Women wearing the hijab cannot get a break these days. In Tunisia, land of the shock and awe-inspiring ultra-swift coup, the supposed Law No. 108 of 1981 bans Tunisian women from wearing the hijab inside state-run bodies. There are stories of Tunisian police randomly making their way into markets and ripping the hijabs from women’s heads as well as taking away any fabrics being sold to make hijabs.
More recently comes the tale of a 12-year-old Muslim girl in Maryland who was forced to sit out part of a basketball game by a referee who said her headscarf posed a safety risk.
In Tunisia, if true, the banning of the hijab is repulsively racist, while in the US state the explanation to bar the cloth does not hold water.
In both cases, East and West, hijab-wearing women are apparently rubbing people the wrong way.
If seventh-grader Maheen Haq wants to continue playing basketball, her parents will have to provide a letter stating that the headscarf is part of their daughter's religion and accept liability for any injuries.
What injuries? The referee feared Haq could be choked if the scarf were tugged on and that it posed a danger to other players. But the only way a headscarf could prove hazardous to the owner or others is if the pins used to hold it down protrude. Jewelry, rings, earrings, chains and bracelets should be definitely outlawed in sports. But it's doubtful that wearing a scarf poses a danger to the player or somebody else unless pins are being used to keep the headscarf intact. Even then, it is possible to fix a hijab securely on the head without a safety pin, depending on its material.
There are, too, hijabs with tear-away strips designed for sports that girls could wear.
There does not seem to be foul play at work in Maryland but we remember one sure sign of intolerance elsewhere. A few years back, Sura Al-Shawk, a 19-year-old Swiss citizen of Iraqi origin, was told by the Swiss Basketball Association that she couldn't wear a headscarf during league games, the claim from the Swiss Basketball Association being that it follows the rules of FIBA, the world governing body in basketball, which says the sport has to be neutral, forbidding religious symbols.
Even if we agree the Swiss ban was not racially motivated, it's almost sure that if Al-Shawk sported her headscarf around her neck, around her waist, around a bicep, thigh or ankle, above or below the knee, or wrapped it around her forehead like a bandana – anywhere except on her head -- Swiss basketball authorities would not have cared the least. It's only when that innocuous piece of cloth levitates up to the hair of a female scalp do the Swiss and the rest of the West stand on their head.
The number of Muslim athletes publicly testifying to their faith has dramatically increased in the last few years. Egyptian footballers demonstrate their religious piety by kneeling down to offer a prayer of thanks after scoring a goal or after winning a game, or praying before games to implore Allah to come to their team's aid.
Prayers on the field don't hurt. Muslims praying are just as harmless as the outward displays of belief seen abroad, with the sign of the cross that many soccer players make before a game begins or after they score a goal. The two are simply openly displaying their religious faith.
While such testimonies have all become an accepted part of the game today, in Tunisia, apparently nobody, athlete or otherwise, is allowed to wrap him or herself in religion. The deposed Ben Ali once reportedly said the hijab was something foreign and not part of Tunisian culture. The Tunisian constitution stipulates that Tunisia is an Islamic country yet on an almost daily basis there are horrific stories pouring out of Tunisia about how the state police are ripping off the hijabs of women living there. From what we understand, police order women to remove their head scarves before being allowed into work places and others have been made to remove them on the street. The Education Ministry repeatedly asks university presidents to ban hijab-wearing students from entering university campuses. Women who do don the hijab are watched constantly by the police and then forced to sign a form stipulating they will not wear the hijab ever again. They may at times be allowed to wear a head scarf which covers their head, however, they must show some of their hair.
If all this is true, it seems Ben Ali wanted Tunisian women to be as liberated as Western tourists who go around topless on Tunisia's coastal resorts as they soak up the sun.
Perhaps the new Tunisian government will be more accepting of the hijab. Perhaps one day any athlete who wishes to wear the hijab will do so without fear of being discriminated against and without this constant but baseless concern for safety.
So far, though, the hijab is being attacked from those who don't know any better and, more importantly, from those who should know better.
By Alaa Abdel-Ghani