Woman's Murder Raises Stakes In Headscarf DebateS

Since a pregnant woman was stabbed to death in a German courtroom, apparently for wearing a headscarf, the debate over Islamic women's dress in Europe has grown more urgent.

Thirty-two-year-old Marwa al-Sherbini, a pharmacist of Egyptian descent working in Germany, had gone to court to testify against a man who called her a terrorist and tried to take off her headscarf. According to Time, the accused "ran across the courtroom and stabbed her 18 times." Complicating the case even further is the fact that a German guard shot Sherbini's husband, mistaking him for the attacker. The shocking attack has turned a harsh spotlight on anti-Islam sentiment in Europe, which some believe is also behind Sarkozy's suggestion of a burqa ban in France.

Of Sherbini's murder, a columnist for Daily News Egypt wrote,

Had the Muslim been the aggressor as the guards initially thought, the story would have made headlines ... It would have perfectly fitted into the promoted image of Muslims being aggressive, barbaric and uncivilized.

Others, however, believe that Islamists are making opportunistic use of the Sherbini case. Journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy says,

The Islamists in Egypt have already [begun] using this as a card to mobilize for the veil - not for the right of women to wear whatever they want, but in defense of the veil. [...] The government is also trying to hijack the campaign and trying to present itself as patriotic in defense of Egyptians abroad. What do they do for the Egyptians who are in the Gulf and who actually face similar treatment, if not worse?

While debate rages over whether Sherbini's murder was an isolated incident or part of a pattern of European racism, Muslim women in France face their own set of prejudices. Student Ikram Es-Salhi says, "If you wear the veil, you get insulted and attacked all the time, you get called a terrorist." Members of the French parliament have denounced the burqa and niqab as "degrading," called them "walking prisons," and said that wearing them may be "a submissive act." Sarkozy's urban policies secretary, Fadela Amara is in favor of banning the garments despite her Muslim faith. She says, "I am for the banning of this coffin which kills basic freedoms. This debate has to clear the way to a law which protects women."

But some question whether the debate over the burqa ban is really about protecting women. Es-Salhi says, "The real reason for this is Islamophobia." Perhaps bearing out her view are the words of French Member of Parliament Jean-Francois Cope, who says, "Make no mistake, the burqa is a political debate, not a religious one. Extremists are once again testing the Republic." Despite strong emotions on both sides, some take a moderate line on the burqa issue. One of the wisest voices in the debate is that of Suraya Pakzad, executive director of Voice of Women, who says,

I am against the burqa being imposed by force. But what Mr Sarkozy is saying is another type of enforcement on women. No one should be able to compel someone to dress in a certain way.

Tragic Symbol: Egypt's Headscarf Martyr [Time]
French Row Over Burqa Ban Unveils Contradictions [Reuters]