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Controversy Spurs Muslim Students to Activism

November 15, 2005

A controversial photo exhibit depicting veiled Muslim women compromisingly was recently taken down at Harper College immediately after protest from Muslim students.

“I saw a couple of pictures being put up, and I contacted the faculty and told them that the pictures are degrading,” Asad Khan, sophomore at Harper College said. “At first, they wrote it off as freedom of speech, but after they saw so many students leaving class to protest, they realized there was more than one side to the story.”

The exhibit, entitled “No Veil is Required” was put up by 60-year-old artist, Amir Normandi. The exhibit, which included depictions of Muslim women with veils on their heads and nude otherwise, offended many Muslim students on campus for its “demeaning portrayal and primitive stereotyping.”

Concerned students contacted CAIR-Chicago soon after the exhibit was put up. Director of Communications, Ahmed Rehab, met with students to listen to their concerns and advise them on a course of action.

“Firstly, this controversy is important to CAIR-Chicago because it is important to our constituents,” Rehab said. “Secondly, upon viewing the photographs displayed in the exhibit, I personally found them to be a little more than an ode to widespread stigmatic stereotypes of Muslim women.”

Per the students’ request, Rehab also participated in a forum sponsored by the college to discuss the controversy.

Rehab addressed an audience of 100 that included school administrators, the artist, Muslim students, and a general student body. He acknowledged that in certain Muslim societies, women are forced to wear the veil, but emphasized that addressing this injustice should not lead one to implicate the great majority of women who willingly choose to wear the Hijab as a form of personal liberation.

“Last time (we had a problem) there was no one there to represent us in the forum,” Aliya Ghouse, junior at Harper College said, “I think it really boosted our confidence because we had [Ahmed] there this time.”

“With [Ahmed] being there, the MSA felt so strong,” Khan said. “He was out to back us up and we were confident that we had someone there. He won the hearts of a lot of people.”

Saba Ahmed, sophomore at Harper College, had initially contacted CAIR-Chicago to help with the forum. She said the quick response was not what she expected.

“I really appreciated CAIR coming down and representing the MSA and Muslims on campus. A lot of people know about CAIR now, and if there is a problem with discrimination, we now know to contact them and they’ll come out right away,” she said.

Rehab said he is very proud of the way the students spoke at the forum.

“I thought they were bold, wise, and diplomatic,” he said. “My main message to them was that dialogue and engagement is always the key to dealing with civic and political problems.” Rehab added that he was grateful to Dr. Richard Johnson and Harper College for providing the students with a venue “through which they can realize this important message.”

Though Normandi describes the forum as simply “a dialogue to fend off anger,” he said he thought the points brought up by Rehab were positive.

“I could say that [his talk was] wise and from a well-thought angle,” he said.

Normandi said his hopes were not to offend anyone, but to bring about a discussion.

“I hoped to bring a dialogue about the matter and…to look critically at the issue of women,” he said. “I understand their point of view that was expressed [at the forum] and I do regret causing any discomfort to any individuals...but my expectations was that in a college setting, you would debate and arrive to some conclusion.”

“Normandi claims that his intentions were to draw attention to women’s rights abuses in certain Muslim societies. I appreciate that as a great cause, but his provocative photographs did not achieve that goal,” Rehab said. “Rather, they worked to stereotype all Muslim women and instigate further misconceptions about the Hijab. He does not seem to acknowledge that many Muslim women wear the Hijab willingly and at their own behest. The title of the exhibit, ‘No Veil Required’ bespeaks of a lack of understanding of the basic subject he is purporting to address.”

According to students, the forum did help in making a difference with the way Muslims were treated on campus. They felt the forum was an efficient way for others to see what they, as Muslims, felt about the exhibit.

“I think Ahmed’s presentation exceeded our expectations. I have seen change already. Thanks to Br. Ahmed, CAIR-Chicago, and the MSA people, we were so organized that we didn’t give anyone a chance to label us,” Khan said, adding that he will be interning with CAIR-Chicago soon.

“I now see how many ignorant people are out there and how many people are out to damage the reputation of Islam. I feel of sense of responsibility to informing people otherwise,” he said.

Yesmeen Noureldin, a junior a Harper College, was also present at the forum. Noureldin, who knew about CAIR from before, said she was surprised with the response from CAIR-Chicago.

“Now I know that CAIR-Chicago is [as much] into [dealing with situations in] the suburbs as well as the city of Chicago,” she said. “That surprised me but also made me really happy.”

Saba Ahmed said she is working with others to put an exhibit up of their own to share with audiences the Muslim woman’s own perspective on the Hijab.

“I spoke to others about putting up an exhibit to show that Muslims woman still have power while they are clothed,” she said.

Normandi said he would definitely still attempt to put up exhibits in this format and content, and would still try to approach Harper College to propose similar exhibits.

“I think it needs to be exposed. I am insistent in doing what I’m doing because I’m very passionate about it,” Normandi said. “[Harper] told me under certain guidelines, they would consider it.”

Still, students like Khan, say that they have been able to see more good come out of the forum and are pleased with the results.

“The best thing that came out of it, especially for me, is that our voice was heard. Wherever this news went, people now recognize the existence of Muslims at Harper College.”

copyright © 2005, CAIR-Chicago

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