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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 26 Sept 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Interfaith Dialogue: In Search of Common Ground Over Muslim Dress Codes

By Souad Mekhennet

24 Sep, 2011

ZURICH — In the late 1980s, the rock star Lou Reed, skewering a number of luminaries in his album “New York,” pondered aloud whether the expression “common ground” consisted of words with meaning, or was it “just a sound?”

It was a question that hung over discussion at a recent forum in Zurich — entitled “One Young World,” a nonprofit organization that was co-founded by the advertising executives David Jones and Kate Robertson and brought together about 1,600 people, mostly under 25, from 190 nations for what might be termed the ultimate gabfest.

They met with businesspeople, listened to speeches of various religious and political leaders, like Desmond Tutu, Muhammad Yunus and Princess Mette-Marit of Norway, and in the process created something akin to a fata morgana, a feeling — or illusion — that we are all one big happy family.

This was particularly striking at an “interfaith” discussion after the official panel, during which four women — three of them Muslims wearing the veil, and the fourth a Hindu — tussled with two businessmen, one from Pakistan and the second from South Africa, over the niqab, the veil for the face.

Tellingly, perhaps, the discussion was initiated by a resident of Latvia who is now studying politics at Duke University in North Carolina. Anastasia Karklina, 19, has most likely passed through enough social upheaval and heard enough pretty words in her life. So this non-Muslim went straight to her point: It was understandable, she said, that participants only wanted to discuss tolerance, and not reality. “In many Western countries,” she opined, “the hatred against Islam is being used for justifying the foreign policy, especially in the U.S.”

It is no use, she added, to debate war in the name of religion or to urge tolerance, without discussing the double standards in politics.

“How do we want to create an interfaith dialogue if they ban the burqa, discuss the headscarves, don’t allow Muslims to build mosques and then even have a preacher who wanted to burn the Koran?” Ms. Karklina asked.

Barely had Ms. Karklina spoken when two Muslim women — Seja Majeed, an Iraqi Shiite who grew up in Britain and lives in London, and Ajarat Moyosore, a Sunni nurse from Nigeria who lives in Los Angeles, found that their earlier agreement on promoting tolerance and that famous common ground evaporated over the niqab.

The discussion got going when a young Sunni, Melek Yazici, 23, a sourcing analyst at the University of Pittsburgh who moved with her parents from Turkey at age 16, noted that she and her friends had no problems wearing the Niqab, despite what she called an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In Turkey, by contrast, she said, women adhere to the model of the secular state and do not wear the veil at school or in college.

Ms. Majeed, 25, challenged her sharply: “Don’t you think that it would create problems for Islam” for everyone to wear the niqab? “It is nowhere mentioned in Islam and does make our religion look bad.”

Crucially, Ms. Majeed contrasted the situation in Europe, where, she argued, life was hard enough without the question of the veil. “Some jobs you cannot get if you are not willing to take off the hijab,” she said, pointing to her headscarf. “People think of us as the scary Muslims, so we don’t need women to wear Niqab.”

Ms. Moyosore, 24, immediately shot back: “But who are you to decide? If a woman thinks she wants to wear it why shouldn’t she? If a woman in Afghanistan who has not been forced to do so believes she has to wear the burqa, then let her.”

Emotions and voices rose. Kurshid Ahmed, a Pakistani businessman, tried sarcastic humor to defuse the situation. “You know, in Pakistan we say there is much more corruption under the niqab,” he joked.

But the women went on undeterred with their debate.

“See, we would actually need an interfaith dialogue,” said Deepika Nagabhushan, a businesswoman from Bangalore, India. “We all talk about tolerance and common ground between different religions, but what’s with the tolerance inside your own religion?”

She said she followed some aspects of Hindu tradition not out of belief but because she lives with her parents and does not want to disappoint them.

“We have a tradition which says that you are not supposed to touch anyone when you have your periods,” she noted.

Heeding that, or wearing the niqab, she suggested, is not just religion, but custom.

Ms Majeed disagreed. “No, it is different with the niqab. You are talking about traditions inside your house, but we are talking about the picture which people have about Islam,” she said, crossing her arms.

Mr. Ahmed, a banker from the mountainous Gilgit area of Pakistan, tried another approach with Ms. Majeed. “See, you are wearing jeans, a long-sleeves shirt and the headscarf,” he said. “In Britain, that might be O.K., but there are many areas in Pakistan where you couldn’t travel the way you are dressed now.”

He raised his hands in a gesture of resignation. “What can you do — these are traditions and dress codes. We have to be tolerant and cannot force people not to wear something.”

Still, the Iraqi woman disagreed. “No, no, tolerance is a happy medium,” she said. “Tolerating niqabis would lead to the extreme.”

Nico, a 34-year-old businessman from South Africa, asked simply, “So what should I teach my 3-year-old son, to be tolerant or not?”

There was silence before Ms. Moyosore spoke up. “There are so many conflicts in the name of religion and so many conflicts are created because people are picking things from and out of religions which they use to polarize. But we have to build strong identities.”

The full dichotomy of Ms. Majeed’s dilemma became clear. She feels neither Iraqi nor British. “I am not Iraqi because I have a British accent, and if I go to Britain, I am not accepted because of my head scarf.”

Fighting back tears, she continued: “People like me, we would like to create a society that I belong to. I have spoken to many people who feel stateless.”

On that, and that alone, it seemed, the debaters could agree.

Source: The New York Times