It's no sin to shun the hijab

Founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress

In Khaled Hosseini's novel about life in Afghanistan, A Thousand Splendid Suns, the character Nana, a poor unwed mother, tells her five-year-old daughter, Mariam: "Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man's accusing finger always finds a woman. Always."

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In 25 words, the author sums up the way too many men govern the lives of women in the world of Islam. Like the daughter, Mariam, millions of Muslim girls are told very early in life by their mothers that their place in society is one of submission; submission, not to God, but to Man.

One such girl was 16-year-old Aqsa Parvez, or Axa as she spelled her name. Axa sought to defy the medieval misogyny that novelist Hosseini alludes to in his bestseller. She paid the ultimate price for her love of life: death.

Axa's body had not yet received a decent burial when the mandarins of Canada's mosque establishment appeared before the media on Thursday.

They had come to do damage control, to ensure the publicity surrounding the young girl's death, allegedly at the cruel hands of her own father, did not trigger a negative image about them and their sermons. However, in their clumsy attempt, they managed to do exactly what they had come to avert. They talked about the price a Muslim must be prepared to "pay" if she strays away from their prescribed path of Islam. Imam Alaa El-Sayyed of Mississauga's Islamic Society of North America mosque told the press conference: "We cannot let culture supersede religion. If we stay away from the teachings of Islam, we will pay for it."

We don't know how many times this warning was given to the late Axa Parvez before she had to pay for her transgressions. If these cold steely words were not enough, Imam El-Sayyed went a step further and talked about the higher status of women who cover their heads. "Women who wear hijabs occupy higher positions in Islam, according to religious teachings," he said. Axa, he would say, had a lower place in Islam because she had refused to wear the hijab.

Axa's death hangs like a pall of gloom over the Muslim communities of Canada. One of our daughters has been killed but the religious leaders of the community seem more interested in damage control to their reputations than the enormity of the crime. Axa Parvez is now being portrayed as somehow having invited her fate. While repeatedly denying that Islamic teachings or tradition had any role to play in the murder, the imams at the press conference betrayed their true feelings when grilled by reporters. Imam Iqbal Nadvi of Oakville's Al-Falah Islamic Centre mosque said that "parents fail and bring shame upon themselves if a child chooses to abandon holy writings and not wear the hijab. It is their duty to convince their kids that this is part of their culture."

One would have hoped Islamic leaders would urge parents to spare the rod and treat their daughters with compassion and love. One would have hoped that these imams would finally admit that the Koran does not mandate the wearing of the hijab, so parents need not force it on their daughters. Instead, journalists heard a cold-hearted diatribe that bordered on blaming Axa Parvez for her death. Imam Iqbal Nadvi told the press conference, "This girl, she refused to stay at home. There were feelings that she is going in the wrong direction ... going with some other boy or some other thing."

The imams were not alone. Some young Muslim men on the Internet social site, Facebook, referred to the dead girl as a "slut," while others e-mailed me suggesting she was pushing drugs; one panicked caller asked me, "Mr. Fatah, is it true the girl was pregnant when she died?" I was left speechless at the callous attitude of so many people.

There is something seriously dysfunctional in how the traditional Muslim leadership has reacted to the murder of Axa. Instead of outrage at the accused murderer, the attention was focused on the "image of the Muslim community."

We cannot get back Axa Parvez, but we can show her some respect and make public our disgust at men who slander her behind her back. Imams owe it to their congregations to tell them the hijab does not elevate Muslim girls to some superior level in the eyes of God. They need to assure young Muslim women who choose not to wear the head cover that they are not committing a sin.

Tarek Fatah is author of Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State, to be published in March.