Late Comment on Hijaab

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I just came from a community cinema event in Philadelphia for an independent film called “Arusi Persian Wedding” directed by Marjan Tehrani. It’s a really beautiful film that follows an Iranian-American and his American wife who travel to Iran and have a traditional Persian wedding. I was not only in awe of how incredibly beautiful Iran is, but also at how I found myself relating to it. The Iranian-American expresses his pride for his Iranian roots, but also feels a distance because of his inability to fully understand the culture and language. It reminded me about how I sometimes struggle with finding my ethnic identity, no matter how much I’m proud of it.

After the screening, there was a guest panel that led an interesting discussion about the film and then took questions from the audience. My friend got a chance to chime in with a great question, while I decided to sit back and listen. I didn’t feel like I had much to contribute to the conversation since the event seemed to aim at breaking stereotypes about Iran, its people, and its culture. Although one of the panelists spoke very highly of her experience as a White woman in Iran, she admitted that “initially, I was frightened, as a feminist, when I learned I had to wear the veil…”

When I got home tonight, her words replayed in my mind over and over again. I really should have gotten up and said something, even though I just wanted to make a small comment. I think I’ll e-mail her after I write this, but what I wanted to point out is that it’s very important for us to not make an association between oppression and the hijaab, or veil. Her comment seemed to implicate that someone who wears the hijaab could not also be a feminist (I would have asked her to correct me if I was wrong). I’m sure this is not what she meant, but I believe it would have been important for one of the panelists to mention that forcing someone to dress a certain way is very different from someone choosing to dress a certain way. There are plenty of Muslim women in other parts of the world, especially in the West, who wear hijaab by choice; therefore it would be very inaccurate to say that Muslim women who wear hijaab cannot be feminists. I’m glad one of the Iranian panelists said that Iranian women still drive, work, and go to school, contrary to the stereotypes and misconceptions that they’re “so oppressed.”

The other thing I should have commented on was on their usage of the word “Islam” whenever discussing the “Islamic Revolution” in 1979 and the current “Islamic Laws.” The Qur’an clearly states that religion cannot be imposed on people. Doesn’t Allah teach us to use our logic and reasoning? What is so logical about forcing someone to believe a certain way? The true spiritual essence and beauty gets lost when someone is being forced to practice a religion. Spirituality and Faith is personal; it must be felt within. Reciting the Shahada (Islamic declaration of Faith) is simple, while believing in it is something deeper and entirely different altogether.

Later, someone asked a question about whether or not these were the dress codes for Muslim women in all Islamic countries, and one of two Iranian panelists said, “I’m not sure, but I would say ‘yes,’ they are universal.” A friend and I spoke about this later after the discussion and both agreed that we felt a strong anti-Islam vibe from her. I was glad that the other Iranian panelist jumped in and explained that these are not universal dress codes in Islamic countries since most Muslim countries don’t force women to wear hijaab or the burqah.

Anyway, my main point is that the hijaab should not be associated with oppression, and Muslim women who wear it shouldn’t be so quickly judged. Just because some feminists are not familiar with certain manners of dress doesn’t mean that it’s not compatible with feminism. I think it’s important for feminists to understand that feminist thought is very diverse rather than being limited to one group of people, one culture, and one skin color.

Peace

~Broken Mystic~

(Photo credit: davidChief via creative commons)

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American Politics: No Place for Headscarves

This is a little overdue, but I need to write about it anyway. Last Wednesday in Detroit (June 18th), during Barack Obama’s Presidential Campaign, two Muslim women wearing traditional headscarves (commonly known as “hijaab”) were refused to sit directly behind Obama’s podium. The Muslim women, Hebba Aref and Shimaa Abdelfadeel, were accompanied by their friend Ali Koussan, Aref’s brother Sharif, and a young lawyer, Brandon Edward Miller. The three men were asked by a volunteer for the Obama Campaign if they wanted to sit behind Obama; they replied in the affirmative but mentioned they were with friends. Upon seeing the Muslim women, the volunteer explained to the group of Muslim attendees that “because of the political climate and what’s going on in the world and what’s going on with Muslim Americans it’s not good for her to be seen on TV or associated with Obama.”

I wonder if the volunteer really knew what is “going on with Muslim Americans.” Hate crimes and discriminatory actions towards individuals of Muslim, Middle-Eastern, and South Asian descent have escalated on an annual basis. Along with the Human Rights Watch, the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) observed that prior to 9/11, forty-eight hate crimes towards Muslim-Americas were reported in the United States, but in the days following the terrorist attack, that figure skyrocketed dramatically to 481. Reported incidents of discrimination, harassment, and violence against Muslims amounted to 602 in 2002, 1,019 in 2004, 1,522 in 2004, 1,972 in 2005, and 2,467 in 2006 (CAIR). The context of these hate crimes and incidents consist of murders — including non-Muslim individuals with a South Asian or Middle-Eastern background — physical and verbal assaults, and numerous cases of vandalism directed towards Mosques, convenience stores owned by Muslims, and homes. I wonder if this volunteer for the Obama Campaign knew about the Sikh father who was shot to death at a gas station because he was mistaken for being a Muslim. I wonder if this volunteer knew about the countless Muslims who have been killed and brutally beaten just because of their religious affiliation or ethnic background.

Hebba Aref, who is a graduate student of Michigan Law School, expressed her disappointment at the rally. “I don’t want to be called something I’m not, but I felt like… everyone was treating this accusation of being Muslim as though it were some sort of crime or sin,” she told reporters.

As Obama delivered his message on unity among races, Aref described her difficulty in hearing his words. “As he’s saying it, I’m thinking, ‘Well, wait a minute, I was obviously … profiled and discriminated against an hour ago.”

It is frustrating for me, a Muslim American, to hear about these (seemingly) endless incidents of prejudice towards Muslim Americans. If it’s not “good” for a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf to appear on television with Obama, then is it not “good” for the hundreds of Muslims to continue their campaigning for Obama? Aref said: “I was coming to support him, and I felt like I was discriminated against by the very person who was supposed to be bringing this change, who I could really relate to… the message that I thought was delivered to us was that they do not want him associated with Muslims or Muslim supporters.” So where they do the Muslims belong in this campaign? Ah, I know! Let’s put them at the back of the bus!

Seriously, it’s like one of my friends telling me that they don’t want to hang out with me or be associated with me just because I’m wearing a necklace that says “Allah” in Arabic, or because I’m wearing an Islamic T-shirt. It’s even more frustrating how Islamophobia is being used to disrupt Obama’s campaign. As many of you know, Obama has been accused of being a “secret Muslim” just because of his family’s background and his middle name, “Hussain.” It’s really scary and disturbing how there are actually people out there who believe this. “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” showed clips of West Virginia voters calling Obama a “Muslim,” a “non-Christian” and as eloquently put by one woman, “he’s a Hussain, and I’ve had enough of Hussain!” Another woman said, “He is of another race, and I guess I am a little scared of his race, because we have so much conflict with ’em.”

I understand the complexity of this matter, and I am sure it is very difficult for Obama to balance things out without scaring the right-wing extremists or offending Muslim-Americans. On the bright side of things, Senator Obama contacted Ms. Aref and Ms. Abdelfadeel via telephone and offered his apology. In response, the two Muslim women wrote the following letter to the Obama campaign:

At the rally for Senator Obama in Detroit on Monday, June 16, two volunteers denied us seating behind the stage the Senator would soon take. The volunteers informed us that we were not allowed to sit in that area due to the hijab, the headscarf that each of us was wearing.

This incident was unfortunate and extremely disappointing. Senator Obama has called us each to personally convey his deepest apologies and acknowledge that this was inexcusable. We both immensely appreciate the Senator’s phone call and his commitment to remedy this issue. We commend him for displaying qualities befitting an effective President. We acknowledge that this injustice has been taken seriously and that Senator Obama does not tolerate discrimination against Arabs, Muslims or any community. We are assured that he and his staff are committed to upholding the principles of justice for all peoples and bringing about change we can believe in. The infringement on our rights occurred and has been addressed; now we are ready to move forward. We will continue to support Senator Obama in his campaign and wish him the best as the race continues.

Obama follows up with a statement through his Senate office:

I reached out to Ms. Aref and Ms. Abdelfadeel this afternoon. I spoke with Ms. Abdelfadeel, and expressed my deepest apologies for the incident that occurred with volunteers at the event in Detroit. The actions of these volunteers were unacceptable and in no way reflect any policy of my campaign. I take deepest offense to and will continue to fight against discrimination against people of any religious group or background. Our campaign is about bringing people together, and I’m grateful that Ms. Abdelfadeel accepted our apology and I hope Ms. Aref and any who were offended accept my apology as well.

I personally accept the apology by Senator Obama, but at the same time, I think the two Muslim women should be offered to attend another Obama rally and be permitted to sit directly behind him and appear on television, as they were intended to. What do you all think?

I just think that these incidents are very insulting towards the Muslim community and I think it’s really important for American politics to confront this issue openly. I hope this recent story increases more awareness about the stigma Muslim Americans are facing in the post-9/11 era. I was surfing the web and found this blog entry written in response to the incident by Daisy Khan, a Muslim American Woman:

“One day, we may see American Presidents, male and female, wearing turbans, yarmulkes, and hijabs. Our nation’s foundation rests on a legacy of diversity and respect for difference, and Senator Obama’s person, candidacy, and message reflect this very legacy. Perhaps some of his staffers and volunteers need to step back and reflect on exactly why they work for this historic campaign.”

I couldn’t have said it better.

Salaam/Shalom/Shlama/Peace

~ Broken Mystic~