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When the headscarf becomes a death sentence

When the headscarf becomes a death sentence
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First Published: Thu, Aug 06 2009. 10 02 PM IST

Veiled: Marwa, a former handball champion, with her husband, a lecturer. Francois Guillot / AFP
Veiled: Marwa, a former handball champion, with her husband, a lecturer. Francois Guillot / AFP
Updated: Thu, Aug 06 2009. 10 02 PM IST
Last Monday my morning newspaper carried pictures of an Egyptian girl, Nour el-Sherbini, who had just won the World Junior Squash Championship in Chennai. Her name reminded me of another young Egyptian sportswoman, Marwa el-Sherbini, once Egypt’s handball champion, who was killed in a German courtroom on 1 July.
Veiled: Marwa, a former handball champion, with her husband, a lecturer. Francois Guillot / AFP
Professionally, Marwa was a pharmacist. Her husband was a lecturer who moved from Egypt to Germany to do his doctorate in genetics at the Max Planck Institute in Dresden. Marwa had a son, Mustafa, and at the time of her murder, she was pregnant.
The events that led to her murder began with a playground dispute. She became involved in a dispute with Alex W., a Russian immigrant of ethnic German descent, about whose turn it was to use the swing: his niece’s or her son’s. The argument became ugly when he tried to pull off her headscarf and called her a terrorist and an Islamist whore. He was fined by a district court but his defence that people like Marwa were less than human and therefore couldn’t really be insulted, was so provocative that the public prosecutor pressed for more severe punishment.
In the subsequent trial Alex W. walked across the courtroom and stabbed Marwa 18 times as her three-year-old son watched. When her husband ran to her defence, he suffered stab wounds and was shot in the leg by a policeman who mistook him for the assailant. Marwa and her unborn child died in the courtroom; her husband’s condition remains critical.
The German newspapers that did mention the murder, did so on their back pages and confined themselves to reporting that a woman had been killed in a courtroom over a playground dispute. There was concern expressed about security in German courtrooms but no mention of the racist context of the murder. It was only when her burial provoked outraged demonstrations in Alexandria, that a handful of news providers—the Guardian, AP, the Huffington Post—gave the story some play. Even today, if you google Marwa el-Sherbini, you get pages and pages of websites in the Arab and Muslim world; for all the interest shown by the European and American media or the German government, the murder might never have happened.
Kamran Pasha, a writer and film-maker, explained this silence in the online site, the Huffington Post:
“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 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 building consensus against Muslims in Europe is legitimized by the notion that European modernity has to be defended against a medieval religion and its violent adherents. Since racism and religious bigotry aren’t respectable any more, white Europe is now defended in the name of the Enlightenment. Muslims and their faith are unwelcome intrusions because they don’t conform to rationality, to democracy, to science and most of all because they deny the West’s greatest modern achievement, the emancipation of women.
Marwa el-Sherbini in her life and her death shames the modern Western Islamophobe into a temporary silence because she doesn’t fit this narrative. She and her husband were paid-up members of the high church of modern science. Her hijab hadn’t inhibited her athleticism or her ability to make her way in the world. And she was lovely to look at. That last quality isn’t irrelevant: People being what they are, aesthetic horror at the destruction of beauty magnifies the moral revulsion against murder.
It’s a mistake to see her murder as an isolated crime perpetrated by a maladjusted lunatic. It occurred days after Nicolas Sarkozy, the President of France, called for a ban on the burqa. Sarkozy had targeted the burqa, the full veil that obscures the face, not the hijab that covers a Muslim woman’s hair, but Germany has shown how easy it is to slide from banning the one to proscribing the other. According to German law, four out of 16 of its states have the right to ban teachers and government employees from wearing Muslim headscarves in the workplace.
More broadly, mainstream Western journalists, authors and public intellectuals have queued up to stigmatize the Muslim presence in Europe. This is Mark Steyn, in America Alone: “In a democratic age, you can’t buck demography—except through civil war. The Serbs figured that out, as other Continentals will in the years ahead: If you cannot outbreed the enemy, cull ’em. The problem that Europe faces is that Bosnia’s demographic profile is now the model for the entire continent.”
If you think this blithe prescription of genocide makes Steyn part of the lunatic fringe, think again. Christopher Hitchens, perhaps the best known public intellectual in America, wrote an appreciative review of the book, congratulating Steyn on saying the unsayable. This week has seen admiring reviews in The New York Times of two books written by respectable American intellectuals, that make the case against appeasing Muslims and warn that the West will be swamped by busily breeding aliens: Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe and Bruce Bawer’s Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom.
The moral of Marwa’s murder is that the Western hysteria around veiling is not about the emancipation of Muslim women; it’s about Europe’s visceral intolerance for visible difference. The veil has become a symbol for an unassimilable minority, an alibi for the dislike that large numbers of Europeans feel for labouring “guests” of a different colour and faith who’ve outlived their usefulness and their welcome.
Mukul Kesavan, a professor of social history at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, is the author of The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Such Propositions.
Write to Mukul at highwindows@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Aug 06 2009. 10 02 PM IST