…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
What Are We Afraid Of? Media Shies Away From Coverage of ‘Hijab Martyr’

by Meg White

A 32-year-old pregnant woman was stabbed 18 times in front of her husband and three-year-old son in a hijabcourtroom over her choice of clothing. Her husband, who tried to come to her aid, was not only stabbed by the attacker but shot by police and critically wounded.

This is the sort of story we in the U.S. might immediately associate with the Middle East: Attacks on women for making their own choices about how they wish to physically present themselves to the rest of the world are part of our cultural perception of that area of the world.

But this story happened in Dresden, Germany, and Marwa al-Sherbini was murdered because she was wearing a hijab.

Had the victim been a German woman killed in a Muslim country for not covering herself properly, you would have heard about it by now. Had this been a Jewish woman killed by an anti-Semite, you would have heard about it by now.

But this was a woman wearing a hijab, killed by a man who professed hatred for Muslims.

And don’t think for a minute this media slight is lost on the Muslim world. The Associated Press story on the subject quotes people close to the case who see al-Sherbini’s murder as more than just the “attack of a fanatical lone wolf,” as characterized by the German prosecutor in the courtroom that day.

Al-Sherbini’s brother believed that the shooting of his brother-in-law was not accidental, saying that “the guards thought that as long as he wasn’t blond, he must be the attacker so they shot him” on an Egyptian television station. He also was upset by the international reaction (or lack thereof), telling the Associated Press, “In the West, they don’t recognize us. There is racism.”

Courtrooms are emotionally-charged places. Murders sometimes occur there, despite officials’ best attempts at keeping order. This was a tragedy, to be sure. But the community-wide calamity may yet be coming.

Commentators and observers from the Muslim world have condemned the attack as not only brutal, but as “anti-Islamic.” Again from the AP article:

Egyptian commentators said the incident was an example of how hate crimes against Muslims are overlooked in comparison to those committed by Muslims against Westerners. Many commentators pointed to the uproar that followed the 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Dutch-born Islamic fundamentalist angry over one of his films criticizing the treatment of Muslim women.

The fallout from the lack of international coverage and concern over this story spilled over into the streets of al-Sherbini’s hometown of Alexandria, Egypt Monday during her funeral.

The New York Times’ story about the unrest in Alexandria at al-Sherbini’s funeral amounted to a whopping 137-word paragraph, ending with the chants of protesters who said, “There is no god but God and the Germans are the enemies of God,” underscoring readers’ fears and hinting at the presence of Islamofascism at the funeral march.

By way of contrast, an article in the Guardian (as reprinted yesterday in Gulfnews) called the virtual media blackout a “conspiracy to bury ‘hijab martyr‘” in its headline.

To be fair, it is possible that some of the lack of coverage is linked to the decrease in international reporting resources in general. But there is a double standard evident here. Moreover, I suspect there’s a degree of buried guilt and unexplored conflict in the Western psyche preventing readers from clamoring to hear this story.

Clearly Marwa is not Neda, and the difference may be the Western practice of festishizing democracy.

The dichotomous narratives of supporting greater access to freedom and liberty for Muslim women, while at the same time trying to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world by respecting their traditions, makes telling this story exceedingly difficult.

The American public can’t seem to decide whether the burqa — and by extension the hijab — is a symbol of oppressive misogyny, or a cultural expression of group membership to be embraced.

What is missing from this debate is the issue of choice. While prohibiting women from having an abortion is thought of as paternalistic and unfair by a majority of Americans, forcing abortions on women would be laughable were it not such a cruel vision. Similarly, while we may abhor the idea of a morality police squad dragging women from behind the steering wheels of cars and hauling them off to jail for a loose headscarf, when women choose to wear their headscarves, they should be respected.

Such was the case with al-Sherbini. She wore her hijab despite the fact that it interfered with her ability to get a job, though she was a trained pharmacist. Her choice led to not only accusations of this pregnant mother being a terrorist, but to her eventual murder. This was a hate crime, pure and simple.

Certainly Germany — like its neighbor France, where President Sarkozy recently said the burqa was unwelcome in his country and where legislators are considering banning the head-to-toe garb — has some cultural accounting to do. The influx of immigrants and refugees to these countries, many of whom are Muslim, may have caused a spike in nationalism and xenophobia there. Such friction should not be ignored.

But, as is evident by the fact that the U.S. media would rather continue to harp on stale celebrity stories about Michael Jackson and Sarah Palin instead of confront the difficult story of a woman killed because of her hijab, Americans too have their own brand of accounting to do.


Image courtesy kian1′s photostream on Flickr.

Originally published at BuzzFlash.com.

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