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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 11    Issue 10   01-15 October 2016

The Way People Look at Us Has Changed’: Muslim Women on Life in Europe


Saima Ashraf, 39, at the Barking Town Hall in London, where she is a leader in the local government. She said such an achievement would not have been possible for her as a veiled woman in her home country, France. CreditAndrew Testa for The New York Times

The storm over bans on burkinis in more than 30 French beach towns has all but drowned out the voices of Muslim women, for whom the full-body swimsuits were designed. The New York Times solicited their perspective, and the responses — more than 1,000 comments from France, Belgium and beyond — went much deeper than the question of swimwear.

What emerged was a portrait of life as a Muslim woman, veiled or not, in parts of Europe where terrorism has put people on edge. One French term was used dozens of times: “un combat,” or “a struggle,” to live day to day. Many who were born and raised in France described confusion at being told to go home.

Courts have struck down some of the bans on burkinis — the one in Nice, the site of a horrific terror attack on Bastille Day, was overturned on Thursday — but the debate is far from over.

“For years, we have had to put up with dirty looks and threatening remarks,” wrote Taslima Amar, 30, a teacher in Pantin, a suburb of Paris. “I’ve been asked to go back home (even though I am home).” Now, Ms. Amar said, she and her husband were looking to leave France.

Laurie Abouzeir, 32, said she was considering starting a business caring for children in her home in Toulouse, southern France, because that would allow her to wear a head scarf, frowned upon and even banned in someworkplaces.

Many women wrote that anti-Muslim bias had intensified after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015, and in Brussels, Paris and Nicemore recently. Halima Djalab Bouguerra, a 21-year-old student in Bourg-en-Bresse, France, dated the change further back, to the killings by Mohammed Merah in the southwest of the country in 2012.

“The way people look at us has changed,” Ms. Bouguerra wrote. “Tongues have loosened. No one is afraid of telling a Muslim to ‘go back home’ anymore.”

Here are some excerpts from the comments we received. They have been condensed and edited for clarity, and translated for those who wrote in French.

“When the burkini came out, I was happy for my sister, who was on vacation and could finally play with her children on the beach instead of sitting in the shadow. At the beginning of all the drama, I thought, ‘Never mind it, Dina, it’s just a couple of small-minded people who don’t have anything else to do than hate on everything.’ But this? Really? This is everything I thought Europe was against. … How is it possible that in a ‘modern’ world, tanning naked is accepted but keeping your clothes on at the beach is not?”

Dina Srouji, 23, Lebbeke, Belgium. Student and student reporterat the University of Ghent. Instagram: @dindinsr

“This reminds me of my first days in high school after French law banned the hijab in schools. My teacher forced me to take off my head scarf in front of all the other pupils. I was humiliated. ... Today, I felt my heart broken again. I just looked at this woman taking off her clothes and asked myself, when will it end?”

Hajer Zennou, 27, Lyon, France. Designer. She was referring to a woman who was surrounded by police officers on a beach in Nice.

“I am insulted, spat on (literally) every day in the subway, on the bus, at school. Yet I have never insulted or hit someone. No, I am just Muslim. I am seriously thinking of going to live elsewhere, where other people’s looks won’t make me cry every night in my bed.

“I am afraid of having to wear a yellow crescent on my clothes one day, like the Star of David for Jews not so long ago.”

Charlotte Monnier, 23, Toulouse, France. Architecture student.


“I was curious to see if, in the cities where they forbade women in burkinis, dogs could swim. The answer was yes for some of them. Personally, I am scandalized that dogs can have more rights than a scarfed woman.”

Samia Fekih, 36, Paris. Digital project manager.

Nawal Afkir, 25, of Brussels. Her hobby is street photography. CreditGael Turine for The New York Times

“I am a social worker and I do my best to strive for a fair and free society. To me, wearing the veil does not mean being enslaved by a man. On the contrary, it means reappropriating the body and femininity.”

Nawal Afkir, 25, Brussels


“Every time I visit Morocco, I feel and see more freedom than here in the West.”

Souad el Bouchihati, 26, Gouda, the Netherlands. Social worker.

“I don’t mind removing my veil to work. What bothers me is hiding it from my colleagues. ... Of course, I did not hide for very long. I ran into my colleague as I was shopping with a friend, and I was wearing my veil. We said hello, and I whispered to her I would explain. I felt so bad about lying to her all this time. It was hell! So I sent her a text message to tell her the truth. She told me that she understood, and that she wouldn’t repeat it.”

Hadjira Skoundri, 22, Toulouse, France. Administrative agent in the local government.

Mira Hassine, 27, of Orléans, France, is an administrator at a construction company.CreditEd Alcock for The New York Times

“Even if we make every effort and try to be ‘integrated,’ we are constantly reminded that to be properly and completely integrated, we must give up our principles and our religion. In our homes, at work, or among our friends, there is a kind of pressure. We don’t dare accept invitations from friends because we’re sick of having to say no to alcohol and to politely justify ourselves, walking on eggshells while making sure we don’t say anything that could be taken the wrong way. At work, there have been little jokes along the lines of ‘Did you help your cousins?’ after the terrorist attacks. And our families who curse the terrorists at mealtime are then insulted by these new laws.

“So then what? We isolate ourselves. And once you start isolating yourself, you’re no longer integrating.”

Mira Hassine, 27, Orléans, France. Administrator at a construction company and a practicing Muslim who does not wear a veil.

“To be a Muslim woman in France is to live in an apartheid system of which the beach bans are just the latest incarnation. ... I think that French Muslim women would be justified to request asylum in the United States, for instance, given how many persecutions we are subjected to.”

Karima Mondon, 37. French teacher who recently moved to Casablanca, Morocco, from Lyon, France.


“I am a Muslim French woman. I live in London. As a Frenchwoman, I would never have achieved what I have in London while wearing the veil. I am a politician in local government, deputy leader of my borough, and I wear the scarf. If I were in France, forget about it.”

Saima Ashraf, 39, London. Twitter: @saimaashraf25

“I am a nurse and I wear the veil. At work, it is impossible for me to wear my veil. I remove it upon arrival. Nothing on the head, no long sleeves, nothing that might cover me up to adhere to my way of living. … We are denied the possibility of going to the pool and now to the beach. What is the next step? Are we going to wear crescents to be recognized?”

Linda Alem, 27, Paris. Nurse at a dialysis center.

I feel unwell to the point of becoming paranoid! As a student, I had a classmate call me a Salafist and make a death threat against me. Why? Because he saw me wearing a veil in the street. When I went to see the school’s assistant principal, the only solution she found was to expel both of us if we did not lessen the tensions that he had caused. A real nightmare, where all roads lead to injustice. ... I have tears in my eyes as I write these words, and while I don’t want to present us as victims, their relentlessness is such that I am going to leave this country sooner or later. They will surely have obtained what they wanted, but I don’t have the strength of Rosa Parks. One less engineer in France — that’s their punishment.”

Nora Mahboub, 21, Paris. Engineering student.

Assia Boukhelifa, 22, is a political science student in Lille, France. CreditEd Alcock for The New York Times

“I find it crazy that the French appear to be discovering Islam and are still talking to us about integration, even though we are now in the third or even fourth generation of Muslims of North African descent living in France.”

Assia Boukhelifa, 22, Lille. Political science student.


“During my studies, I was someone who worked hard. I loved to learn. But as I continued my schooling, I lost all motivation. I knew that as a veiled Muslim woman, I had no future in the professional world. We are being asked to integrate, but unfortunately, they don’t integrate us.”

Saadia Akessour, 31, Liège, Belgium. Stay-at-home mother who had to remove her veil during a midwifery internship and has since abandoned her studies.

“This summer, I went swimming near Hendaye, in southwestern France. I was a bit of a local curiosity, but I found that people were kind. It seems that the news media and politicians are not in sync with what the people think.”

Fadoua Hachimi, 41, Les Lilas, France. Purchasing assistant.


“I feel like an outlaw, a kind of criminal who is demanding something illegal, even though I am demanding nothing but the right to be free.”

Nadia Lamarti, 35, Zellik, Belgium. Mother of four daughters who has trained as a social worker.

Siam Ferhat-Basset, 29, near her home in Drancy, France. CreditEd Alcock for The New York Times

“Even though I have a master’s degree, I couldn’t find a job related to my studies. … I see no hope for our future, and like many others, I intend to go abroad. My heart is 100 percent French, but it feels like I have to prove my ‘Frenchness,’ and with everything happening currently, I’m tired of justifying my identity.”

Siam Ferhat-Basset, 29, Drancy, France. Former receptionist.


“I am a woman who wears this full-coverage swimsuit. (“Burkini” is a term that is too loaded.) I used to settle for watching others enjoy the pleasures of swimming — at most I would go into the water in my street clothes, which is absolutely impractical. This piece of clothing has broken my chains.”

Ennaji Loubna, 30, Perpignan, France. Studying for a master’s in sociology.

“Thank you ever so much for viewing us as human beings and for taking into account our opinions. In Belgium, as in France for that matter, we never get the chance to speak, even though we Muslims (veiled or not) are the main people concerned by these recurrent controversies on Islam and women. We are seen as brainless bigots who are submissive to our husbands or fathers. I myself am a Muslim, a teacher, tolerant, feminist AND veiled.”

Khadija Manouach, 29, Brussels. Teacher in an elementary school.


“As a Muslim young woman, I do not feel safe anymore. … I am preparing to go to the U.K., where I can work and live normally — which makes me sad, because I do love my country.”

Sarah Nahal, 24, Grenoble, France. Student in economics and management.

“My father has lived in France since age 8, and he has been working since age 14, but despite everything, this isn’t enough for France to view us as ordinary fellow citizens, since my veil bothers them. … What can we do? Take courage into our own hands and fight with the weapons that we have at our disposal: knowledge, diplomas and willpower!”

Nadia Benabdelkader, 25, Roubaix, France. Student.

(Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/03/world/europe/burkini-ban-muslim-women.html)

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