Muslim women as a target of Islamophobia
Prague - Claudia Boutebene never goes out alone after dark. A 42-year-old Czech-Italian mother of one is a resident of Prague, the capitol of the Czech Republic, and one of the world’s safest cities. But she says that she is scared to walk down its street, taking its public transport, and shopping in its supermarkets without her husband at her side. She is a Muslim.
The Boutebenes belong among estimated 20,000 Muslims who live in the Czech Republic, a ex-communist central European country of 10 million, where attacks on Muslim women have become more and more frequent. Country which is a member of the European Union, the Czech Republic reacted to immigration crisis in the summer of 2015 with dread and doubt. Czechs have been staunch opponents of the bloc’s relocation mechanism, rejecting migrant quota program and accepting only 12 migrants. “A Woman with a scarf became a symbol of Islam whereas Islam became a synonymum for terrorism,” says Karel Černý, a sociologist at Faculty of Humanities, Charles University based in Prague.
Two Muslim women were punched and kicked in front of their children earlier this year. This summer, the public reacted disapprovingly when Muslim women took their children to a swimming pool wearing burkini. The Czech police do not keep statistics on such incidents but Assem Atassi, a board member at the Islamic organization Muslim community in Brno, the second-largest Czech city, says that he does not know a single woman wearing a scarf that has not been verbally or physically attacked. Unfortunately, Atassi says, only a handful of these women report those incidents to the police.
The attacks have taken place all along but have escalated since the 2015 migration crisis, Atassi says. Verbal confrontations often turned into physical, especially in public areas such as shopping malls, in the streets and on public transport. “It’s getting worse year after year,” says Claudia Boutebene. “When I was pregnant, I prefered to stand away from the subway tracks. Normally I don’t think about it, but I wasn’t sure what could happen.”
Boutebene started to wear a scarf, also known as hijab, 18 months after converting to Islam. She encountered hate comments soon after the family moved to the Czech Republic from her husband’s native Algeria in late 2015. She ignored them at first but started confronting her attackers after a while. “Once I went to ask a woman who had insulted me what her problem was,” Boutebene says. “She started yelling at me not to attack her. But it was her attacking me. I was shivering.”
When she spoke with another man from her neighbourhood, who regularly insults her, he told her that Islam doesn’t belong in the Czech culture and that everyone is afraid of what Islamic women wear under their clothes. He told her that Muslims want to convert the whole Europe, she recalls.“It is a matter of lack of information,” she says. “Not even in Algeria where I lived were all women covered.”
Klára Kalibová, the director of In Iustitia, a law firm focused on hate violence, confirms that the number of women contacting her is growing. Most of the time they want advice after being a target of verbal attacks, or threats in person or on-line. In some cases, attackers removed their scarf, which can result in a three-year prison sentence. The penalty increases when they are convicted of acting under prejudice. “It is a motive in almost every case,” Kalibová says.
Boutebene’s attackers come in all forms and shapes. “I always thought that attackers are old, sad uninformed people,” she says. “But now, I can’t say that anymore. Attackers can be anyone from 14 to 80 years.”
Attacks on Muslim women have different repercussions. Some women have decided to go out only with others as company or with their husband. Others are talking about the benefits of wearing a hijab in the Czech Republic. While hijab should protect them from unwanted looks, it has an opposite effect in Czech Republic. Some even opt to stop wearing it, Boutebene says.”It’s becoming counterproductive over here,” she says of wearing a hijab in the Czech Republic. “I also struggle with it,” Boutebene says.
Muslims in the Czech Republic are moderate and integrated, or even assimilated, Černý says. Now he worries that the attacks may compel them to isolate themselves, creating a kind of community their adversaries fear so much. “They may start to segregate themselves,” he says. “They may interrupt their intensive contact with colleagues, classmates, or neighbours from the Czech majority because they won’t feel secure among Czechs.”
Boutebene says she worries that growing up in such an anti-Islamic environment may cause younger Muslim generations to turn against their non-Muslim neighbours. She is afraid of the day when her daughter will start to understand what people say about her mother. “Children normally love their parents so I am afraid that it might build up some kind of hatred [toward Czech society],” she says.