Muslim Women in Austria – A Model of Integration?

First of all Id like to thank you …for the opportunity to share this conference with you and present some ideas on the integration of Muslim women in society based on the experiences we have in Austria. Im very glad about this chance for an innermuslimic discussion. For I feel that when we usually stress the fact that integration has to be a mutual process this means that we need to correspond on an Islamic level. There certainly is need for exchanging experiences and uniting in the effort to pave a way for Islam in Europe that keeps our Islamic identity in the democratic, pluralistic European society we form a part of.

Times are challenging. Islam is in the focus of general interest. As muslims we have to find a way to pick up this situation not only complaining about the many misunderstandings and the lack of knowledge about our religion which we face in everyday live. Yes, we are confronted with Islamophobia. Scientists tell us that each conflict bears the chance for development and a positive change. Id rather like to put it in Quranic words: wa inna ma al usri uisra. We face a challenge we should take up patiently taking in account that the dialogue we recently entered has won an importance that goes beyond the exclusive circles of some experts in interreligious dialogue. Its up to us if well manage to come up with this responsibility. No question that we want to play an active part, that we want to be talked with and not talked about. If we want to get out of this weak corner of justifying ourselves there is no other way then participating in society and little by little to overcome old fears and prejudices.

We experience how the picture that people bear in mind when it comes to Islamic topics strongly depends on the view they have on women in Islam. Lately the debate on the Islamic headscarf showed how very difficult and complex issues are all interwoven with this piece of cloth: The process of integration, the relationship between Islam and the West, the discussion about the compatibility of a Muslim way of life to European values , the equality of women and men and the role of Muslim women in society Its a somehow strange honour we Muslim women enjoy being made the focus of so many topics of utmost importance. – So lets counterpart sufficiantly the usual image of the poor, suppressed, unskilled, stupid Muslim woman that is ruled by men! We have to work on our visibility, to make clear that a Muslim woman wants to fill her place in society. Discrimination and restricting the access especially in the field of education and working places surely is the wrong signal. If a Muslim woman is denied to take part in these fundamental parts of life this will only make old clichees look as if they were true.

In Austria we are in the lucky position that the legal situation opens ways of interchanging with society on terms of same rights. For Islam gained official recognition in the year of 1912 when Bosnia Hercegovina with her population of some 600.000 Muslims was part of the monarchy. Thats why we enjoy exactly the same rights like e.g. the Christian churches. The Islam Law grants Muslims the right to follow their religion freely and in public. Furthermore they are given autonomy as to handling the inner aspects of Islam. This is why the Austrian state simply cannot decide on behalf of the Muslims living in the country without listening to their point of view. To give an example: At schools the head of the department of cultural affairs informed all headmasters that sport, swimming and housekeeping classes have to be held in accordance with Islamic principels. Since 1979 the Islamic Faith Community as a public corporation forms a bridge between official institutions and society and people of Muslim faith. This opens doors for dialogue. Nevertheless we have to deal with a situation where being acknowledged legally isnt to be taken as a general public acknowlegement of Islam and its believers. Theres still a long way to go.

Nevertheless its obvious that the Muslim community in Austria discovered the great chances for integration that are immanent in this system. During the last years the motto Integration by Participation has been lived to in many ways. Alhamdu lillah women in Austria play an important part with effects not only outside, but inside the community. In the year of 2000 women were elected board members of the Islamic Faith Community, first for Vienna, two years later as well for the gremium of the highest representation, responsible for Austria as a whole. This illustrates that the role of women is seen not only in a somehow traditional sense, cooking for welfare bazars or working in minor positions in the social field, but as a decision maker in every sense and on equal terms with men. And Im glad to say that the integration of women in these commitees isnt to be seen as a somehow cosmetic operation, but that our work is taken very seriously. We were entrusted with important functions and powers. My colleague Andrea Saleh caring for womens issues and being the head of the Muslim Social Service, me working in the field of public relations and the media as a spokeswoman for the communitiy. Many other women do excellent work for the community, just to name the headmaster of the Islamic School for Social Edudation, Zeynep Elibol.

Men and women working together is something we enjoy very good experiences with. Of course there sometimes is a certain need for discussion on a level where women meet together exclusively to talk in a protected conversation. But in general we feel that we face topics that have to be dealt with together and even when it comes to themes that are regarded as typically female, its beneficial when men get to know the womens point of view from inside. We dont want a gap between a womans world here and males world there. To give an example: The recent discussion on the headscarf showed that the traditional reasoning that it meant a kind of protection cannot be understood by outsiders and even is ridiculed when used by men, for it recalls old images of Christian origin the sinful Eve. When women try to find a line of argumentation stressing points like identity, belief, self-esteem they gain respect more likely and can prove that al hijab is not a barrier but a way to enhance womans personality and character.

To integrate women in the innermuslimic discourse may be a way of improving integration within Islam. In Europe we see the importance of dealing with our Islamic diversity in a way that it proofs a tool of facing modern challenges by presenting a variety of approaches and possible solutions. Building bridges and working together on a basis where differences dont automatically prevent cooperation seems a very womanly virtue. For women often think in a project-oriented way and look for a consensus.

To return to participation in the sense of taking part outside the muslimic frame, this takes place in different fields. In order to give something like an overall view, Id like to characterize the different sections each by each.

Public Relations

Various projects are run: Days of the Open Mosque to combine information on Islam with a direct encounter, programmes for dialogue at schools or for specific professions like policemen, teachers, stewardesses, answering the call for guidance and help by students who work on themes where Islam is touched.

Women are involved giving lectures and discussing in an open form the various themes. We experienced that the presence of women is essential especially when it comes up to womens topics which always is the case. Or to put it in different words: It would give quite a strange picture if a brother gave a lesson on womens rights in Islam: The best man in Islam is who takes care of the women best… with no women present. No better way then giving a practical example of how in Islam men and women should be like twin parts by working together in a decent way of mutual respect.

Dialogue

Interreligious dialogue has a long tradition in Austria. Meetings between women of different faith take place on regular terms. These encounters have reached a level where working together in certain areas is getting common. Lately we go ahead for something like an interfeministic dialogue, as well. Thats to say to seek discussion with those women who engage themselves in the womens liberation movement. For we saw a tendency that parts of this group had detected the Muslim woman as a subject, better as a victim they had to missionize by their model of liberation. We see a first success when we experienced support in the headscarf discussion. That makes quite a difference to other European countries like France or Germany where especially feminist women take a rather hysteric course of argumentation. We even seem to have been able to give some intellectual stimulus by arising the question of development within the feminist movement under the aspect of a shift from the concept of equality to diversity.

Networking with organisations of the Civil Society

We work together in the peace movement, in the debate on how the welfare system is endangered by globalisation, when it comes up to the task of how to take care for asylum seekers and in the anti-discrimination field. To put it shortly: These themes Ive chosen as examples are first of all Islamic themes. Furthermore working together makes clear that especially in the fighting of discrimination one cannot expect to be taken seriously if the focus is only on the own interest. Partners are natural allies in combatting Islamophobia. So Muslims in Austria are board members of ENAR, European Network against Racism and SOS Mitmensch, one of the most important human rights organisations.

Dealing with the media

Press releases are a way to react on themes of public interest. The ORF, the public broadcasting company, provides a special section for religion. So we are on good terms and in continual contact with its staff and there exists good cooperation, all in all. As to TV, Islam even has got an own five minutes programme and we decide which themes occur and how we present it.

To me as working with the media its been nothing so special that I do this as a woman. But then we found out that it earns very positive feedback. Somtimes Im told: Other groups dont put a woman in such a position of responsibility and then in Islam! Journalists who work under great pressure of time make use of our media resort for a quick reponse to their questions. By the time one gets to know people and recently we are even asked things like: This headscarf business gets on my nerves. Could you help me finding some girls dressing islamicly for a nice portrait that shows that everybody should have the freedom to wear what he/she wants? So we really see that its not necessarily the bad guys in the media, but there are people who conduct to journalistic ethics whom its worth working with. We have to provide information if we care for a subtly differentiated image of Islam. Our homepage www.derIslam.at has got some 3000 visitors per week.

Social Service

There is a special service visiting ill people at hospitals. Once more this is something where the positive Austrian situation comes in. For its a right of a Muslim patient to get religious care by the own community. So its quite unthinkable what a German priest told me: In our hospitals Id forbid a hodscha to enter. Religious care? I meet this job for muslims, as well. This project forms a good opportunity for dialogue with the staff. For there are many questions of how to deal with Muslim needs. And as the consciousness grows that patients who feel in a balance of mind, recover more quickly this is responded to positivly.

Social work is mainly done by women. They offer their time and work honoraryly.

Another project runs with homeless people that are visited by Muslim men and women in a place they can find shelter temporaryly. Women cook for them and afterwards all eat together with the homeless. This tought us not only a lesson on the ideal of social justice in Islam but brought up a fruitful discussion on how we often are affected by mutual prejudices we can overcome by a direct encounter.

Anti-Racism

We document cases of Islamophobia to raise public awareness. Muslim women are confronted with discrimination in daily life more often than men. We found a workshop on how to deal with this problem as to strengthen the courage to get out of the role of the victim. This training is a means of empowerment for women.

Politics

As Austria has developed a model of secularism where the seperation of state and religion offers space for the sociopolitical engagement of the officially acknowledged religions like Islam, this guarantees a very well balanced model of intercommunication. We are invited to comment on various occasions. To me its been a great moment to present the ideas of our community on the new constitution for Austria in parliament. And its been a wonderful experience to feel the respect of the politicians and experts listening. One of them Mr. Heinz Fischer, candidate for the presidential elections, even took this up later pointing out in written form how proud he was that in Austria a woman with a headscarf could appear at parliament without anybody interfering or even taking notice.

We are on terms of intercourse with politicians constantly. Lately the topic of Islamic slaughtering provided us with work. For in the course of a new legislation on the dealing with animals this theme aroused attention although we are guaranteed this right by the highest court by 1998. So women go in and out at parliament and the involved ministries to prepare the ground for a law that is suitable to Islamic needs.

Especially with some women in politics we are on very good terms. E-mailing is a practical way of keeping in touch and rising awareness for our concerns.

A very prominent example of political interaction is the preparation for the conference of Imams in Graz last year in June. The foreign ministry was a partner and we had the pleasure that the minister herself, Ms. Ferrero Waldner held a speech at the opening ceremony. As she is a woman she has a special interest to keep in contact with Muslim women.

We try to encourage Muslims to take part actively in whats going on politically within the political party spectrum. For the upcoming presidential elections we know about women who have registered as electoral assistants a good way of engagement and sign of integration to all those who visit the place she is offering her service in.

Womens meetings

We long to spread the understanding that its necessary and in the interest of women to participate in society, and more than this: participation is a theologically founded item. So we foster the idea of the importance of a solid education, the facility to speak the language of the country, German. To build up a network for muslim women is another request. Ervery woman is welcomed no matter to which Islamic school, country of origin, social level, group of age she belongs. And its very important to us that we dont create borders between women with or without headscarfs. We dont want to give this the highly emotional attention it won in the eyes of European non-Muslims for we always stress the fact that its nothing but a piece of clothing Islam asks believing women to wear not a symbol. And it should be up up to the decision of the women themselves if they wear it or not.

At the moment we are about to install an Islamic institution that should offer help and guidance for girls and women. We are convinced that theres a lack of something like an Islamic approach to women in a social or personal crisis, for other institutions usually even dont have the knoledge of this background. Wed like to bring to life the Islamic model of mediation on an institutional basis. Of course interchanging with other groups is welcomed. Recently I was invited to an expert group dealing with forced marriages.

Working place

Participation is very welcomed when offered valuntarily and without payment. Getting a job still isnt that easy. As a matter of fact the headscarf is dealed with at the employment office like a disability for its just as difficult to get work. The second and third generation tends to be much better educated than former generations. If young women dont find a job they sometimes tend to go on studying hoping to enhance their chances. There is some good news: If a woman has shown the strength to continue the search until successfully, she usually makes vey good experiences for she is a living example that women in Islam dont neccessarily follow the clichees produced by films like Not withtout my daughter. We know women who work at hospitals as nurses. And of course there are many teachers for Islam at public schools. They often manage to keep in good contact with their collegues besides their job and take care to create a better climate between people of various faith and origin.

All in all we certainly can come to a positive conclusion. To me it stays one of the most challenging perspectives that the process of integration always has to be measured by the effects it has inside and outside our muslimic community. That women nowadays tend to bear more and more responsibilities beyond traditional patterns of role definintion as mother and housewife hopefully will gain a sustainable effect paving the way for a dynamic sight on womens rights and womens status in Islam.