March 18, 2021

Burqa bans and blasphemy accusations

 

Over the last few weeks: burqa bans in Switzerland and Sri Lanka, new guidelines for Iranian cartoons, a women’s march in Pakistan pelted with blasphemy accusations, and developments in two high-profile cases in France and Australia.

In Switzerland, citizens have voted narrowly in favor of a referendum that will ban the burqa from public display. It is not the first European nation to adopt such a measure. Under the new law, full face coverings will now be limited to use in private homes and religious services. Sri Lanka has also announced that it will soon enact a similar measure, citing concerns over rising religious extremism in the majority-Buddhist country.

Our take: face veils and head coverings are indeed the product of an oppressive belief system which subjugates and denigrates women, and many women in both the Muslim world and the West have only the illusion of a choice in the matter. But, while face veil prohibitions in certain limited contexts may be appropriate for security reasons, to dictate whether citizens have the right to wear a particular garment at all is still illiberal and antithetical to secular values.


Iran, meanwhile, continues its own clothing crusade. Ayatollah Khamenei last month issued a fatwa on the conundrum of whether characters in animated programs are subject to the hijab requirement. The verdict is, as they say, shocking but not surprising. The good news for animators is that you can draw a woman’s uncovered head if you wish; you simply must not show it to anyone.


In Pakistan, the annual women’s march (Aurat March) took place this International Women’s Day, and a slew of blasphemy accusations came with it. Allegations against demonstrators spread like wildfire on social media — horrors such as blasphemous chants and the waving of a French flag. Suitably, these were false, yet #AuratMarchLhr_295c (295-C being an article against blasphemy in Pakistan’s penal code) still trended on Twitter as God’s servants expressed their fury.

The initial spark that lit this flame was testimony on a banner marchers displayed that day, which came from a survivor of abuse at the hands of an imam. It read: “I was 9. He was 50. I was silenced. But his voice is still heard as he delivers the call to prayer.” According to scripture, the Prophet was around the same age as that imam when he married the six-year-old Aisha—and their marriage was consummated three years later. Islamists thus took this story as an allegorical insult against the Prophet, and mobs formed throughout the capital city of Islamabad demanding blasphemy cases be registered against demonstrators.

As if another reminder was needed of the depressing state of women’s and girl’s rights in Pakistan, last month a member of the country’s lower legislative body married a 14-year-old girl. In Pakistan, girls under 16 may not legally be married, and an investigation is underway. However, this lawmaker’s case underscores the saddening commonality of child marriage in the country, where 21% of girls are married before age 18 and 3% before age 15. A proposal to outlaw marriage for any girl under 18 passed the Senate two years ago, but it remains unadopted.


In the West, a new development in the case of beheaded schoolteacher Samuel Paty: a key figure in the campaign against Paty, a student of his, has admitted to making false claims about him. The student claimed that Paty told Muslim students to leave the classroom during a lesson on free expression, as he was about to show the Muhammad cartoons that triggered the Charlie Hebdo attacks. By other accounts, this may have still happened, but the student has now admitted that she was not even present in class on the day in question. She told her father the story, and, on the basis of the harm that had been inflicted on his family, he spearheaded the social media “hate campaign” that drew the murderer to Paty. Needless to say, this is an unwelcome revelation that only further sours a tragic and senseless death.


In brighter news, though, activist Zara Kay has returned safely to Australia after spending months forcibly held in Tanzania. She was ostensibly arrested over a social media post in which she criticized the Tanzanian president, but the International Coalition of Ex-Muslims stated its belief that she was targeted for her advocacy of ex-Muslim issues. Zara also stated that she had been “reported” for blasphemy. While in custody, she was repeatedly threatened with imprisonment, as well as physical and sexual harm.

Zara said best all that needs to be said: “Unfortunately, even in countries that claim to be secular, ex-Muslims remain at risk.”


The BBC has released a short but compelling documentary telling the story of Princess Latifa of the United Arab Emirates. Having attempted to escape a life of captivity in Dubai, she has been unheard from since last year. The documentary sheds new light on the direness of her situation, which may well have worsened since anyone last heard from her. Her story highlights the reality of misogynistic oppression in Islamic theocracies, which not even royalty itself can escape. You can watch it here.

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