain, where it is alien to the mainstream culture for someone to walk around wearing a mask."

While the debate has continued to grow, Tunisia, a North African Muslim country, took the unprecedented step of not only outlawing the niqab but the hijab as well.

Laws against wearing the hijab in schools and government buildings were passed in Tunisia in 1981 but they weren't enforced until recently. Now, headscarf-clad women are being stopped on the street by the authorities and threatened with arrest if they don't sign a pledge to desist.

Although for the most part, many in the Muslim community criticized Straw's remarks, they have been far more reluctant to speak out against what is happening in Tunisia.

Critics have argued that what the Tunisian government is doing is unconstitutional and un-Islamic. But the sort of protests that marked the Danish cartoon controversy have been largely non-existent.

"I think that Muslims are more shy about criticizing Muslim governments than non-Muslim governments," said Dawud Walid, Executive Director the Michigan Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-Michigan).

Walid noted that CAIR put out an action alert for people to request the Tunisian and American embassies to call on the Tunisian government to uphold international standards of respect for religious expression.

"It's ironic that secularists would criticize Muslim women for wearing hijab yet would argue that women deserve the freedom to wear revealing clothing in the workplace. It's fallacious reasoning for a person to applaud someone's right to wear revealing clothing, yet discriminate against another woman who is exercising the freedom to cover her entire body.

"The reluctance by Muslims to criticize policies that are unjust, whether or not they are perpetrated by non-Muslims, is contradictory to the Qur'an. It's something that the religious leaders in the community should teach about if this problem is to be corrected.

"To a certain degree, the reluctance is also a kind of apathy. Many are of the mindset, 'even if I complain, it can't make a difference'. It's sad that many in our community have this self-defeating mindset," said Walid.

Walid added that discrimination against women wearing the hijab and niqab is present here in the U.S.

In Hamtramck last week, a niqab-clad woman who had to testify in court was asked by the judge to take off her religious garb. If she didn't comply, the case would be dropped. She chose to keep her niqab; the case was thrown out.

Said Walid, "It's ludicrous for her case to be thrown out just because she refused to uncover, especially because she was not being charged with any crime, the case was civil.

"If a woman is raped, she is allowed to speak from behind a screen and her voice is altered. If that is admissible, why can't a female's testimony in court be allowed when she's wearing niqab?"

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