The battle over headscarves in Europe appears to have claimed its first human casualty. Samira Munir, a Norwegian politician of Pakistani origin and the first Muslim woman to support a ban on headscarves in Norwegian schools, died mysteriously after falling on train tracks in suburban Oslo. On November 14, 2005, a Norwegian human rights group, Human Rights Service, reported the news of her death, yet another catastrophe in the blood-smeared landscape of European Islam.
Samira Munir’s death is a chilling deterrent to Muslim women who choose to speak out about the violence in their communities and aggressively seek reform instead of conforming to the religiously “acceptable” forms of rights discourse that are tolerated by Muslim communities in the West. Samira Munir was unapologetic about her position and unwilling to buy into the rhetoric of the liberated hijab (headscarf) increasingly bandied about by many Muslims.
For this outspokenness, this political divergence from the much-lauded camp of liberated Muslim women that celebrates the hijab as a voluntary act of faith, Samira Munir was condemned to die under mysterious circumstances. The terror of her last moments is amplified by the ominous statements that she made prior to her death. She received threatening phone calls on a daily basis and was being harassed by Muslim men who accosted her on the streets and threatened to kill her.
The intimidation did not stop there: in interviews to Norwegian newspapers Samira Munir spoke about feeling pressured by the Pakistani Ambassador to Oslo, Shahbaz Shahbaz, who twice summoned her to the Pakistan Embassy. The embassy visits were purportedly arranged to “discuss her political views”. Samira Munir also said that the Ambassador had repeatedly mentioned the fact that “she still had her family in Pakistan”. The message implicit in the Ambassador’s reminder of this vulnerability has apparently become clear now.
Her voice was too loud and her commitment to women’s rights simply too threatening to be tolerated, and she was obliterated in the isolation of a suburban Oslo train station. Here was a woman who had lived in Norway for 20 years, a Norwegian citizen and a member of the Oslo City Council. Only Norwegian newspapers reported her death. The Pakistan Ambassador, so concerned about her political views in life, did not make any public statement about her death. The Pakistani community, otherwise so vocal in all matters affecting Pakistani-Norwegians, maintained a macabre silence.
Rumours are afloat that her death may have been a case of suicide, but despite the existence of surveillance cameras in the train station no definitive account of the cause of her death is available. Unwilling to grapple with the complex political issues surrounding her death, most people seem to welcome the assumption that she simply took her own life.
The death of Samira Munir lies at the epicentre of a gaping tension between the religiously conservative Pakistani-Norwegian community opposed to any restraints on cultural practices and the Norwegian state accustomed to treating all things cultural as innately sacred and unworthy of state intervention. In the middle of this chasm lie the women whose interests Samira Munir was attempting to represent, the young Pakistani-Norwegian girls alienated from their parents’ culture and prevented from identifying with Norwegian culture. In supporting a ban on the hijab in Norway’s public schools, Samira Munir sought to establish for these girls the choice that many Muslim women who support the hijab tout as their reasons for adopting it. In securing for them a state-sponsored space that would allow them to develop as women unencumbered with cultural and parentally imposed restraints, Samira Munir sought to procure for them the ability to make a choice based on their own beliefs rather than those of their parents.
It is in welcoming state intervention in developing such a space that she was labelled as an enemy of Islam and a threat to the image of solidarity that Norwegian Muslims sought to project to the Norwegian majority.
In the wake of the controversy over headscarves in France, scores of Muslim women have spoken out in defence of the hijab. Indeed, hundreds of Norwegian Muslim women demonstrated in Oslo against implementing the ban. Their remonstrations on behalf of the hijab focus predominantly on two crucial aspects; first the notion that the hijab is a required tenet of Muslim religious practice and second that they chose to wear the hijab of their own volition.
However, the two prongs of the argument represent a problematic logic. Even if the divergence of views on the hijab as a requirement of faith is ignored, can such a requirement be constructed simultaneously as an essential obligation of a practising Muslim and an act of free will? The philosophical underpinnings of this complex inquiry provide only one conclusion, the fact that school-age girls stand vulnerable to becoming pawns in the hands of parents trying desperately to cling to the traditional practices of their past and retain a cultural identity free of Western influence.
Even a cursory analysis of the Norwegian Muslim community presents significant evidence of pervasive anti-integration sentiments typical of European Muslim communities.
The unwelcome communal burden of post-9/11 scrutiny in the guise of anti-terrorism measures has promoted a victimised and beleaguered self-image, deeply suspicious of the Norwegian culture that surrounds it. Religious conservatives within the community frown on assimilation and integration and often paint it as an abandonment of Islam and as the adoption of the wayward ways of the West. In the summer of 2005, an Urdu publication entitled Iblis ki Aulad (Children of Satan) was released within the community by the All Pakistan Muslim Association. The author of the book, allegedly a Pakistani mullah, not only attacks Norwegian ethics and morality but describes all Norwegian children as illegitimate and conceived “here and there”.
Expectedly, the anti-assimilation sentiment manifests itself in the community by the oppressive pressure placed on those that can be most easily controlled, girls and women. The hijab thus becomes an effective instrument of this control, a convenient means of extending the control exerted by fathers, husbands and brothers in the private sphere into the public sphere of school life. The tension between those that consider the hijab a requirement of faith and those that do not is also increasingly obvious within the Muslim community. Norwegian school officials such as Anne Bech Skogen, the principal of a girls’ school in Oslo, report not only an increase in headscarves in girls schools but also fights among Muslim girls in which girls not wearing the hijab are called prostitutes. The tussles in the schoolyard represent an extension of the battles against integration to an arena that should be devoted solely to educational pursuits.
There is good reason for their fear. Months before the mysterious death of Samira Munir, a 20-year-old Pakistani girl named Rahila Iqbal was killed during a trip to Pakistan. In a gruesome set of events, Rahila was lured to Pakistan under the guise of a conciliatory family vacation. There, in rural Punjab, the unwitting Rahila was surreptitiously drugged, then raped and drowned in a staged car accident at the behest of her own family. The murderers included Rahila’s mother, who conspired against her to erase the shame brought upon the family by Rahila’s love marriage. The family members have since been indicted in Norwegian courts and are facing criminal trial.
Rahila’s killing was a crime of honour, fuelled by a desire to erase the existence of a daughter who had chosen to reiterate her own will against that of her family. Against the backdrop of such unabashed commodification of women as emblems of family honour, the issue of hijab becomes problematic and the question of state intervention in “cultural matters” even more imperative. Should Western liberal states reconsider their non-intervention policies towards Muslim minorities at the risk of being accused of adopting imperialist and paternalistic attitudes towards them or should the potential for the abuse of the rights of Muslim women like Rahila endorse a proactive attitude towards integration that justifies a ban on headscarves in public schools?
Some avenues to investigating these questions can be found in the articulations of the European Court of Human Rights on the issue of the headscarf ban in Turkish educational institutions. In 2005, a court decided that Istanbul University’s refusal to allow a female student, Leyla Hasin, to wear an Islamic headscarf during an examination was not a violation of her human rights. The court quoted a decision from the Supreme Administrative Court in Turkey saying: “Beyond being a mere innocent practice, wearing the headscarf is in the process of becoming the symbol of a vision that is contrary to the freedoms of women.” Within hours of the release of the Hasin decision, Muslim groups in Europe issued statements condemning the Islamophobia of the European court. Among them was the extremist Muslim group Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which issued a statement that the verdict “had served to convince Muslim women further that only the unification of Turkey and all Muslim countries under an Islamic Caliphate state would guarantee the protection of the rights and honour of women in the Muslim world”. Other European Muslim publications condemned the ban, accusing the court of “implementing tyranny” and “being unable to deliver justice”.
Such was the vitriol against which Samira Munir raised her voice. She was not alone in being condemned for speaking out against practices she saw as holding women back. Many women championing other causes related to Muslim women have been singled out for intimidation and even assassination. In Iraq, Zeena Al Qushtaini, the owner of Baghdad’s best known pharmacy, was killed for “working with women’s activists and wearing Western clothes”. Her death followed those of Aquila Al Hashimia, Nisreen Mustafa Al-Burawati and Amal al-Ma’amalachi, all murdered for supporting women’s rights. Yanar Mohammad, the head of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq who opposed the replacement of the existing Personal Status Code by Sharia law, has been threatened by the Army of Sahaba (Jaysh Al-Sahaba).
In Afghanistan, five women have been killed in the past year for working for aid organisations that support women’s issues. In Pakistan, Zubeida Begum, a worker for the women’s rights group Aurat Foundation and an active campaigner for women’s right to participate in local elections, was murdered by an unknown person as she slept in her house. In a recent interview, women’s rights activist Amna Buttar of the Asian American Network Against Abuse (AANAA) reported being told by a top Pakistani government official that “it is extremely easy for us to get someone knocked off even on the streets of New York”, clearly implying that living in the United States was no guarantee for her safety if she continued to speak out against rape and sexual abuse of Pakistani women.
On January 8, a delegation led by Asma Jehangir, the renowned women’s rights activist in Pakistan, was fired on by unknown gunmen, under the watchful eyes of Pakistani paramilitary troops who refused to come to the aid of the activists.
These threats and tragic deaths are indelible marks on the conscience of Muslims everywhere. When Muslim women in the West raise their voices in support of the hijab and proclaim their right to wear it, they must also acknowledge the reality of the oppression faced by those Muslim women who refuse to wear it. The fact that many Muslim women choose to wear the hijab as an independent act of faith does not erase the subjugation perpetrated on other women whose suffering is just as real if not as vocal.
The real causes for Samira Munir’s death remain shrouded in mystery, but the fact that she was singled out for threats and intimidation for acknowledging both of these realities is exceedingly and unarguably clear. It is only in unequivocally endorsing the freedom to oppose the hijab that European Muslims can claim the right to support it.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and member of the Asian American Network Against Abuse of Women. She teaches courses on constitutional law and political philosophy. This article previously appeared in Frontline Magazine (India).