Fearing the other


A look at Islamophobia in North America

Taouba Khelifa

When Shaima Al-Awadi’s 17-year-old daughter went to her mother’s home a few weeks ago, she found her mother brutally beaten and unconscious. The note next to Al-Awadi’s body read, “Go back to your country, you terrorist.”

Awadi was found brutally beaten in her California home on March 21. The Iraqi-American stay-at-home mother of five was repeatedly beaten on the head with a tire iron and died at the hospital three days after her attack.

While police are still investigating the possibility of Awadi’s attack being a hate crime, it would not be the first time that Muslim women in the West were subjected to violence and social mockery because of their public display of faith.

In July 2009, German Egyptian Marwa Al-Sherbini was stabbed to death in a German courtroom by the man she was testifying against. Alex Wiens was convicted of calling Sherbini a terrorist and removing her hijab and, as she prepared to present evidence against him, Wiens ran across the courtroom and stabbed her 18 times. The expecting mother died at the scene.  

Hijab is the Arabic word for the head scarf worn by Muslim women and niqab is the additional face veil that some Muslim women choose to wear. While many Muslims see the garments as symbols of devotion, faith, and liberation, Western societies have been constantly scrutinizing and criticising the coverings as symbols of terrorism and oppression.

In Europe, France became the first country to implement a ban on the hijab. In 2004, the country made it illegal for Muslim women to wear the hijab in public schools and institutions. Despite the outcry against and criticism of the decision, last year, France took an additional step and banned the niqab from being worn anywhere in public. Anyone caught wearing the niqab is now faced with a fine of 150 euros or a mandatory lesson in “French Citizenship.”

Canada, like France, is following suit with a ban of its own. In December of last year, the Conservative government announced that women wearing the niqab during citizenship ceremonies will not be able to take the oath of citizenship unless they agree to remove their face covering for the ceremony.

“The oath of citizenship is basically a public gesture, a public declaration that shows that you are joining the Canadian family, and this has to be done freely and openly, not secretly,” said Jason Kenney, minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism. “Isolating and separating a group of Canadians or allowing that group to hide their faces while they are becoming members of our community is completely counter to Canada's commitment to openness and social cohesion.”

According to critics of this decision, the law has little to do with openness and social cohesion and more to do with the growing fear of Muslims and Islam in the West. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Islamophobia has become a growing concern for Muslims. Undoubtedly, it is often the hijab- and niqab-wearing Muslim women who fall victim to societal backlash and fear. 

“The image of a woman with a face cover, a head scarf, or in a burqa has the ability to stir Islamophobic beliefs that Islam teaches intolerance, violence, and the oppression of women is frequently used out of context and regardless of the woman's social positioning – in other words, it elicits fear of the “other” and “unknown,” explained Brenda Anderson, a University of Regina professor of religious studies and women and gender studies.

And elicit fear it has.

In the summer of 2010, Mississauga resident Inas Kadri had her niqab torn off while she was shopping with her two children at the mall. Months later in Kingston, Ont., another Muslim woman had her hijab pulled off by an unknown assailant while she was shopping for groceries. The Kingston police have not found the suspect, but are asking the publics help in identifying the individual through surveillance footage.

These acts represent only the “tip of the iceberg” of Islamophobia: xenophobia and racism. The vilification of the hijab and niqab has made life for many Muslim women much more difficult and, in the most tragic circumstances, like those of Awadi and Sherbini: deadly.

According to Anderson, this vilification has created a culture of fear in the West. But, she said, the “enemy” is not Islam and Muslims, but the “hatred” and “intolerance” towards a misunderstood religion – particularly towards the women in the religion.

“Women are disadvantaged in telling their stories in all societies,” Anderson said. “When they come from countries that have been colonized, they have at least a double disadvantage in that their loyalties to tradition and to feminism, and potentially to faith, are challenged by the different groups.”

Instead of building on the disadvantage, Anderson suggests education and redefining the issues in order to eliminate Islamophobia and racism all together.

“Since Muslims have much to be proud of regarding their teachings about women and the role of women, not only in early history but in many countries throughout time, this must be brought into the educational systems for girls and boys … There is much to learn from different groups and their experiences and solidarity is a protection against slander and violence,” Anderson said.

With an increased pressure for Canadian Muslims to leave their religion behind and assimilate into Canadian culture, Wahida Valiante, head of the Canadian Islamic Congress, put the situation into context.

“Assimilation doesn’t work … we tried that on our native population. We said, ‘Your religion is wrong, you are wrong, your language is wrong, your clothes are wrong,’ and we have basically annihilated their culture and cost them untold misery. And Canadians suffer with that too,” Valiante said.

Anderson agrees. Instead of forcing the Muslim community to assimilate into so-called “Canadian culture,” there needs to be a better solution.

“There is nothing antithetical between the teachings of Islamic scripture and the majority of historical traditions and so-called Western ideology … Reshaping our borders and definitions of ourselves from ‘Muslim’ and ’not Muslim.’ for instance, to issues of justice-seekers in general, can be a powerful catalyst,” Anderson said.

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