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Why fear the hijab?


Column by Dave Ellison
Inside Bay Area


Article Last Updated:11/13/2006 02:34:19 AM PST


Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, who spoke at the memorial service Oct. 27 for murdered Fremont resident Alia Ansari, asked that Ansari's death not be in vain.

If we do, in fact, create some meaning or silver lining from this tragedy, we must acknowledge the widespread suspicion that the murder was not random, but yet another manifestation of the worldwide fear Sept. 11, 2001, unleashed. Then we must ensure that more fear does not spread among us here and now. Fear poisons all that is noble in us.

The police have yet to label the murder a hate crime, but the fact that Ansari was wearing a hijab a head scarf worn by many Muslim women may explain why a mother with her young daughter in hand could become anyone's victim. You see, a hijab, because of irrational fear and willful ignorance, can make its wearer a target.

Consider that in March 2004, the French government banned religious dress and symbols in public schools. Although they prohibited Jewish skullcaps and Christian crosses as well, French President Chirac and other leaders admitted quite candidly that their ban focused primarily on hijabs, seen by many as a symbol of growing Muslim fundamentalism, which they fear.

Similarly, the British government's race and faith minister recently demanded that a Muslim teaching assistant be fired for refusing to remove her veil at work. There are limits in a liberal democracy, he explained. A top Conservative Party official agreed, citing the "fundamental issue of whether in Britain we are developing a divided society. Whether we are creating a series of closed societies within our open society. Whether we are inadvertently encouraging a kind of voluntary apartheid."

Translation: "The fact that anyone might insist on publicly honoring customs or beliefs different from those held by the majority makes the latter uncomfortable, fearful, and so divides communities.

Heterogeneity must be suppressed in an 'open' society. Everyone ought to dress, speak, believe and behave similarly." (Can you spell "fascism"?) The irony, of course, is that targeting people who are different in France, in Britain or Fremont may cause those individuals, because of their fear, to withdraw into their own communities, thus engendering the divided society the official decried. It may also make radical groups even more militant.

Muslim women feel unsafe, said Moina Shaiq, vice chair of Fremont's Human Relations Commission. "I wear a hijab, and now I'm scared, especially after this incident."

Oh, what a loss if Muslim girls, for example, either flee from public schools to private ones where they feel safe, or if they stay but remove their hijabs in order to blend in. Frankly, I know a lot of my former students, especially those who came to school dressed as scandalously as they dared, would benefit sharing a classroom or lunch table with pious, modest, courageous Muslim girls wearing hijabs.

If only the students won't fear each other.

So this is our greatest task: Teach ourselves and especially our children to embrace, not fear, our differences. "The general community (needs) to stand with people who have been victimized," insisted Herman Rosenbaum of theJewish Community Relations Council.

There are many opportunities. Local community leaders have organized "Wear a Hijab Day" for today. Fremont educator Risha Krishna created an ethnic studies class at Mission San Jose High (featured in The Argus Nov. 1); other teachers at other schools could, too. The Fremont Human Relations Commission will sponsor another community forum Jan. 11, "Our Community We All Belong." Later that month, Fremont Unified will celebrate its second annual "No Name-Calling Week." Meanwhile, the nascent Fremont Alliance for a Hate-Free Community meets the second Monday of every month at 7 p.m. at Fremont Congregational Church, 38255 Blacow Road.

It is not enough to read the headlines with a sad "Tsk, Tsk." We must all step forward and accept responsibility for our community. Let us reclaim the promise exemplified by the United States and Fremont at our best, when we are not overwhelmed by fear. Only that will redeem Ansari's death.

Dave Ellison is on a leave of absence from his position as a seventh-grade teacher at Barnard-White Middle School in Union City. His column appears on alternate Mondays in the Local section.



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