Saving Muslim Women from the Oppression of the Headscarf, by Killing Them

by Guest Contributor Joesph Shahadi, originally published at Vs. the Pomegranate

I never intended to write about the scarf/veil/hijab/niqaab. Like a lot of people who write about the Middle East and North Africa (Muslim and otherwise) I roll my eyes at the Western preoccupation with the scarf, which seems to dominate the discourse. The Islamic practice of covering seems to excite the imaginations of both Judeo-Christian/nationalist/conservatives and (largely) white/western/feminists, an unlikely alliance that occurs from time to time around representations of women (as in pornography, for example). I will admit that I do not understand this preoccupation… I am not a Muslim so I have no religious or cultural investment in covering one way or the other. For me, the scarf is just clothing. This may be because many of my Muslim neighbors in Brooklyn cover to varying degrees and I see them going about their lives, just like everyone else. When you are standing behind a veiled woman in line at the supermarket and you see her trying to keep her kids quiet with one hand while she organizes coupons with the other, the whole thing seems pretty ordinary, at least in my part of the world.

As far as I can tell, I have only one neighbor who goes about fully covered, while others wear their scarves in very different styles, depending on their preferences, home countries and cultures. It is very common to see Moms with their heads covered while their little girls are bounding around in jeans and Dora the Explorer t-shirts, but there are a few little girls with their heads covered as well. Two or three summers ago I was walking down the street and a hijab-wearing 11 year old girl went whizzing past me on a Razor scooter, scarf and dress flapping, face split with a giant grin. Despite the wide range of styles, these women and girls all seem to socialize together and I have seen zero indication of the isolation and division that are often assumed to be part and parcel of the practice of covering. I know there are issues with the scarf in Islamic cultures, and it is not my intention to minimize them, none of my female Muslim friends and colleagues wear it and some have spoken against it. But my assumption is that any intra-cultural issues around the practice of covering can be addressed by the women it impacts directly, so I feel no pressing need to climb on to my white horse with my American flag clutched between my teeth.

So even when French President Sarkozy floated his wrong-headed hijab-ban I never thought I’d write about the scarf. It is annoying that so much of the conversation, not to mention the ban itself, is based on perpetuating Islamophobic and Orientalist stereotypes (even among people who should know better) but again I thought, “Not my fight.”

And then Marwa Sherbini was murdered.

Sherbini was an Egyptian woman living in Germany who sued a white German man for calling her a “terrorist” last year because she wore a headscarf. Last week the man, identified as “Axel W.” attacked Sherbini, who was 3 months pregnant, and stabbed her 18 times, killing her in front of her 3 year-old son and husband, who tried in vain to protect her. Incredibly, the attack took place in a German courtroom, where Axel W., Sherbini and both of their families were gathered as W. appealed the 750 euro ($1,050) fine that resulted from Sherbini’s suit. In the chaos that ensued a security guard shot at Sherbini’s husband when he tried to stop W from killing her because he assumed her husband was her attacker. Her brother Tarek told an Egyptian television station, “The guards thought that as long as he wasn’t blond, he must be the attacker so they shot him.” According to the BBC News, “German prosecutors have said the 28-year-old attacker… was driven by a deep hatred of foreigners and Muslims.”

Yeah, no kidding.

So I find myself writing about the scarf after all. About how little it matters to me how Muslim women dress and how crazy I think it is for people who have no connection to the practice of covering to obsess over it. About how funny it is that participants in a culture in which women of means willingly and enthusiastically paralyze their facial muscles criticize the hijab/niqaab with a straight face (pun intended). And further, how such a (to me) bizarre practice as voluntary facial paralysis can be presented as “empowering” with no irony whatsoever. Who needs the Taliban?

It is easy to consider each little racist and ethnocentric test balloon floated by European governments in the last few years, like the ridiculous Italian measures to “safeguard” Italian culture by outlawing “foreign” foods or Sarkozy’s misguided efforts at outlawing the veil in France, as mere blips, but Sherbini’s murder reminds us of the old Orientalist and Islamophobic hatreds simmering just beneath the surface of European society.

Marwa Sherbini took advantage of the court system of her new country to defend her rights under its democratic system. These are the values and behaviors that Europeans say they want in their Arab and Muslim minorities. And she was murdered for it.

Here is a link to the BBC News article about Sherbini’s murder. And here is a link to the Huffington Post’s coverage of the aftermath of Sherbini’s murder in Egypt (fair warning: the comment thread on the Huff article is nauseating. It takes exactly three comments for someone to mention Danny Pearl AND 9/11…)

Our friends at Muslimah Media Watch have written a great article about Marwa Sherbini’s murder. Here is the link to that post, written by Sobia Ali.


Safiya has written a response to the UK Guardian article melodramatically titled “The Burqa is a Cloth Soaked in Blood” on her great blog Outlines. Here is the link to her post, “How Do You Soak Yours?”

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