Archive for the ‘Women in Islam’ Category

Why Female Circumcision Violates Islam

Friday, April 21st, 2017

When I read about the recent arrests of Muslims in Michigan for practicing female genital mutilation, a horrific custom that tragically exists in parts of the Middle East and Africa, I was disgusted, appalled and bewildered that such evil had made its way to our shores in America. How is it possible that well educated people (in this case doctors!) could still commit this crime against innocent children, damaging them physically and psychologically for life? Especially when it violates the basic precepts of Islam?

Wait a minute, female circumcision violates Islam? Yes, it does. And the fact that this evil practice is thought of by many people, including some Muslims, as part of the religion is just another sad example of how the world’s second largest religion is not only misunderstood by many, but is actually perverted in the modern world to represent the exact opposite of everything it stands for.

Female genital mutilation is an ancient practice where parts of a girl’s genitalia are removed in order to eliminate sexual desire and pleasure in a woman. It originated in pre-Islamic Africa and was referenced by the Greek geographer Strabo during a visit to Egypt around 25 BCE. The practice continued through the Christian era as well as the rise of Islam, and still continues today. UNICEF estimated in 2016 that over 200 million living today have undergone this procedure, mainly in Africa, but it has also been documented in Muslim countries such as Yemen and Indonesia.

The fact that this practice continues 14 centuries after Islam entered these societies has made many conclude that it must be condoned by the religion. But in reality, female genital mutilation has no basis in the Qur’an and violates the clear teachings of Prophet Muhammad. In 2006, Islamic scholars led by the grand Sheikh of Al Azhar University, the highest scholarly authority in the Islamic world, declared that female genital mutilation is a violation of Islam’s teachings. And in 2008, the US Agency for International Development published an important paper on the issue, “De-linking Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting from Islam.” The authors, Ibrahim Lethome Asmani and Maryam Sheikh Abdi, lay out a very clear and straightforward analysis of Islamic teachings on the subject. While male circumcision has always been a part of Islam as it has Judaism (both religions linking the practice to their ancestor, the biblical patriarch Abraham), female circumcision is not found anywhere in the Qur’an. A very few hadiths, or oral accounts attributed to the Prophet, have been interpreted by some to suggest that female circumcision was accepted in the early Muslim community, but Islamic scholars have largely discounted such accounts as historically weak and unreliable. So the scriptural basis for such a practice in Islam is unsupported.

But more importantly, the practice itself violates clear teachings of Islam that form the basis of its value system. Firstly, body mutilation is condemned in the Qur’an very clearly, not just in humans but also in animals. The Qur’an says that Satan will arouse in human beings an evil desire to mutilate God’s creation, quoting the Devil as saying: “Truly I will mislead them and surely arouse in them false desires and I will order them to slit the ears of cattle and indeed I will order them to change the nature created by God.” (4:119). Furthermore, the Qur’an is very sensitive to protecting children from harm, especially young girls, and Islam ended the ancient Arab practice of burying unwanted baby girls alive. But more directly to the issue of female genital mutilation, the practice violates the Prophet’s very clear teaching that women have the right sexual fulfillment. Prophet Muhammad advised men: ““When a man has sexual intercourse with his wife, he should be at the same pace with her. If he satisfies his desires before her, he should not withdraw until she has also satisfied herself.”

The latter hadith is surprising to many people today in the West, where religion is often seen as embarrassed by sexuality, especially female sexuality. While this may have been the case in the Christian world for much of history, it is not true of Islam (or Judaism for that matter). Both Islam and Judaism have a long history of seeing sex as a natural part of life and a blessing from God to be enjoyed. What is tragic in the case of Islam is that many Muslims today have forgotten their own religious teachings on the matter. When I first published my novel “Mother of the Believers” on Aisha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad, I was approached at a book signing in the Midwest by a Pakistani woman who said she liked my book, but was very uncomfortable with the open discussion of sexuality among the female characters. Before I could respond to her, another woman in the audience, a white American convert, spoke up. She said that she loved my book because it showed the authentic attitude toward sexuality in early Islam, and that one of the reasons she had converted was her discovery of Islam’s healthy and open views toward sex, which contrasted vividly with her repressed Catholic upbringing.

I was not surprised to see that an American woman embraced Islam’s view of sexuality as natural, while the Pakistani woman was embarrassed, as the Pakistani woman was the product of British colonialism of the Muslim world. The British imperialists during the Victorian era were shocked by Islam’s open view of sexuality and worked hard to change Muslim cultures and make them more “civilized” by being embarrassed by sex. The end result is that in places like India and Pakistan today, Muslims are more repressed than the Victorians, and sex is now an embarrassing and shameful thing to be kept hush hush, rather than accepted as a normal part of life, like eating and drinking. The Muslim emperors of India who built the Taj Mahal as a monument to love, also embraced a rich artistic heritage in which erotic painting was considered a high art form. But their descendants today blush at the mention of sex in front of “polite company.” It is a bizarre situation in the Islamic world where Muslims have adopted unhealthy Christian attitudes toward sex and abandoned their own values, leading to exactly the kind of confusion that allows practices like female genital mutilation to persist in the shadows.

Women Retake Islam. The Prophet Would Be Proud.

Monday, June 20th, 2011

Many fans have asked where I have been for the past few months. I have been a regular blogger for the Huffington Post since 2009, often commenting on issues relating to Islam and the media, which as a Muslim in Hollywood is perhaps appropriate. But I have not written a post since late last year. Partly, I have been focused on balancing my career as a filmmaker and novelist with the needs of my family. But partly I have been just plain exhausted.

As someone who loves Islam, I have often felt drained spiritually and emotionally by the never-ending battle to overcome the false image of my faith. An ugly picture painted by anti-Muslim bigots and Muslim extremists who both embrace an empty and shallow vision of Islam. As a child, I loved reading Greek myths and was in particular fascinated by the tale of Sisyphus, the condemned man who was punished by Zeus by being given a never-ending task. Sisyphus was forced to push a boulder up the side of a mountain and was promised freedom from the underworld once he got the boulder up to the peak. But Zeus had a dark sense of humor. After centuries of toil, Sisyphus would finally manage to inch the boulder up to the mountaintop — only to see it roll back down. And he was forced to start all over again.

I loved that myth — and sometimes I feel I am living it today. Being a defender of Islam in the Western media often feels like a Sisyphean task. Every day there is another drama somewhere in the Muslim community, whether it be another vile act of terrorism committed by evil people in the name of my faith, or an attack by an Islamophobe on some aspect of Muslim religion and values. For years, I have been condemning the former and trying to educate the latter about the true nature of Islam as a vibrant, positive force in the world. And it often feels like my efforts are doomed to failure — the stupidity continues and the discourse about Islam in the media remains controlled by imbeciles among both Muslims and non-Muslims. The story of Islam, like history itself, often feels like just “one damned thing after another.”

So I took a break. I sat back and let the world flow by me in blissful silence. The Arab Spring. The death of the cursed Osama bin Laden. The anti-Muslim “hearings” held by Congress. The growing Islamophobia in America being fed by unscrupulous politicians. I had a lot to say about all of that. And I chose to say nothing.

Perhaps I would have stayed in this stupor of defeat forever. And then my mother came to live with me and reminded me that Islam is a verb. That faith without action is dead.

As my readers may remember, my father passed away last year. His death was peaceful, but very unexpected, and my mother was devastated. After living together for over 40 years, after weathering decades of struggle and pain as immigrants in America, after experiencing both remarkable joy and deep grief as a couple, my mother was suddenly alone. While her children were quick to remind her that she had a loving family to support her, my mother was also quick to respond that none of us children could truly know what it is like to lose a life partner who had been by her side for so many years. And to that we really had no answer, except to offer her our love and a shoulder to cry on.

My parents had a beautiful home in Phoenix, Arizona. But with my father gone, my mother chose to move to Dubai to live with my sisters, who both work there. But after a few months, it became clear that the UAE, despite all its wealth and Westernized luxury, would never truly be home. America was where her heart was. And so my mother came to stay with me in Los Angeles.

The cycle of life is fascinating, and poignant. When I was a child, I was powerless and had to rely on my mother for even the simplest decisions. And now the the roles are reversed. I find myself taking care of her and organizing my life around her needs, even as she once did for me. For a bachelor accustomed to living alone, I was afraid that the transition would be difficult for both of us. And perhaps it would have been if my mother were weak and defeated, as Muslim women are usually portrayed in the media.

But my mother is anything but weak. Like millions of Muslim women worldwide, she is a spitfire. Strong. Confident. Dignified. She is a woman who refuses to let life conquer her, or to be defined by the projections of others. Difficult as she has found her new circumstances, she has refused to be defeated by them, and is focused on rebuilding her life. And the strength she exhibits is founded on her faith.

My mother is the living essence of a Muslim woman. She surrenders to no one except God.

Having had such a strong woman as my role model, it is perhaps not surprising that I have dedicated much of my literary career to telling stories of powerful Muslim women who shatter the old stereotypes of the veil and the harem. My first novel, Mother of the Believers, focused on Aisha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad. Aisha has inspired Muslim women for centuries. She was a scholar, a poet, a jurist, a politician and a military commander who led armies. And she was the one woman whom the Prophet was closest to, the one he chose to spend his final hours with, the one who cradled the Prophet’s head as he passed away. And it was under Aisha’s house in Medina that he was buried.

But Aisha is not alone. There have been innumerable Muslim women who have changed the course of history. They include Khadija, the Prophet’s first wife, who was 15 years senior to him, a wealthy businesswoman who employed young Muhammad as her caravan leader, and ultimately proposed marriage to him. Khadija, the first convert to Islam and its strongest supporter. She convinced an initially self-doubting Muhammad that his vision of Angel Gabriel was a real spiritual experience, and provided him the emotional and economic support to launch a spiritual movement that would create a global civilization.

Khadija and Aisha were just the beginning, the precursors of great Muslim women such as the Sufi mysticRabia al-Basri who challenged the corruption of the Caliphs of Baghdad in the 8th century. The Turkish slave girl Shajarat al-Durr who became Sultana of Egypt and launched the Mamluk dynasty that halted the Mongol invasion of the West in the 13th century. The iron queen Nur Jahan, Empress of Mughal India, who rivaled Queen Elizabeth I as the most powerful woman on earth.

The stories of these remarkable women are told in my novels, as well as in wonderful books such as The Scimitar and the Veil: Extraordinary Women of Islam by Jennifer Heath. From queens and warriors, to poets and artists, to loving homemakers who serve as the foundation of its civilization, women have been the heart and the driving force of Islam from its beginning.

And they remain so today. Watching my mother take on the new challenges of life with such courage and dignity has reminded me of the inherent power that women bring to Islam and to the world. At a time when both Muslims and non-Muslims cling to foolish and backwards interpretations of the Quran, Muslim women have been at the forefront of the fight for justice and wisdom in the Islamic community.

The recent movement by Saudi women to confront the idiocy of those who would deny them the right to drive is a shining example of courage exhibited by those who know that Islam was revealed to help women, not to hurt or oppress them. Despite some Muslim men’s efforts to interpret the Quran and Islamic law as a vehicle of oppression, Muslim women remember that Prophet Muhammad was by all accounts a feminist. He gave Muslim women the right to own property and inherit, rights denied to their Jewish and Christian sisters by men until the late 19th century. He ended the Arab practice of female infanticide and worked tirelessly to protect widows and orphans in a barbaric desert world.

The Prophet was centuries ahead of the men of his time in his attitudes toward women, and not surprisingly, right after he died, men started rolling back the reforms he began. The Prophet may have been too advanced for the mindset of 7th-century men, but his compassion for women is exactly the model that Muslims in the 21st century need to emulate today.

Many people have called for a “reform” of Islam, but the truth is that Islam needs to be rediscovered, not changed. The deeper one goes into Islamic scholarship, the more the harsh images of Islamic law as a vehicle for stonings and amputations fades away, and is replaced by a surprisingly sophisticated and progressive approach to faith that dates back to its earliest days. Muslims don’t need to throw out their religion and create something new, they need to re-examine the original scriptures and find the original meanings as the Prophet, a man of progressive vision, would have seen them, even if his earliest followers did not always see as far as he did.

This work, of rediscovering the progressive jewel at the heart of Islam, is being led by courageous Muslim scholars today, many of them women. In fact, women have always been scholars of Islam — Aisha herself being a jurist who advised the first Caliphs on matters of Islamic law and practice. And following in her footsteps today are remarkable women such as Prof. Leila Ahmed at Harvard Divinity School who is a leading feminist scholar of Islam; Prof. Amina Wadud and Prof. Asma Barlas, who have produced important scholarship on the Quran as a feminist-friendly scripture; and Prof. Aminah McCloud at DePaul University, a living encyclopedia of Islam who can take on any conservative mullah and win the debate.

Women such as Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar, a Sufi writer who was the first American woman to translate the Quran into English. Her translation, The Sublime Qur’an, is moving and captures the scripture’s beauty and ability to inspire both men and women today. Dr. Bakhtiar has often been attacked by conservative Muslim men for her willingness to examine linguistic ambiguities in the Arabic text of the Quran that have been used by men to control or oppress women for centuries. Her scholarship has shown that the text has often been interpreted by later generations in ways the Prophet himself would never have supported. For example, one verse in the Quran (Surah 4, verse 34) has been used for centuries to justify the idea that Islam permits a man to strike a disobedient wife. And yet Ms. Bakhtiar has carefully shown that the original Arabic can correctly be read to indicate “separate from” an unhappy marriage, rather than “hit.” Considering that Aisha herself said that Prophet Muhammad never struck his wives, children or servants, Ms. Bakhtiar’s interpretation is likely the authentic one based purely on the Prophet’s own example. As Aisha also said, the Prophet was the living embodiment of the Quran in practice.

Ms. Bakhtiar’s discussion of how this mistranslated and misread verse compelled her on her spiritual journey to uncover true Islam is fascinating:

These Muslim women are engaging in what may appear as a truly Sisyphean task of promoting Islam as a feminist religion at a time when many Muslims and non-Muslims want it to be anything but. By watching their never-ending struggle for truth and justice, I realized that my own weariness in speaking out is unjustified and, frankly, un-Islamic.

As my mother reminds me now every day with her struggle to build a new life without my father, the purpose of existence is to face challenges, not to run away from them. That is why God created us. That is why we are here. Men and women, living in a broken world that needs constant mending. There is no end to this journey, no final moment in this world where all will be perfect and pure. Perfection is for Paradise. But it is our efforts to confront this often ugly and unjust world that make life worthwhile. That is the true meaning of “jihad” — of struggle in the path of God.

I want to thank all the Muslim women out there who continue to follow in our Prophet’s example of speaking truth to power. You are the heirs of our mothers — Khadija, Aisha, and the Prophet’s beloved daughter Fatima.

And I want to thank my own mother for showing me the truth of Prophet Muhammad’s famous words: “Paradise is at the feet of the mothers.”


Lifting the Veil on the Debate over Veils

Sunday, July 12th, 2009

I returned recently from a week in France where a debate is raging over whether Muslim women should be permitted to wear the burqa, the traditional Middle Eastern garment that covers not only the whole body, but the face as well. President Nicholas Sarkozy unleashed a firestorm of controversy with his recent call for a ban against the veil, with supporters calling it a necessary stance to protect women’s rights, and opponents decrying the proclamation as racist and symbolic of Europe’s bigotry towards its Muslim population.

But what is really going on here? Why does a simple choice of women’s attire inspire such fierce emotion? What is it about the veil that brings out such a visceral response? The issue that is not being examined in this debate is one that is perhaps too close for comfort, too sensitive to examine in a post-modern world where assumptions about male and female identities are wrapped in decades of political ideology. The question is not about banning efforts by Muslim men to forcibly wrap women in burqas against their will. The question is over whether Muslim women who freely choose to don the veil should be legally prevented from doing so.

So the real question beneath the debate, the question that is too troubling to ask aloud, is whether there is something about the veil that is actually attractive to some women, and what that means for Western sacred cows about potential differences in masculine and feminine psychology.

I have been forced to look deeply into the issues of masculine and feminine dynamics in recent days. The publication of my novel, Mother of the Believers, which tells the birth of Islam from the perspective of Prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha, has pulled me into the heart of modern discussions regarding the role of women in Islam. On my book tour through the United States, I have found myself at the center of impassioned arguments about women’s rights in the Islamic world and the intention behind ancient traditions such as veiling.

I have often found myself standing silent as women in the audience argue the issues among themselves with great passion and intensity. My role as an observer among these debates has allowed me to come to certain perceptions that might surprise both men and women used to speaking of women’s rights in the language of modern feminism. And the most startling perception, certainly for me, is that for many women, power is not defined in masculine terms of leadership over others, but in terms of social identity. And for many women, how their bodies are perceived by others is deeply central to their sense of who they are and their power over the world. And I have learned that for some women, the veil is actually a representation of an ancient kind of power, one that is rarely acknowledged in polite circles today – the power of feminine mystique.

Before I wade further into the dangerous waters of post-feminist social critique, I would like to acknowledge a point that opponents of the burqa have made – that the veil is not an Islamic religious requirement. They are correct. The veil predates Islam and was actually invented by Byzantine Christians and subsequently adopted by Zoroastrian Persians, long before Muslims appeared on the scene. In fact, the ironic social origin of the veil is that it was once used as a mark of power, not oppression.

Wealthy Christian women wore veils as a sign of high social status and nobility, while women who were unveiled in Byzantine culture were denigrated as low class, and indeed prostitutes in Byzantium would go about unveiled as a means of advertising their wares. “Respectable” Christian women believed that showing their beauty to all and sundry was cheap and demeaning. This Christian social tradition was not widespread in pre-Islamic Arabia. Like their Semitic sisters among Jews, Arab women would often wear headscarves, but face veiling was uncommon.

As I discuss in my novel, the only women that were required to be veiled in the early days of Islam were the wives of Prophet Muhammad, known in the Qur’an as “Mothers of the Believers.” Their role was to serve as the spiritual matrons of the Muslim community, and as a result they were required to live and dress differently from other women to designate their status. According to early historical sources, the veil was introduced for the Mothers after the the Prophet’s enemies taunted them and subjected them to demeaning slurs.

The triggering incident (which I recount in my novel) occurred when Aisha, a beautiful and charismatic woman, was being too forward at a social gathering, leading men at the event to ogle her and speak in demeaning terms about a woman they were supposed to revere as a spiritual guide. Shortly thereafter, the Qur’an commanded the Mothers to speak to men “through a curtain” so that their dignity would be preserved and harassment minimized.

This unusual requirement of veiling remained limited to the Mothers of the Believers and was not extended to the entire Muslim community. After Prophet Muhammad’s death, the Muslims conquered the neighboring Byzantine and Persian empires, where they first encountered widespread veiling among the upper classes. The egalitarian Arabs were offended by the social hierarchies of their conquered subjects, and Muslim leaders began to encourage veiling across every social spectrum to neutralize the haughty pretenses of aristocracy. So the mass introduction of the veil in the Middle East was originally an effort at elevating lower classes and defusing the privileges of the wealthy. While hard to imagine today, the veil was actually tool of social progress in a world with very different values.

So the critics of burqas are only partially correct – the veil is not Islamic in origin, but was definitely used by Muslims as a means of social engineering in the early days of the religion. Flash forward to the 21st century, where the veil no longer holds the same meaning as it did for Byzantine Christians. Today the veil is perceived by many in the West in opposite terms from its social origins, as a sign of oppression rather than nobility. And thus we come to the debate raging in France and much of Europe over whether the veil should be banished from the public sphere.

But the question then arises as to why Muslim women in free and open societies choose to don the veil in the first place. Certainly for some women, it is the result of social pressure from family members, and so their choice in the matter is not truly free. But in my talks with Muslim women, I was intrigued to hear stories from converts who have chosen to don the burqa despite strong social pressure from family and friends against it.

For these women, the veil represents something that is never raised in the modern debate. It represents an embrace of mystery. A reclamation of feminine mystique. An embrace of an age-old belief that less is more, that the power of the feminine is heightened by the allure of the unseen. Throughout human history, poets have written of love sparked just by seeing a glimpse of a woman’s eyes. The veil has often been the ultimate symbol of feminine coyness that activates masculine desire, the quest for the hidden pearl that sparks the dance of Eros. For some women throughout history, the veil has been a symbol of femininity on a deeply primordial level.

There is a strange duality to Western attitudes toward women’s liberation. Women are encouraged to pursue and master traditionally male roles in the worlds of business and politics. And yet they are also valued primarily for their physical looks and encouraged to display their charms at every opportunity. And so a strange schizophrenia has set in, where women are encouraged to be masculine in their ambitions while pressured to flaunt their feminine sexuality in public. Carla Bruni, the First Lady of France, is held up as an archetype of the empowered European woman, and is widely admired in the press for her beauty and style. But her intelligence and political savvy are rarely mentioned as assets.

The Muslim argument for the value of modest dress, whether it be the burqa or the less-restrictive hijab (headscarf) has always centered on a critique of the demeaning attitudes of the West toward women’s bodies. As the covers of popular magazines from Cosmopolitan (for women) to Maxim (for men) reveal, women’s social value in the West is determined by the size of their breasts, the beauty of their curves, the commoditization of their flesh. The end result has been a society in which women struggle with their self-esteem due to their perceived attractiveness. Eating disorders among women are commonplace, and even teenage girls feel pressured to get breast implants to increase their social value. Muslim women who choose to don modest dress say they are making a feminist stance against this cheapening of their bodies by modern culture. For them, wearing modest dress is the contemporary equivalent of burning their bras.

Undoubtedly others would disagree. But then we face the crux of the problem – is it the place of the state to define for women what values they should have? How they should see themselves, their clothes and their bodies? Even if the French are able to successfully enact a ban on the burqa, the attitudes behind the veil will not go away. The argument that the veil serves as an automatic barrier to Muslim women achieving leadership positions in business and politics is false. In my novel, I demonstrate how the Prophet’s wife Aisha, was able to become a politician, a scholar, a poet and a military commander – all while donning the veil. Muslim women from the Egyptian queen Shagrat al-Dur to the Mughal empress Nur Jahan have ruled nations from behind a veil. The burqa is not an automatic barrier to success in the public sphere for women. But more importantly, those women who have no desire to embark on such professions will not be coerced into doing so by regulating how they choose to cover their bodies.

It appears that some opponents of the the veil are actually more upset about the choice many women make to continue in traditional lifestyles even though other opportunities are available to them. But many women have no desire to embrace traditionally masculine ambitions, and will not do so no matter how much others try to force them to change. And efforts to compel Muslim women will only be met by anger and resentment. If some women are required by the state to dress in a fashion they find too revealing, even demeaning, there will only be a calcification of rebellion, a hardening of resistance to social control. The unrest that Europe faces with its Muslim population will only increase in intensity. As demographics change, as Europe inevitably moves toward Muslim social prominence, the tensions between the self-proclaimed arbiters of identity and their unwilling subjects will explode.

With all that said, here are my personal opinions on the matter, for whatever they are worth. I am a believer that every society has a right to regulate conduct within its borders, including how people are dressed. France has as much right to ban the burqa as Iran has to require it. But I believe that people should be honest about their motivations in either case. In both instances, such rules are the instruments of control freaks attempting to tell women how to think and feel about themselves based on clothing. And in my experience, efforts to legislate thoughts always fail. As we have seen in recent years, Iranian women have been pushing for greater freedom of dress, despite decades of indoctrination by the country’s clerics. At the same time, Muslim women have been pushing for the right to be left alone in Europe, to dress as they wish, despite intense social pressure to conform. The European couture police will no more be successful in compelling Muslim women to think in a certain way than have been the mullahs in the Middle East.

Specifically with regard to France, my own experience in that beautiful country (I lived in Paris for several months in 2007) leads me to believe that the controversy over the burqa is not really about women’s rights. It is about preserving a certain cultural heritage from the onslaught of foreign values and perspectives. The burqa controversy is really about attempting to save a beleaguered French identity from being replaced by a new and alien social tradition that is spreading through the power of demographics. But social engineering is a poor tool to curtail the realities of reproduction. At current birth rates, Muslims will become a numerically influential community inside France within this century. The same is true for many other nations in Europe. Efforts to stem the power of Muslim culture from reshaping European identity are as pointless as trying to hold back a river with one’s hands.

Of course, fear of change is understandable. But the burqa debate is just the tip of something darker, even sinister, within European culture today. It is based on a hatred of the other that arises from Europe’s unacknowledged racism toward its immigrant population. This fear against Muslims has led to some truly horrifying incidents of violence in Europe. A few days ago, a pregnant Muslim woman in Germany was murdered while testifying in court against a man who had subjected her to slurs for wearing a headscarf. Marwa el-Sherbini was stabbed 18 times by the man she had accused of racist bullying. Her three-year-old son watched in horror as his mother was killed in broad daylight, inside a court of law. Marwa’s husband was shot by court guards when he attempted to save her life.

This truly sickening incident has received almost no media coverage in Europe, even though Marwa has become a heroine and a martyr throughout the Muslim world. The fact that Europeans have chosen to ignore the brutal murder of a woman whose only crime was that she covered her head with a piece of cloth, reveals the real issues beneath the burqa debate. It is ultimately not about women’s rights, but about power over immigrants. Marwa was no weak and submissive Muslim woman. She was highly educated, a noted athlete (she was a national handball champion in Egypt), and her husband a genetic engineer seeking his PhD. Marwa represented the future of Europe’s Muslim immigrants – empowered, educated and strong. And she was butchered like an animal for having the audacity to dress differently. The fact that her death has not been a source of European soul-searching suggests that some truths are too painful to face.

The debate over Muslim dress and women’s rights will continue. But it needs to be seen in a broader context of cultural values and history. There is much that Europe, with its ancient history and traditions, can add to the melting pot of Islamic identity. And there are important things that Muslims can remind their Western neighbors, including the value of traditional masculine and feminine dynamics. By showing respect for Muslim women’s choices in dress, the veil can paradoxically become an instrument to lift the barriers that separate human beings from each other.