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’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.
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?