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Chechen women say police paintball them for not covering hair

chechenWomen in Russia’s volatile Muslim Chechnya region say that police have targeted them with paintball pellets for not wearing headscarves, outraging rights activists.  The attacks highlight tension over efforts by Chechnya’s firebrand Moscow-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, to enforce Muslim-inspired rules that in some cases violate Russia’s constitution. (Photo: Chechen women voting near Grozny, November 27, 2005/Eduard Kornienko)

“A car carrying men in military uniform slowed down to approach us, one started filming on his mobile phone, and when they sped away we noticed paint all over our clothes,” a woman in the Chechen capital Grozny said on Friday  on condition of anonymity.

Several witnesses told Reuters that men in camouflage, which is worn by many Chechen police and security officers, had fired paintball guns at women from cars with tinted windows in multiple incidents this month. Critics say that in return for keeping relative calm in Chechnya, site of two separatist wars with Moscow since the mid-1990s, the Kremlin allows Kadyrov to run it like a personal fiefdom and lets him impose his vision of Islam.

See the full story here.

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Film champions liberalism in conservative Egypt

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The great Giza pyramids and the Sphinx on March 27, 2010/Amr Abdallah Dals

A new film exploring issues of sexual freedom, polygamy and individuality has drawn media praise in Egypt, but its liberal message remains on the margins in the country’s conservative society. The appearance of Rasayel El Bahr, or Messages from the Sea, in Egyptian theatres is the latest indication of an easing of censorship rules, which film critics say reflects government efforts to counter Islamism.

The film’s themes are striking in a country where the streets are dominated by the Islamic headscarf and where, analysts say, the state is battling against the rise of stricter versions of Islam emanating from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia.

In director Daoud Abdel Sayed’s story, Yehya, a young doctor who moves to coastal Alexandria and slowly shakes free of social norms, falls in love with Nora, who leads him to believe she is a prostitute. Viewers learn that Nora, as the second wife in a polygamous marriage, just sees herself this way. Polygamy is permitted in Egypt under Islamic sharia law.

Headscarf row re-opens old wounds for Algerians

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Algerian women walk past an election poster of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Batna, 500 km (311 miles) east of Algiers, March 19, 2009/Louafi Larbi

A decision by Algeria’s government that women should pose for passport photographs without their Islamic headscarves has re-opened wounds still raw after nearly two decades of Islamist militant violence.

Algeria’s secular-minded government says that as part of the introduction of new biometric passports, all women should be photographed without the veil, a requirement that has angered the country’s influential religious traditionalists.

Bumps on the road towards a burqa ban in France

burqa-libraryRemember all the talk about France banning the burqa and niqab Muslim veils for women a few months ago? That project is now in the parliamentary inquiry phase, a six-month fact-finding mission expected to wind up late this year and produce a draft bill to outlaw them. That’s the way France handled it in 2003 when it wanted to stop Muslim girls from wearing headscarves to state schools. But the process seems more complex this time around. There’s less passion and more hesitation in the debate. A smooth progression from the inquiry to the ban and to its implementation no longer looks assured. (Photo: Woman in a niqab outside a public library in Ronchin, northern France, 9 Aug 2009/Farid Alouache)

To get a feel for the debate, I dropped by the panel’s latest open hearing late on Tuesday and listened to the arguments being made. Five mayors from suburbs with Muslim minorities were due to speak to the panel, which is led by a Communist deputy named André Gerin who makes no bones about his view that a ban is needed. Mayors like these men play a key role in an issue like this, because they are on the front lines dealing with social change and are taken seriously when they clamour for change. Several are also deputies in the National Assembly – France allows them to occupy multiple offices – so they can easily lobby at the national level for something they want.

Sitting alone at the press table in the committee room, I soon saw why the drive towards a ban seems to be hitting some bumps. The mayors don’t know what they want. All think something has to be done, but most are worried that an outright ban wouldn’t work. Here’s my news story on the session.

Belgian court to rule on headscarf ban in Flemish schools

belgian-scarf (Photo: Muslim women with Belgian flag protest against headscarf bans, 4 Feb 2004/Yves Herman)

A Belgian court is due to rule next week on a ban on the Muslim headscarf at two schools in Dutch-speaking Flanders, an issue that has led to a death threat for one school principal and graffiti sprayed on walls. The schools in Antwerp and nearby Hoboken introduced the ban at the start of the school year last week, arguing that Muslim girls were being pressured to wear headscarves by their families and peers.

Angry pupils have staged protests outside the school and one girl filed a complaint with the Belgian Council of State to contest the ban. The court will rule on the matter next week and one of its chief advocates has already advised it to overturn the ban. The advocate’s advice is followed in 90 percent of cases.

“The advocate said that such a ban is not lawful, and that only the umbrella organisation of state schools can decide on whether or not to introduce such a measure,” a court spokesman said.

Swiss Council of Religions united against proposed minaret ban

minaret (Photo: Minaret of Zurich’s Mahmud Mosque, 23 May 2007/Christian Hartmann)

The Swiss Council of Religions, which is composed of leaders from the country’s Christian, Jewish and Islamic organisations, has issued a statement rejecting a proposed ban on minarets. A group of right-wing anti-immigrant politicians has gathered more than 100,000 signatures to support the so-called Minaret Initiative, saying the minarets threaten law and order. The vote is due on November 29.

The Swiss federal government has warned that the referendum vote was organised legally but a ban would violate international human rights and the country’s constitution. “Such a ban would endanger peace between religions and would not help to prevent the spread of fundamentalist Islamic beliefs,” its Department of Justice and Police said in late August.

The Council statement, the first it has made on a political issue since it was formed in 2006 to foster interfaith dialogue, denounces the bid as an affront to the tradition of diversity in the multilingual Alpine country. Here are some excerpts from the statement:

GUESTVIEW: Out of our hair and away from our pants!

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. Sarah Sayeed is a Program Associate at the Interfaith Center of New York and a board member of Women In Islam, Inc.burkiniBy Sarah SayeedAs an American Muslim woman who adheres to religious guidelines on modest dress, I find it ironic that such remarkably different nations as Sudan and France seem similarly preoccupied with legislating Muslim women’s dress.   The Sudanese government recently arrested and whipped women, including Christian women, for wearing trousers.  The French banned a woman wearing a head-to-toe Muslim bathing suit (a “burkini”) from entering a town pool.
(Photo: Australian lifeguard Mecca Laalaa in her burkini, 13 Jan 2007/Tim Wimborne)

Even if we were to give credence to an argument that pants are immodest for women, there is no injunction in the Quran or any example from Prophet Muhammad which demands corporeal punishment for “inappropriate” dress. Such a harsh practice completely contradicts the justice and compassion that Islam mandates.Likewise, the French ban on burkinis is outrageous.  Wearing the burkini has given me the freedom to enjoy water sports with my son; it has not limited me, but rather enhanced the quality of my life.  But now, I worry that other public pools will follow suit.  In recent years, France banned religious symbols in public schools, including the headscarf, and denied citizenship to a Muslim woman who wears a face veil.  Will this disturbing trend spread across other democratic nations?France and Sudan are miles apart geographically, politically, and culturally.   Yet both countries have imposed on the personal freedom of Muslim women to dress as they choose, and ultimately, to participate in the public sphere.  Sudan’s choice to impose corporeal punishment is far more egregious, relative to banning a woman from entering a pool.  For the average person, Sudan’s actions seem barbaric, but in a way, unsurprising because they conform to a prevailing stereotype about Islamic law as harsh and oppressive to women.But because French laws are enacted in a context which purports more openness, plurality and freedom, they could be more harmful to the cause of global freedom and democracy.  France perceives itself as a free country that allows its citizens to practice the religion of their choice.  France, like other Western European countries or the United States, would want Muslim nations to “look up to it,” to learn from its example how to separate religion and state.  However, the French ban on head covers, face covers, and now on pool attire suggests that religious freedom is bounded, even within a democratic context.volleyballIt is true that the ban on headscarves emerged out of a debate among French Muslims.  Specifically, one group of Muslims felt that their freedom of choice and conscience were imposed upon when other Muslims insulted and physically harassed girls who were not wearing a scarf.  The former turned to the government for assistance.  Out of its sense of responsibility to maintain public order, the government banned all religious symbols in public schools.  But preserving the freedom of conscience of one party need not come at the expense of freedom of religious practice of another.  There are other methods of resolving such conflicts, including prosecuting harassment and attacks as hate crimes, imposing strict penalties on perpetrators, and even community mediation.
(Photo: Palestinian girls play beach volleyball at Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, 20 \june 2009/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

French authorities also voiced a concern that loose fitting swim gear that “can be worn in public may carry molecules and viruses that can be transmitted to other bathers.”  Even though most Muslim women are unlikely to wear the burkini anywhere else, surely a shower before entering the water and the chlorine of a public pool can be counted upon to take care of these dangerous “molecules and viruses!”  A deeper mistrust of Muslims emerges in Mayor Kelyor’s statement that to permit the burkini is to “go back in civilization.”  Muslim women’s practice of modesty poses a threat to French notions of progress just as Sudanese Muslim women’s choice to wear pants was also deemed threatening.Ultimately, authorities in Sudan and France conveyed a parallel message.  To democracy’s nay-sayers in the Muslim world, France communicated that those who practice Islam will be marginalized.  To Islam’s nay-sayers Sudan confirmed the interpretation that Islamic law is an oppressive and restrictive.  Both have infringed upon the rights of minority groups within their respective contexts.Governments and political movements worldwide, from Turkey to Afghanistan, from France to the U.K, from Sudan to Saudi Arabia, all are inappropriately focused on controlling Muslim women’s dress. It is surprising that even within nations that uphold individual freedom, democracy and the separation of religion and state, governments seem to be anxious about Muslim women’s attire. Would governments ever legislate that men who wear beards may not become citizens and those who wear fitted pants should be whipped?  I say to these governments: get out of our hair, and stay away from our pants! Instead, what government must do is to protect the freedom of Muslim women to choose our dress.  Protecting choice guarantees human dignity and maintains fairness.  Ultimately, the preservation of democracy as well as the practice of Islam depends on it.———————The burkini (aka “burqini”), which first appeared in Australia, has also been banned in at least one Dutch swimming pool.Following is a Reuters video report on the recent “burkini ban” in France –

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Notes on France’s ban-the-burqa debate

burqa-eiffelThe French love a rousing political debate, all the more so if it leads to a parliamentary inquiry and is topped off with a new law. Paris set the stage this week for just such a debate on whether Muslim women should be allowed to cover their faces in public in burqas or niqabs. By deciding this week to launch a six-month inquiry into the issue, parliament has ensured it will stay in the headlines until year’s end as 32 politicians from the left and right hold weekly hearings to consider banning these veils. (Photo: Woman in a niqab walks near Eiffel Tower in Paris, 24 June 2009/Gonzalo Fuentes)

A few politicians have been proposing a ban on full facial veils ever since France outlawed headscarves from its state schools in 2004. The issue came up recently when 58 politicians signed a petition for an inquiry into whether burqa wearing should be outlawed in France. But it finally took off on June 22 when President Nicolas Sarkozy declared these veils “unwelcome in France” as a symbol of the subjugation of women and backed the call for an inquiry.

Few women in France actually wear these veils, either the Afghan-style burqa covering the face completely or the Arabian niqab with space open for the woman’s eyes. It is perhaps telling that the French say burqa for both of them, even though the full veils occasionally spotted in minority neighbourhoods outside Paris or Lyon are niqabs. Pictures of burqas in French media are usually from Afghanistan. Anyway, the politicians who petitioned for the commission say the numbers of fully veiled women are rising and that seems to be true. But the evidence is always anecdotal and there are no statistics to support this argument.

After scarves in schools, France mulls ban on burqas and niqabs

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Pakistani Islamist women activists in Lahore, 5 Feb 2009/Mohsin Raza

French politicians seem ready once again to make a political issue out of Muslim women’s clothes. A group of 58 legislators has called for a parliamentary enquiry into what they said was a growing number of women wearing “the burqa and the niqab on the national territory. Their initiative comes five years after France banned the Muslim headscarf from French state schools. President Nicolas Sarkozy hasn’t tipped his hand yet, but his government’s spokesman, Luc Chatel, said on Friday that Paris could opt for a law “if, after this enquiry, we see that burqa wearing was forced, which is to say it was contrary to our republican principles.”

“There are people in this country who are walking around in portable prisons,” said André Gerin, a Communist legislator who was behind the initiative. More than 40 legislators from Sarkozy’s ruling centre-right party were also signatories. “We have to be able to open a loyal and frank dialogue with all Muslims about the question of the place of Islam in this country … taking into account the slide towards fundamentalism (of some Muslims),” Gerin told France Info radio.

The politicians’ appeal argued that burqas and niqabs violated the principle of gender equality: “If the Islamic headscarf amounted to a distinctive sign of belonging to a religion, here we have the extreme stage of this practice. It is no longer just an ostentatious show of religion, but an attack on women’s freedom and the affirmation of femininity. Clothed in a burqa or niqab, she is in a situation of reclusion, exclusion and inadmissible humiliation. Her very existence is negated.”

Turkish language fest shows Muslim preacher’s global reach

gulenThe 700 children who have come to Turkey for the Turkish Language Olympics — an annual event described in my feature “Turkish language fest shows preacher’s global reach” — will know little if anything about the controversy here over the powerful socio-religious community behind their schools. (Photo:School girls sing at Turkish Language Olympics in Istanbul, 3 June 2009/Halit Omer Camci)

Getting ready to perform in a huge auditorium in Istanbul more often used for international conferences, the 30-odd signing competition entrants appear giggly and excited, fussing over their elaborate folk costumes. Most are visiting for the first time and have been completely charmed by Turkey – just as Turkey has been charmed by them.

The children attend schools run by individuals or associations inspired by the teachings of Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen. He is revered by many Turks as a tolerant, moderating force in Islam, but suspected by some secularist Turks of harbouring a covert political agenda. Gülen groups are active in publishing, inter-faith dialogue, charity and above all education.