By Hady Yahmed* for IslamOnline.net
Translated by Lamya TawfikNoura Jaballah was elected as the first president of the European Forum for Muslim Women, the first Muslim women’s association in Europe.
Defending the participation of Muslim women in European political and social life, the forum “is an initiative to shattering the stereotypes that are associated with Islam, the hijab, and Muslim women in general,” said Noura Jaballah.The conference, which ended on March 5, 2006, chose Mrs Jaballah as president for the next four years. She is one of the pioneers of Islamic efforts in Europe and France and in the forum she represents fourteen other European associations for women and more than other 400 women who took part in the conference.
Q: What have the priorities of the European Forum for Muslim Women been since its establishment?
A: Our current priority is to be visible, to get out of our cocoon, and to work at the heart of women’s Islamic efforts so that we can have dialogue with others and project a positive image of Muslim women. By doing that, we will be able to change the stereotype of Muslim women.Of course, work carried out by the Muslim community is within the domain of each country through the local Muslim associations, however, the forum’s role is to speak to “the other.” This “other” is present in the realm of politics and decision makers.We also want to talk to those working in human rights and the media. However, the mechanisms of our work will be through networking between the different associations. When we combine our efforts to communicate with others during the last few decades, we will find that it is rather feeble. We cannot make a difference if we don’t have a strong network of relationships and this network must have an association that is specialized in bringing it together and strengthening it. This is the role that the forum will play during the next four years until the next conference.
Q: In reference to networking, especially because Muslim women’s hijab is considered to be a symbol of backwardness, don’t you fear that your words will fall on deaf ears because you are a group of veiled women who are initiating dialogue with the media and politicians?
A: This is not generally true. It’s true that there are concerns in France, but this does not exist with the same extent in other countries. For instance, in Sweden, we have a sister in the forum who wears the hijab, she is part of the Social Democratic Party and is also a candidate in the next parliamentarian elections. In Italy, we also have sisters there who wear the hijab and who have good relations with politicians. In the United Kingdom, we have a sister who is a prominent member of the British political party called Respect. In the Netherlands, which is known to have a large number of extreme right-wingers, there is a government advisor who wears the hijab. These are all examples that indicate that the hijab is only presented in suspicious light in France.
Q: The forum plans to be active in Europe and you know the enormous effect of the French political vision in European decision making. How are you going to deal with this?
A: Of course, this is a challenge that we face, and generally, we understand that Muslim women, in their present form, are not accepted in society. But when people know that they are not accepted, they must try to be creative in finding methods that will allow them to voice their opinion and to present their views. Confronted by this problem, our only option is to work hard in changing this image so that we don’t remain alienated. If we can’t voice our opinion in France, then we could do that through the European Union.For example, two Italian parliamentarian women asked to meet with a delegation of the forum. We arranged the meeting and we felt that this is a positive indicator, because the meeting proved to be fruitful. The parliamentarians promised to meet with their counterparts from Europe and to try to hold our next forum within the halls of the European Union. This is an indicator that when women try hard, they can reap positive results, despite the obstacles and difficulties.
Q: It is evident that the conference’s recommendations focused highly on the issue of the hijab. Some even say that the forum built a foundation for the defense of the hijab in Europe. What do you think of that?
A: No, of course not. The hijab is not our primary issue for the forum. We’ve said that our main concern is communicating with the “other” to present a correct image of the status of women in Islam. Before we ask for our rights, we must first know ourselves and our realities and this is our priority because the “other” fears us and fears the hijab that he considers a method of submission and a symbol of marginalizing women.So, through any relationship that we will have with the “other,” we will make sure to use it to make ourselves known and to make known our vision of the relationship between women and men. We believe that they are both placed by God as vicegerents on earth to build it and to complement one another till we reach to the happiness of humanity.Our aim is to focus on the role of Muslim women in the family and their work in society. We are against the male-oriented view of society.
Q: In order to be part of the forum, must Muslim women wear the hijab?
A: Of course, our forum is open for all women, be they veiled and unveiled. There are many second and third generation Muslim women in European countries who are encouraged to be part of the forum. We are against imposing the hijab, but we are also against prohibiting it by law or by other means. What we care about is focusing on the fundamentals and the appearance, even though important, is not a precondition. Our work tries to differentiate between appearance and substance. We don’t want veiled women whose behavior is far away from the values that we believe in.The forum’s goals in this area is to encourage the girls who don’t speak out, especially those who are in the suburbs, to work in women’s activism to defend their rights. Also, we aim to build bridges of communication with the intellectuals and decision makers.
Q: What is your criteria for European women’s associations that you cooperate with, especially those that don’t share the same objectives as you?
A: In the forum, we have many degrees of membership. The first is an active membership which includes the local organizations such as those in Italy and France, they have the same goals as we do. One of our goals, for instance, involves spreading awareness in our society and educating people about women’s roles in the social and political spheres, even though this may conflict with the vision of some people who believe that the woman’s place is at home.In addition to these associations, we have the memberships of the supporting associations, those women’s association need not be Muslim, but we may share common interests around particular issues.
Q: Could you give an example of such organizations?
A: For example, we cooperate with associations that call for the halt of all forms of violence against women. Also those who call for the wage equality in the workplace between men and women, the Islamic spirit calls for justice, thus we have some similar interests with non-Muslim women’s organizations.
Q: Are you also willing to cooperate with associations such as neither whores nor submissive that has recently been highlighted in the French media?
A: This organization, which claims to defend the rights of young women in the suburbs, is not legitimate. It’s an organization of a group of women who have given themselves the right to work in women’s activism in France and have received special attention from the media and extreme secularists. They have received this attention due to their animosity towards Arab and Islamic values and their position against the hijab.The girls who were expelled from their schools for wearing the hijab were supported by some non-Muslim and secular organizations, while this organization stood besides those who called for the ban of the hijab who was supported by the law.* Hadi Yahmed is IslamOnline.net’s Paris correspondent.