She’s gonna get shot for writing this, Shirley.

CBC News

Minority Report

Natasha Fatah

For Muslim women, respect cuts both ways

Monday, November 23, 2009 |

By Natasha Fatah CBC News

When you think of Buenos Aires you’re more likely to envision Catholic churches and Virgin Marys, not so much minarets and Muslims. But, much to my surprise, South America’s largest mosque can be found in Palermo, one of Buenos Aires’s most fashionable districts.

The King Fahd Islamic Cultural Centre is an enormous structure surrounded by sweet smelling jasmine flowers and heavy-duty security.

I hadn’t come to Argentina to go to mosque but out of a mixture of journalistic curiosity and tribal obligation I decided to pay a visit. Catholics aren’t the only ones ridden with guilt.

But unlike the Catholic churches all around the city, you can’t just enter King Fahd’s mosque whenever you feel like it.

You have to answer a series of questions posed by the guards at the security barrier. And you can only visit two days a week, at noon, for a brief, guided tour.

Natasha Fatah at the King Fahd mosque in Buenos Aires. Not her usual attire. (Photo courtesy Chris Kayaniotes)Natasha Fatah at the King Fahd mosque in Buenos Aires. Not her usual attire. (Photo courtesy Chris Kayaniotes)When I arrived at the King Fahd, the tour group had already entered the mosque. The security guard asked me a few questions and, upon realizing that I was a Muslim, said that I would have to cover up with a Saudi-issued cloth.

Out of respect for the institution, I took the black, polyester garb he gave me and proceeded to drape myself.

Then another man, maybe an imam, maybe an overzealous congregant, came over and pointed at my feet. I was wearing sandals and my feet were exposed despite my new black tent.

He told me first in Spanish and then again in English for effect, “I shouldn’t see your feet.” I told him, if I cover my feet then I can’t walk.

We had a bit of a Mexican standoff but in the end I relented and pulled the curtain down so my feet were covered. He proceeded to walk me and my friends to the rest of the tour group.

It was then that I realized just how special my treatment had been.

There were between 50 or 60 people on the tour, men and women of all ages, some English speakers, some Germans and a few curious local residents. Not a single other person — including the women — had been asked to cover their hair, arms, legs or, you guessed it, feet.

I wasn’t wearing anything tight or revealing. In fact, there were other women in shorts, dresses and short sleeves but they had not been asked to cover up.

I was likely the only obvious Muslim in the whole crowd. I say obvious because of my name and country of origin. Converts aren’t always obvious in either respect. And that’s probably why I was the only person asked to cover up.

Some sisterhood

When my Argentinean friend Juan saw that no other person had been asked to cloak themselves like this he urged me to remove the burka, saying “Don’t worry about it Natasha, you’re in Argentina now.”

I tried to explain to Juan that it didn’t matter if I was in Argentina or Algeria, I would receive the same treatment in any mosque.

Sometimes, and I’m only speaking for myself here, but sometimes when you’re a Muslim woman, membership does not have its privileges.

Fatah and her friend, Juan, leaving the King Fahd mosque with other visitors. (Courtesy Chris Kayaniotes)Fatah and her friend, Juan, leaving the King Fahd mosque with other visitors. (Courtesy Chris Kayaniotes)In Indonesia, a colleague and I attended an event at a police academy in the Sharia-law-abiding city of Banda Aceh.

My colleague, whose blond hair was visible through her loose headscarf, was left alone. But when the officers found out that I was a Muslim they wanted my scarf so tightly wrapped around my head you’d think I was being prepared for mummification.

The same kind of thing happened earlier this year in India when I was shopping in a small store along with some non-Indian tourists.

The owner of the store was a Muslim, and was pleasant enough initially. But when he found out I was a Muslim, his tone and manner completely changed and he asked me loudly in front of the other patrons “What are you wearing?” I was wearing an orange long sleeve blouse and blue jeans.

Even in my own city, Toronto, I’ve seen Muslim men shake the hands of my friends and colleagues but refuse to shake mine because I’m a “sister.”

Respect runs both ways

Here’s my guess at what some of these men are thinking: You’re a Muslim woman. That means you have a direct line to God and to heaven, provided you behave properly.

Non-Muslims are bound for hell anyway and not really our problem, and unless they convert we won’t bother with them. But since you’re one of us, we better teach you how to behave and dress like a proper Muslim woman.

These men may think they are doing the right thing, but they are not helping.

In fact, this attitude poses a huge problem for someone like me who identifies as a Muslim and who wants to be part of the community, but who is and sees herself as an independent person who makes her own decisions.

I realize that I when I go to a mosque or a government office, like a police academy, in a Muslim country I am there as a guest. So I try to accommodate myself as much as possible to the community standards. That is only being respectful.

Other women journalists at the CBC, non-Muslims who visit mosques or Muslim countries, will often wear head scarves as a symbol of respect. But they are never asked to dress in a full, body-covering burka.

Why should I face this double standard?

In the case of the storeowner in Mumbai, I left his store.

I’m willing to be respectful to men like this, but I would like a little in return.

Don’t make an example out of me in front non-Muslims just because you think you can. Treat me as somebody who is on your side, on your team.

Let my behaviour and conduct dictate how you treat me, not whether you can see my hair or feet. Surely, the measure of a Muslim woman cannot be reduced simply to her appearance.

So, I ask of these men: Let me dress the way I want and pray the way I want, and shake my hand when I extend it. And please keep your black, itchy cloaks for yourselves.

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