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I used to look at veiled women as oppressed creatures — until I was captured by the Taliban.
In September 2001, 15 days after the terrorist attacks on the United States, I snuck into Afghanistan, clad in a head-to-toe blue burqa, intending to write a newspaper account of life under the repressive regime. Instead, I was discovered, arrested and detained for 10 days. I spat and swore at my captors; they called me a “bad” woman but let me go after I promised to read the Qur’an and study Islam.
Back home in London, I kept my word — and was amazed by what I discovered. Instead of Qur’anic chapters on how to beat your wife and oppress your daughters, I found passages promoting the liberation of women. I converted to Islam 2 1/2 years later. Now I watch with disgust and dismay as former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw describes the Muslim niqab — a face veil that reveals only the eyes — as a barrier to integration, with Prime Minister Tony Blair, writer Salman Rushdie and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi leaping to his defense.
Having been on both sides of the veil, I can tell you that Western male politicians and journalists have no idea what they are talking about when they blame Islam for child brides, female circumcision, honor killings and forced marriages. A careful reading of the Qur’an shows that just about everything Western feminists fought for in the 1970s was available 1,400 years ago to Muslim women, who are considered equal to men in spirituality, education and worth. When Islam offers women so much, why are Western men so obsessed with Muslim women’s attire? Even British government ministers Gordon Brown and John Reid have made disparaging remarks about the niqab, and they hail from Scotland, where men wear skirts.
When I began wearing a headscarf, I became a second-class citizen. One cabbie, after dropping off a passenger in front of me, glared when I rapped on his window, then drove off. Another said, “Don’t leave a bomb in the back seat” and asked, “Where’s Bin Laden hiding?”
Yes, it is a religious obligation for Muslim women to dress modestly, but the majority of Muslim women I know like wearing the hijab, which leaves the face uncovered. My dress tells you that I am a Muslim and I expect to be treated respectfully, much as a banker would say a business suit defines him as an executive to be taken seriously.
Some young Muslim feminists consider the hijab and niqab political symbols too, a way of rejecting Western excesses such as binge drinking, casual sex and drug use. Which is more liberating: being judged on the length of your skirt and size of your breasts, or on your character and intelligence? In Islam, superiority is achieved through piety, not beauty, wealth, power or sex.
Italy’s Prodi joined the debate last week by declaring that it is “common sense” not to wear the niqab because it makes social relations “more difficult.” Nonsense. If this were the case, why are cell phones, e-mail, text messaging and fax machines in daily use?
Islam tells me that I have a right to an education and a duty to seek knowledge, regardless of whether I am single or married. If a man raises a finger against his wife, he is not allowed to leave a mark on her body, which is the Qur’an’s way of saying, “Don’t beat your wife, stupid.”
According to a recent National Domestic Violence Hotline survey, an average 4 million American women experience a serious assault by a partner each year; more than three women are killed by their husband or boy-friend every day; and one in three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused. This problem transcends religion, wealth, class, race and culture. But it is true that Western men still believe they are superior to women and receive better pay for equal work.
For those who still claim Islam oppresses women, recall this 1992 statement from the Rev. Pat Robertson:
Feminism is a “socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”
Now you tell me, who is civilized and who is not?