Women in Islam: An Inside Islam recap

Farah Pandith, a former radio guest on Inside Islam. Photo: www.state.gov

One of the most popular topics here on Inside Islam has been gender, primarily focusing on women. That’s no coincidence, given that Islam’s attitude towards women is generally portrayed in Western media as retrograde and repressive.

And there’s certainly plenty to criticize. Over our four years, we have highlighted cases like that of Amina Filali, a Moroccan girl who committed suicide after being forced to marry her rapist, and Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman sentenced to be stoned for adultery. We have also addressed issues such as domestic abuse and how key texts have been interpreted to discriminate against women, to ban women drivers, and to justify practices like child marriage.

But while our goal has never been to whitewash problematic issues, at the same time the standard mainstream rhetoric regarding Muslim women oversimplifies things and only further disempowers them. There has been a general inability to look beyond the veil when discussing Muslim women. Non-Muslim women or men who preach to Muslim women because they choose to cover their heads or accept certain circumstances tend to fall into the trap of portraying all Muslim women as a single entity without agency. They miss the movement within Islam itself to empower women.

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Are faith and fashion compatible?

A piece from Rabia Z.'s collection

One of the most persistent images of Muslim women is the veil, in its many forms. Whether it is hijab, niqab, or burqa, there is an assumption that Muslim women are not concerned with fashion and that they are defined by black clothing and an obsession to cover up. However, designers like Rabia Z. and the debut of Ala Dergi, a Turkish magazine dedicated to hijab fashion,  defy this stereotype and demonstrate that faith can be compatible with fashion.

Rabia Z., of Emirati and Afghani origin, designs with the idea that modesty can still be stylish. Her collections feature colorful long flowing garments that are stylish but are mindful of religious tenets. Rabia’s collections have received international acclaim with shows around the world. In the United States, her clothing was featured in Miami Fashion Week in 2010 and most recently at Casa La Femme in New York. Continue reading

Niqab-Clad Woman Runs for French Presidency

Kenza Drider in front of her campaign posters

At the end of September, Kenza Drider, a French citizen of Morroccan descent, announced that she would run in the next presidential election against Nicolas Sarkozy. Drider, a mother of 4 who wears a niqab or face veil, has become a well-known opponent of the French ban on the veil that went into effect in April. She was the only woman to testify before an information commission of lawmakers before the ban was passed. She was also one of the first women to be fined under the new law. This ban affects less than an estimated 2000 women and can result in a 150 euro fine and in some cases citizenship classes. Continue reading

There Is More to Muslim Women than Veiling

A participant with and without hijab

There always seems to be a fascination with how Muslim women cover. Whether they wear a hijab, a niqab, or the full-on burqa, the intrigue around it never seems to be abate. The interest goes beyond why they cover to why some Muslim women do not cover, and more specifically to why a Muslim woman would put on a hijab and then take it off.

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More Bans on the Face Veil

Poster in Italy to ban the niqab and burqa

Poster in Italy to ban the niqab and burqa

The last Inside Islam radio show examined Islamic Feminism. The two guests, Sumbul Ali-Karamali and Areej Zufari, talked about the global movement where Muslim women are going back to the Qur’an to assert their rights. In other words, they are calling for a re-reading of the Qur’an that reflects its true attitude towards the plight of women, where both women and men are addressed by God as human beings. Both Ali-Karamali and Zufari highlighted that what was interesting about this new movement is how inclusive it is and how women’s voices are central to the project. Continue reading

Ban the Burqa in France?

Last July, I wrote about President Nicholas Sarkozy’s comments on the burqa. Since then, a number of steps have been taken towards a partial ban on the burqa that included setting up a panel to discuss the issue as well as a national debate on French identity.

Over the last six months, the panel has been studying the burqa in France and a few weeks ago released its recommendations to prohibit women who wear the burqa from using any public services like schools, hospitals, and public transportation. The panel determined that the burqa is not compatible with the ideals of secularism and French values. Moreover, proponents of a ban assert that the burqa oppresses women and represents a growing faction of radical Muslims.  Opponents of the ban argue that it strips Muslim women of the personal liberties they are guaranteed in France and will in fact lead to further isolating these women. Continue reading

Closure for the “Hijab Martyr”

This past July, in Dresden, Germany, Marwa al-Sherbini, a 32-year-old Egyptian pharmacist was murdered in a courtroom. I wrote about this story right after it happened and received many responses to the event. Many were troubled by the fact that this women was stabbed at least 16 times in full view of witnesses, including her husband and three year old son, and no one was able to save her.

The update to the story is that the murderer, Alexander Wiens, has now been convicted of the crime and sentenced to life imprisonment. In a highly anticipated trial, especially for Egyptians, it seemed like justice was served. While many Egyptians and Muslims worldwide were troubled by the immediate silence of German media after the event, the fact that Wiens received the maximum sentence without the customary possibility for early release after 15 years quelled the frustration.

Although something like this should never have happened, the verdict gives some closure to this highly contentious case and perhaps offers lessons into the dangers of hate.

What is your reaction to the verdict? Will this help relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in Germany and elsewhere? How severe should the consequences be for hate crimes? Please share your comments.

Banning the Face Veil

This past month, Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, shocked many by issuing a ban on students and teachers wearing the niqab, or face veil, in Al-Azhar University or its adjoining schools, specifically in all female settings. Tantawi’s decision to issue this ban stemmed from an interaction that he had with a secondary school student on one of his visits. According to many sources, Tantawi asked the girl why she was wearing the niqab in an all girl classroom and demanded she remove it. He added that niqab is not part of Islam, but is rather a cultural custom. His decree came soon after this interaction that was criticized by many in Egypt. There were then reports from female students who wear the niqab at Cairo University (not affiliated with Al-Azhar) that they were being prevented from entering the dormitories unless they removed their niqab. Continue reading

“Headscarf Martyr” Mourned

Where can someone start with the story that has occupied Egyptian news media outlets for the past few days? It sounds so outrageous and so sad. How can a 32-year-old pregnant woman get murdered in a courtroom in Germany in full view of  witnesses? But it did happen and now Muslim communities around the Middle East and the world are struggling to cope with the news.

Marwa El-Sherbini, who was a few months pregnant, was stabbed in a German courtroom in Dresden 18 times on July 1st, 2009, in front of her 3-year-old son and her husband. The assailant was a man that she had sued for insulting her religion and calling her a terrorist and Islamist as well as for trying to take her scarf off in one incident. Her husband, Elwi Ali Okaz, an academic on scholarship, tried to rescue his wife and was shot by a security guard and stabbed by the attacker and is now in critical condition.

El-Sherbini is now being referred to as the ‘Headscarf Martyr’ because she was killed so violently, defending her right to practice her faith peacefully. On Monday, July 6th, thousands attended her funeral in Alexandria, Egypt, and are wondering why someone so young died because of another’s extreme hatred. More troubling is the relative silence in the media about this story. Isn’t her death important as well if there is a call for tolerance and civility?!?

When I heard about this story on Egyptian television, I knew that I had to write about it. I know that President Obama called for a spirit of tolerance worldwide so that we can begin to move away from this kind of destructive hatred. It’s important to be aware of and counter hatred that leads to violence no matter where it occurs. Now one more person has lost her life for no other reason than her wish to practice her faith.

Did you hear about this story? What is your reaction? What should the world’s reaction be to her murder? Do you think Muslims in the United States and elsewhere face similar struggles? Please share your comments.

France and Veiling


Photo from BNP News

How does a Muslim woman really assert her rights? This seems to be an underlying question in many discussions on Islam worldwide and touches on issues of choice and self-determination. However, questions like this can never be answered in one way because of the diversity of Muslim communities that cannot be defined by one culture, one outlook, one interpretation of faith, or one context. Not only must we address this reality, we must truly engage it and work with the consequences. Although a topic that seems so overly debated, Muslim women’s bodies continue to be a part of different political landscapes. The veil–along with all its numerous manifestations–needs to be critically assessed by women (enough discussions by men) and appropriated in a way to represent what they choose about their faith. Continue reading