Archive for October, 2011

Is the Face Veil Really a Threat to Western Culture?

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Published on Huffington Post (UK) here

Anti Muslim sentiments are contagious – now Holland has joined the widespread campaign in Europe tocriminalise the face veil. The veil is already banned inFrance and Belgium and on Friday, the Dutch government agreed to propose legislation that will make it illegal to wear clothes that cover the face in public places. Anyone flouting the ban in public buildings, educational institutions, hospitals and public transport, will be issued with a fine of 380 euros.

The government says they want to “protect the character and customs of public life in the Netherlands.” However, the truth is that they are pandering to the anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders because they need his party’s support. Wilders leads the far-right Freedom Party (PVV), which won 24 of the 150 seats in the 2010 Dutch elections, making it the third biggest party in parliament. When the Liberal WD party and the Christian Democrat party formed a minority coalition last year, they struck a deal with Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party – despite not being a part of the governing coalition, they pledged to back austerity measures in exchange for a ban on the face veil.

I wonder how curbing this minor phenomenon of veiling is going to help the country’s economy? An opportunity to influence decisions that would have improved the lives of his voters has been wasted by Wilders. But I guess that should not be surprising, as he doesn’t have any credible policies. He only has anti-Muslim policies – he wants to ban the Quran, veil, new mosques and new migrants from Muslim countries. He promotes anything but freedom contrary to the name he has given to his party. Many Governments in Europe will not mind this distraction away from an economic crisis that they (and the bankers) are responsible for. Instead of allowing the far right to influence policy, those in power should be removing the conditions in which such political parties thrive. Providing a platform to an opportunist such as Wilders, who has built his profile on promoting fear and hate, is likely to damage the reputation of the Netherlands.

Are Muslim women’s clothing really a threat to the Western way of life? I cannot see how a few thousand veiled women in Europe, who are apparently not engaging with the majority anyway, going to bring down Western culture! The veil has become such an emotive issue, but how many calling for a ban, have actually come across women wearing it? Statistics quoted are based on guesswork and exaggeration. For example, the exact number of women veiling in the Netherlands is unknown – it is believed there are only a few dozen from the 900 000 Muslims. Belgium estimates that only a few hundred adopt it from a Muslim population of 630 000. In France, the Interior Ministry has been quoted as saying that 1900 women wear the veil (from a population of 5 million Muslims). However, the influential newspaper, Le Monde, revealed they had seen government reports showing the actual figure to be 367.

Despite the disproportionate level of attention given to Muslim women’s attire by politicians, media and public – most appear to be misinformed about the topic. Reasons cited for a veil ban vary and are not coherent. Some say covering the face is a threat to security but veiled women are showing their faces for identification when necessary. Another common argument is that it’s a barrier to integration. I accept the veil impedes communication and integration but how is preventing a few thousand women in Europe from covering their face helping the majority of Muslims integrate? If concerns were genuine, then politicians would be attempting to tackle the real barriers to integration such as high unemployment rates and the multiple forms of discrimination experienced by the Muslims.

And there are those who want to save the oppressed Muslim women who are forced to cover. Such women do exist but the majority are wearing the veil out of choice and their reasons vary widely. Some feel it is a religious obligation while others admit it isn’t but want to take an extra step to feel closer to God. There are those who want to make a political statement or do it for reasons of fashion or culture or are simply going through a fad. Many have told me they feel liberated in the veil. I can’t see how the veil is liberating, but that does not matter. It does not matter that some people find it intimidating and frightening because it’s unfamiliar as my nine year old daughter described in her blog – none are sufficient reasons to justify legislation banning it.

Personally I am not keen on the veil as it overwhelmingly reinforces every conceivable Western prejudice about Muslims and Islam. I would even urge veiled Muslim women to consider the impact their choice is having on Muslim communities living in the West. However, from a gender perspective, I will vociferously continue to speak out on the right of women to make autonomous choices about their bodies whatever that may be – whether they live in the West or in Muslim countries. It is interesting to note that it tends to be mainly men that lead debates telling women what to wear.

Celebrities Call on World Leaders not to Sacrifice Afghan Women’s Rights

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Published on Huffington Post (UK) here

It’s great to see that Dame Helen MirrenShazia Mirza, and Alesha Dixon are being the voice for women outside of Afghanistan so they can have one inside it. Celebrities are going green for the Green Scarf Campaign calling on world leaders not to sacrifice their rights in any political deal. I am sure Afghan women’s rights activists, who wear green scarves as a show of strength and unity, will welcome this much needed support. They are worried the clock could be turned back on their rights now the US government is in direct talks with the Taliban. I know Hilary Clinton has made public statements defending Afghan women, but who knows what is going on behind the scenes. This issue of Afghan women always touches an emotional chord globally – no wonder Pakistani pop star Hadiqa Kiani and the chat show host dubbed Oprah of the Middle East, Nashwa Al Ruwaini, have also joined the campaign.

Since the fall of the Taliban, women have once again returned to work as doctors, lawyers, judges and police officers although participation levels are nowhere near the pre-Taliban era when women in Kabul made up 70% of teachers, 50% of civil servants and 40% of doctors. Women are participating in sports too – something unthinkable 10 years ago. There are now female boxers preparing for the 2012 Olympics and even a women’s national football team – although they have to train behind guarded doors for fear of retribution.

Despite these gains, Afghanistan is still one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman because the Taliban continue to get away with attacking them. In 2008, the Taliban assassinated police commander, Malalai Kakar and last year MP Fawzia Kofi survived an attack by gunmen. I some times wonder what the Taliban hate more – women’s empowerment or Western occupation. A recently launched Oxfam report reminds us what life is really like for most Afghan women. More than 87% have experienced at least one form of physical, sexual or psychological violence or forced marriage. Renouncing violence and severing links with Al Qaeda is a pre condition set by the international community for negotiations with the Taliban -so why has ending violence against women not been included?

The Afghan government doesn’t appear to be committed to women’s rights either. Any legislation passed offering equality to women is not backed up by any enforcement. So those who intimidate, threaten and attack women are rarely punished. President Karzai publicly vowed that the men, who threw acid in the faces of 15 female students in Kandahar city in November 2008, would be severely punished. He has made no attempt to bring them to justice.

Karzai also panders to conservative religious clerics in exchange for their political support. Prior to the 2009 presidential elections, he passed the Shia Personal Status Law, allowing fathers and even grandfathers to have full custody of children in a divorce and women having to seek permission to work. Karzai was ready to pass the law in its original form, which was even more controversial as it legalized marital rape and only amended it after an international outcry. Pressure can work so let’s be the voice for Afghan women. Foreign Ministers from around the world will attend the Bonn Peace Conference on 5th December to discuss the support package for Afghanistan after Western forces withdraw in 2014. Let’s tell them not to negotiate away women’s rights by joining the campaign at – I just have!