On Burkini and (Athletic) Headscarf Bans – Stripping Muslim Women of their Right to Self-Determination

On Burkini and (Athletic) Headscarf Bans – Stripping Muslim Women of their Right to Self-Determination August 28, 2016

By Aisha Rahman

While France increases its bans on Muslim women’s dress, international sports agencies like FIBA decide whether a headscarf wearing woman is “valid” enough to play basketball. Women today are stripped, literally or otherwise, of our dignity and right to self-determination. Instead, we are reduced to what society deems acceptable attire, presentation or behavior.

Muslims will soon celebrate my favorite holiday—Eid ul-Adha. Islamic history relates that God ordered prophet Ibrahim to take his wife Hajar and their son Ismail to the deserts of Arabia and leave them behind. As he walked away, Hajar grappled with her future. Here she was in a barren wasteland. No food, no water. She asked why her husband was leaving her and their son isolated? As he turned away, feeling the struggle of her question, she realized the answer and offered, “has God ordered you to do so?”

He affirmed. And with that, he was gone and she was alone.

Fast forward some 4,000 years, women in general and Muslim women in particular find themselves in a proverbial desert of isolation. Our headlines are saturated with reductionist conversations policing women’s bodies—particularly what we are wearing.

Muslim women are not unique in this regard. For centuries, women have been viewed through these lenses. In the modern context, whether it is powerhouses like Michelle Obama, Serena Williams, Kate Middleton, or Ibtihaj Muhammad, society focuses more on their clothing rather than their educations, careers, athletic prowess, and family lives. It is long overdue for us to reclaim our narratives and not fall prey to the box that people —read: men— tend to force us in to. In an era of increasing anti-Muslim sentiment, this is particularly true for Muslim women.

Getting back to the story of Eid ul-Adha and Hajar—this incredibly strong woman of faith and conviction is the picture of resilience the world needs today. Many mistake Hajar’s story as one of isolation, when in reality it is a story of self-determination.

Hajar had a choice—capitulate or write her own narrative. She chose the latter and began to search for sustenance for herself and her infant son, running between two hills of Safa and Marwa. Hungry, thirsty, and desperate she knew that against all odds, God would provide for her. Remarkably, a stream appeared at her son’s feet, with water that flows till this day—it was the stream of zam zam. They had sustenance. God had provided for them. Here was a woman who did not give up on herself, her son, or on hope. Till this day, millions of Muslims travel to Makkah annually to partake in the ritual pilgrimage of umrah.

During this pilgrimage, one of the required rituals is to run between the hills of Safa and Marwa, commemorating Hajar’s struggle, faith, and resilience. This commemoration is repeated during the greater pilgrimage of hajj—the conclusion of which is the celebration of Eid ul-Adha. Today, thousands of years after Hajar’s fateful day in the desert, Muslims worldwide remember one woman’s struggle and her perseverance in the face of utter desolation.

This is why Eid ul-Adha is my favorite holiday. It underscores the value of a woman’s self-determination and her faith in God above all else. Islamic history records a plethora of inspiring examples like these of strong women. At KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, we elevate these narratives to draw value from them for our lives—women and men alike. Likewise, we seek to change the prevailing narrative of Muslim women particularly, and women more generally. Challenging the patriarchy in our cultures is not easy—you often find yourself isolated. But we write our own narrative by promoting a widespread movement of tearing down oppressive, reductionist narratives. We do this, in part, by supplying different narratives to the fore.

Indeed, the burkini ban in France and FIBA’s denial of allowing Muslim women to wear a headscarf while playing basketball is a basic denial of looking at women as humans. Women are apparently only what they wear. Muslims are being pitted against one another in conversations contrasting our responses to Ibtihaj Muhammad and Dalilah Muhammad. We must rise above these traps. Let us rise again, remember the stories of our foremothers and the millions that have come after them, and fight another day to restore karamah, our God given dignity.

***To address FIBA’s discriminatory ban on headscarfs, sign this petition.

Aisha Rahman is the executive director of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights. Follow KARAMAH on twitter: https://twitter.com/karamahdc A version of this post originally appeared on Huffington Post.

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