Here’s a story I’m going to be watching pretty closely – the story of the wife of Suspect Number One from the Boston Marathon bombings. The first reports about this woman from various news sources indicate that she had converted to Islam and had taken to wearing the hijab and covering from head to toe, in keeping with the practices of more insistently religious Muslim women…or probably better put, in keeping with the requirements of more insistently religious Muslim men.
Why did she wear the hijab? One of her friends apparently asked her that, and the answer to her friend’s question…came from her husband, according to the UK newspaper The Independent. “She believes in the tenets of Islam and of the Koran,” explained Suspect Number One. “She believes in God.” Glad that’s settled. His wife might have had to open her mouth and say what she thinks or something.
It’s troubling enough to see women from predominantly Muslim countries behaving like that, meek as if their own point of view didn’t matter, at least not until it could be checked with the boss (whether that might mean the man of the house or Allah, I’ll leave up to you). But it is extremely disconcerting to see this kind of mousy behaviour coming from American women, who presumably, after years of feminism being current in the culture, should feel like they can claim, out loud even, to have at least some rights.
There is something terribly wrong here, whether some want to acknowledge it or not, and yes, the hijab is involved. The cult of female modesty in Islam is part of this story.
As evidenced by his YouTube channel, Suspect Number One was a fan of an Australian imam named Sheik Feiz Mohammed, a cleric who has publicly blamed women who dress immodestly, by his religious standards, for rape. (That’s actually just one of the lovely statements this imam has managed to spew out in his lifetime. Another good one is the bit about how children make great martyrs. Possibly that was a point of view a pair of young brothers took literally. But I digress.)
Anyway, this was a guy Suspect Number One considered to be a great spiritual leader. And it showed. Suspect Number One was detained by police in 2009 concerning a domestic violence complaint. Now you might imagine this was all trumped up by some jingoistic neighbour who doesn’t like seeing a Muslim with an American girl in a hijab, but actually, the suspect’s own father verified both that he did hit his girlfriend (it is not yet clear whether this is the woman who would become his wife or a previous girlfriend) _and_ that this is the reason his citizenship application was held up. The New York Times covered this in depth. Here are the words of Suspect Number One’s own father, not exactly helpful to his cause: “Because of his girlfriend, he hit her lightly, he was locked up for half an hour.”
National Public Radio’s Laura Sullivan describes the comments of friends of the suspect’s wife this way: “They say he was combative and angry. He would often call (her) names and insult her. He would call her a slut and a prostitute, and they remember fights that they would get into where he would fly into rages and sometimes throw furniture or throw things.” The reason I am bringing this up is not that I find it particularly Muslim or religious to be upset and fly into a rage – that’s bad behaviour anyone might be capable of, with less lovely people more capable of it than others. But the part about him calling his wife a slut or a prostitute is not out of the ordinary for a Muslim extremist. It is, sadly, overwhelmingly the norm.
The hijab may well be a choice for some women, but I suspect many other women wear the hijab in order to avoid being called a slut and a prostitute and threatened in some way by an overbearing hyper-religious Muslim male. I am unwilling to bow and scrape before cultural difference here because it is not an acceptable cultural difference in my eyes. That doesn’t mean that I will not be friendly to someone who wears the hijab, nor does it mean that I have a particular problem living near so many people who wear them. It doesn’t even mean that I won’t rise to defend the right to wear the hijab – I don’t see any reason to prohibit people wearing a headscarf. Most importantly, I am totally down with the idea that someone could wear a hijab and be a model of feminism.
But still, in the news the past couple of days, we have come to see, once again, how benign of a symbol the hijab is not. Those who wear the hijab and rise to demand and expect equality from men may well exist, but so do so many who wear the hijab because they are literally afraid not to do so. Some may ignore this when those women live in predominantly Muslim countries, out of sight and out of mind to anyone but presumed-to-be-obsessed-interventionaries. But it is painfully hard to ignore when one of those women hails from a middle-class, white and non-Muslim household.
I know, I know, it’s bad to interfere with other people’s cultures. Great. But let’s ask the defenders of hijabbed women why they didn’t do more to help the wife of Suspect Number One. It’s not international intervention to speak up for someone from Rhode Island, is it?