Sheema Khan is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.
While the month of Ramadan, which starts later this week, is primarily associated with fasting, it is for Muslims also the month of the Quran. According to Islamic teachings, the first revelation was the command “read,” which the faithful have taken to heart. The pursuit of knowledge is part and parcel of the faith.
That is why it is so galling that the Taliban has reneged on a promise to allow high-school girls to resume their education after a lengthy hiatus. There is no theological basis for this edict.
Last week, thousands of Afghan girls eagerly arrived at schools, thirsting to learn, only to be sent home. Many were in tears, prompting the question “What is our crime? That we are girls?” The Taliban insist the delay is temporary, owing to uncertainty about school uniforms. However, this rings hollow given its previous rule when the suspension of girls’ education morphed into prohibition. As Malala Yousafzai succinctly observed: “They will keep finding excuses to stop girls from learning – because they are afraid of educated girls and empowered women.”
Not only is this a violation of basic human rights but it also exposes women and girls to violence, poverty and exploitation, according to Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. It is also a setback for a nation where 3.4 million people have been internally displaced owing to conflict, and 24 million people will require humanitarian support in 2022. Afghan women have repeatedly stressed their desire to be part of the solution. Yet they are denied inclusion at every level of civil society by the Taliban.
A few weeks prior, the French representative to the UN Security Council reiterated the expectation for the Taliban to fully respect women’s rights. A little rich coming from a country where Muslim women have been prevented from wearing the burkini (a full-body Islamic swimsuit) and where the hijab has been banned in public schools. Recently, the French Senate tabled a law to ban the hijab at every level of sports competitions. France will host the 2024 Summer Olympic games. Will it allow hijabi athletes to compete at the Olympics? Where is the outcry against France’s proposed systemic religious discrimination in sport?
In the southern Indian state of Karnataka, some female students are also being denied access to education after a college barred hijab-clad students from attending classes. A group of female students petitioned the state’s high court after they were barred entry to their class, arguing the ban was discriminatory and a violation of freedom of expression and religion. The court ruled against the students, opining that the hijab was not essential to Islam. While the decision has been appealed to the Supreme Court, constitutional experts are pointing to the high court’s error in appointing itself, a secular body, as a theological interpreter of religious practice.
Then there is Quebec’s Bill 21, which forbids certain civil servants from wearing religious symbols. Fatemeh Anvari, a popular Grade 3 teacher in Chelsea, was removed from her classroom and reassigned because of her hijab. The law clearly violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet by pre-emptively invoking the notwithstanding clause, Quebec can strip basic freedoms enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Bill 21 could eventually end up before the Supreme Court. But, in the meantime, some are calling for greater scrutiny of the Quebec government’s violation of accepted standards of diversity, equality and inclusion, which form part of the environmental, social and governance (ESG) mandates that some fund managers follow when making investment decisions. Should portfolio managers sell Quebec bonds because of the government’s enactment of a law that fails the social portion of ESG standards?
Denying education to women and girls is abhorrent. Forcing them to choose between their faith and their education, their participation in sports or their profession is oppression, plain and simple. In all of these instances, authorities have aimed to erase the agency of women and girls. And yet, they refuse to back down.
In a remarkable display of courage, 19-year-old Muskaan Khan defied a mob of 30 to 40 men who tried to prevent her from entering her Karnataka college. Clad in saffron shawls, a symbol of Hindu nationalism, they shouted “Jai Shri Ram” (victory to Lord Rama) and demanded the removal of her head scarf. Instead, she defiantly raised her fist, yelling “Allahu akbar” (God is great) in return, and marched onward. The enraged mob followed as authorities escorted Ms. Khan to her class. Her motive, she later recalled, was simply to stand up for her right to education.
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