Chadia’s Case: Between the Niqab and Appropriate Femininity

On July 10, El País reported on the case of Chadia (a pseudonym to protect her identity), a 15-year-old girl, born and living in Spain. According to El País, she is the one of the very few women and the only minor in Melilla who wears the niqab.

Chadia El Pais

The image of Chadia from El Pais.

Chadia’s story is unique.  She has decided to withdraw from school because of the ban on garments that cover the face, such as niqab, from public schools. The article is accompanied by a picture of a fully covered Chadia and an image of a “traditional” Muslim father with his almost fully covered daughter. According to the article, Chadia’s mother supports her decision, although her oldest brother and her father do not. El País reports that Chadia asserts that she is “the happiest woman in the world.”

Although reports on women and hijab, niqab, and the burka are not unusual in today’s media, this article is particularly troubling for various reasons. El País reports on the case of a minor that has been allowed to withdraw from school due to the banning of face coverings, and presents it as an example of “Muslim female assertion.” In this article, Chadia is portrayed as the archetype of piety and strength within Islam, which further perpetuates the idea that “pious” Muslim women are extremists who rely on facial garments to assert their faith. In addition, these depictions undermine diversity in Islam and the feminist struggles and interpretations that exist within the religion. Moreover, Chadia is shown as the stereotype of conservatism that disregards society, the law and education in the name of Islam, contributing to the idea that Muslims are not interested in participating in Western society.

Furthermore, she is said to practice proselytism. The paper interviews a number of her friends, who assert that Chadia, as a stereotypical conservative Muslim, has attempted to impose her religious views on them. El País makes a correlation between Chadia’s conservative “Islamic” views and her “undemocratic” approach to relationships that promotes the idea that Islam is in opposition to individual choice and respect for others.

Aside from all this is the fact that Chadia is a minor who could be compelled to attend school by law. Yet, the article draws on the “happiness” argument. Chadia and her family have accepted her decision to withdraw from school because it makes her “happy.” While some people, especially those who interact with adolescents,   may find troubling the fact that this article portraits a minor’s happiness as an archetype of female “self assertion,” this piece offers a broader commentary on an important social phenomena.

The Spanish fight against “extremism” and “gender inequality,” which curiously seems to be present only in Muslim communities, has led to the banning of niqab and the burka. Hijab is still allowed. El País interviews members of the school, who argue that reasonable accommodation is being made towards girls who wear hijab; yet, the line is drawn when the girls become “extremists” and decide to cover up even more. Thus, Chadia is an archetype of female assertion, but an unreasonable one because she is rejecting the “generous” accommodation offered by public schools in Spain.

In the article, this rejection is not only an unreasonable claim to religiosity, but also a threat to the “middle ground,” which is often defined as secularism. In other words, Chadia would be portrayed in a completely different light if she was “reasonable” enough to leave the “extremist” garments aside and decided to pursue education with the “more than enough” accommodation offered by the government. Arguments like this allow for “reasonable” to be defined and provide an excuse for the “othering” of Muslim women who challenge this definition.

This is emphasized all though the article by describing Chadia’s clothing (which includes gloves), her religious expressions and her pledges for Allah’s name to be typed in big case letters through the article. In addition, in this piece a new source of “Muslim femininity” is invoked.

El País refers to the apparently famous book Tú puedes ser la mujer más feliz del mundo (“You can be the Happiest Woman in the World”), available in English here. The book, written by Ai’d Al-Qarni, a male Saudi sheikh, seems to be quite popular in Spain among some groups. Al-Qarni, a conservative scholar, is also the author of “Don’t be Sad” and has written a number of self-help titles.

The book starts by providing two lists: one of what a woman should do and one of what a woman should avoid. On one hand, the list of what a woman should do deals extensively with family, friendship, honor and repentance. On the other, women are told to avoid things like backbiting, trivial pursuits, dirtiness, and haram practices such as smoking.  Later on, the book goes on to encourage women to find happiness through worship, modesty and obedience to her husband. Finally, the book reminds us that women’s “acceptance” in heaven depends on how pleased her husband is with her.

El País goes back to this book to provide a plausible explanation of the kind of behaviors displayed by Chadia. Since Chadia does not have a man in her life imposing the burka (under the assumption that all Muslim women who wear it are forced by a man), there seems to be a need to know where a 15-year-old could get such an idea!

The article displays the book as a source of extremism and gender inequality. Yet, El País calls it “a spiritual guide” for Muslim women. Whether the author meant to write a spiritual guide or not is a different issue.  However, non-conservative Muslim books are rarely featured as a source of Muslim female assertion, and are rarely called “spiritual guides.”

Even though the article explains at the very end that Melilla is a city with a considerable Muslim population where poverty is high and there is a 42% rate of academic failure, the article seems to downplay this factor, explaining Chadia’s decision through the possibility of either her having a conservative “boyfriend” or her reading of sources such as the book mentioned above. El País alerts against extremism within younger groups of people, and it also calls for people to be aware of such literature.

The article uses Chadia’s image to comment on the limits of reasonable accommodation in the Spanish case. It draws the line between “us” and “them” and “reasonable” and “unreasonable,” only to conclude with a warning against “extremist” Muslim women and their “unreasonable” claims for accommodation based on “dangerous” literature and displays of religiosity. Yet, the question remains… why is a 15-year old girl who refuses to go to school an archetype of Muslim female assertion?

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  • selkie

    what strikes me about this (in view of some of the reported “facts”- i.e. her father (as would erroneously be assumed by many) is not forcing this, and rather, is not particularly FOR it- she is a typical 15 year old adolescent …seeking attention. Becuase this seems the polar opposite to the type of attention a lot of 15 year olds seek (i.e. acting out through in appropriate clothing, piercings, rebelling with substances, etc)- the fact that she is “rebelling” by donning this type of clothing is almost irrelevant – as I used to point out, a trantrum is a trantrum (my first two daughters were so different – one tantrumed in the “classic’ way- yelling, screaming, hitting – the other, CRIED … but bottom line, both tantrummed! LOL) – in this case, my gut tells me this is an adolescent rebellion – just not in the guise most people expect

  • S.B

    It is interesting that it is always young Muslim women from lower social classes; living in arear where the academic performence is low; and who most probably come from families that are in most cases uneducated; who uses their piety and Islamic dress as an argument to neglect their education. I know several women who wear the niqab but they work, study at the university and who would never be able to imagine themselves dropping out of school at the age of 15… because of the niqab(!?). Is it even “necessary” for such a young girl to wear it, when it obviously will dammage her future. Happy she is, as long as she is home with her mommy and daddy… but then what? Be under the mercy of a husband? I have seen this before, so please excuse me for my pessimism, but cases like that NEVER end well – I´ve seen it before more than once… unfortunately…

  • zabir

    What if it read a mans acceptance in heaven depends on how he treats his wife. Instead of women’s acceptance in heaven depends on how pleased her husband is with her. Would you than have had a problem.

    • Fatemeh

      @ Zabir: I believe we would.

  • Krista

    @Zabir: I think those are two TOTALLY different questions. I think that how a husband or wife treat each other can definitely affect their acceptance into heaven, and that makes total sense. If you are really good to the person you’re living with, then that probably reflects that you’re a really good person. If someone is abusive to their spouse, that’s terrible, and they’ll be judged for that, regardless of their gender.

    On the other hand, the question of “how pleased” the spouse is? Not so much. If the one spouse is displeased because they’re being mistreated, then that’s not cool. But if they’re not pleased because they’re overly demanding or because they have unfair expectations, then that’s not the other spouse’s fault. And, either way, what matters is how pleased God is with you, not your spouse.

    So if we re-phrase what you said to say “What if it read that a man’s acceptance in heaven depends on how pleased his wife is with him”? Then yup, there would definitely be a problem with that.

  • S.B

    Kristie has already answered you, a reply I totally agree with. Moreover, I highly mistrust/distrust/reject the interpretation that a womans destiny lies in the hands of her husband. I think that this hadeeth has been overly misquoted. THe Prophet also mentioned; the best of you is the one who is best towards his family (spouse) but we do not see people interpreting this that if a husband mistreats his wife, he is an evil person and what not. Most people, unfortunately even the shuyookh, come with excuses like “he may have other good qualities which makes you (the wife) overlook his “deficiency”. But, as my friend jokingly said to me, if a husband comes home in an empty house without food – that would be a reason for divorce for many men.
    As Kirstie said – how you are with your spouse is an indication of what kind of person you are: in your relationship with others, and Allah. That person sees your true colours, the true you. And all that piety and goodness shown outwardly is just a mask one puts on. If not being able to show true piety with the person who deserves it MOST – your spouse; wife or husband – then, at least me, would question the sincerity of that person. It would be wiser to understand this, than to fantasize how a womans destiny and akhira lies in the hands of a man who might even end up to be one of the inhabitants of hell… wa Allahu al Mustan.

  • zabir

    According to my understanding of islam part of our acceptance in heaven is to do with how pleased our spouse and parents are with us. What makes you think the author was saying any different. I don’t think they were saying if our spouse abuses us and then isnt pleased with us we wont go to heaven.

  • zabir

    I have been listening to islamic lectures for over 20 years by a wide variety of scholars and have never heard the emphasis on women being good wives more then I hear it about men being good husbands. Actually its the other way round you often hear about being good towards ones wife more then you hear about a wife being good to her husband. What S.B says is a total lie from my experience “but we do not see people interpreting this that if a husband mistreats his wife, he is an evil person and what not”. Thats all you ever hear. Just do a quick search on how many lectures there are for the husband about twice as many as there are for the wife. All I ever hear are the hadith about womens rights, the ones about mens rights are hidden away or explained away or denied As is the case with the people on this website. I no women hater, I was bought up with 5 elder sisters and love to treat my wife as a queen but dont expect much back from her. I just want to speak against injustice. And I have no problem with womens rights taking a greater importance then mens. May be thats what is needed by many men in our times. But what I dont like is when its 90 percent for women and to 5 percent for men or even less.

    Just a side point in western liberal culture women are constantly complaining about men but where are the men that they want. I dont see it amongst their icons John Lenon and any other icons of western liberalism. They treated women like crap and are women abusers. But it seems these guys are the ones they all love. The ones who dont follow what feminist want. The so called ideal feminist guy in reality they would run 100 miles from. Women fancy the kind of guys they always complain about.

  • Krista

    @ zabir: I’m sincerely glad to hear that you have encountered so many lectures on women’s rights and on the responsibilities of husbands.

    That said, there are many people for whom the opposite is the case, and while it’s nice to know that it’s not *always* that way, it’s not fair to dismiss experiences simply because they don’t resonate with yours. It’s totally fair that S.B.’s experience doesn’t resonate with yours, but that doesn’t make it a “total lie.”

    And, yeah, a lot of male celebrities are not always good to women, hence why they’re not considered feminist icons. I’m not sure that the women who “always complain” about certain kinds of men are the same ones who “fancy” those men – either way, those are some major (and rather irrelevant) generalisations happening in your last paragraph, which aren’t particularly representative of women or feminists.

  • zabir

    Are most people really saying that a man mistreats his wife and he isn’t an evil person. This is what S.B said and it is a wild generalisation and a plain lie. She thinks this is the norm and she says islamic shayks say this as well. There may be an odd few people who say this but not most of us as S.B claims. Or maybe I’m just fortunate with where i live in the UK. But then i’ve lived in saudi and hear lectures from people from around the world.

    And women do really love, adore, fancy etc the non feminist type guys. Just look at the marriages of the so called strong women we have in our society.

  • zabir

    What I’ve found is that the kind of guys who are always speaking up for women never practice it but just do it to impress females and they fall for it as well. The kind of guys who really do things for women never speak about it but just carry on with it and there never acknowledged. I’ve seen this time and time again.

  • S.B

    It is not a lie just because you may, for some wonderous reason, have had the experience to come across alot of lectures about “womens rights”. One cannot deny the fact that the overall global da’wa among “traditional” Muslims if focused on men and men only. This is evident from Muslim womens sitaution and status around the Muslim world, as well as by taking a quick glance on different kind of fatawas from differnet, quite famous, fatawa websites. By doing this, my point will as well be proven. In all cases I have come across there is always threats taken from this misogynist interpretation of the hadith that the woman shall end up in hell fire just because her husband is not satisfied with her. However, when it is the reverse there is more or less apologetic semantics on how “sabr” is praiseworthy, self-sacrifice is preferred (so that she ends up in paradise), and never an objective attitude towards divorce initiaded from the woman´s side as when it is initiaded from the man… Anyway, I´ll stop her and not continue. We are all aware of Muslim womens situation (we, as women at least) and there is no use in debating whether womens rights are in focus or not when Muslim womens reality in most cases shows something completely different.

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    I am glad that this posting caused so much discussion. However, I think there are few things that we need to analyze. First of all, we are not discussing theology. There are so many opinions out there, and as Muslims it is our duty to think for ourselves and consider the most important principles of Islam such as equality, justice, fairness, acceptance, diversity, etc. Second of all, when we talk about the treatment of women it is important not to generalize. “Women” is not necessarily a category. We are all different, diverse and unique, and our experiences are completely different. Thus, in my own experience, the fact that there are more lectures for men than for women just shows how Islamic scholars are way more focused on the male experience than in gender equality. Furthermore, there seems to be much more clarity in terms of the roles of a “husband.” The roles of a “wife” change according to the times, the place and the MALE Islamic scholar interpreting them. In terms of women going to hell for not pleasing her husband, I tend to agree that this hadith is classified as weak. Specially, because it is a dangerous idea to claim that a person’s entrance to heaven relies on other people’s conception. Finally, when discussing issues of gender and equality, I would like to ask you guys, if there was a book like “You can be the Happiest Woman in the World” for men “You can be the Happiest [Man] in the World” what would it call for? Would we have such an emphasis on obedience? on pleasing others? on submission to other people? on children and family? on Islamic apparel? on being “appropriate”?

  • Dina

    “what strikes me about this (in view of some of the reported “facts”- i.e. her father (as would erroneously be assumed by many) is not forcing this, and rather, is not particularly FOR it- she is a typical 15 year old adolescent …seeking attention.”

    This is what my thought was too… sadly in this kind of rebellion (being allowed to drop out of school by the schooling system and her legal guardians) will affect her entire life… she may regret this decision one day, and have a hard time correcting it like many teens dropping out of school.