Swedes rise in 'hijab outcry'

Racial tension has been on raw display in recent months across Europe, but in Sweden an outraged public is fighting back.

Women across Sweden are donning headscarves in protest. 

But these are not Muslim immigrants fighting to protect their cultural norms. Rather, they are politicians and TV personalities staging a “hijab outcry” to show solidarity with Muslim women across the country, reports the BBC.

The protest comes after a pregnant woman wearing a veil was assaulted over the weekend in Sweden. An attacker reportedly tore off her head scarf and slammed her head against a car, shouting racial insults. The solidarity protest comes at an important moment – for both Sweden and Europe at large.

In May, the suburbs of Stockholm were rocked by days of youth riots, after a fatal police shooting in the suburb of Husby, which has a large proportion of first and second generation immigrants. As The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time, “Sweden's international image as a bastion of egalitarianism, harmony, and prosperity took a shocking hit as youths rioted in the suburbs of Stockholm.”

“The riots laid bare the social isolation growing in some of Stockholm's suburbs," our correspondent noted. "But Swedes are divided over the root cause of the riots, with some insisting they are a result of failed integration of immigrants and others pointing to socio-economic marginalization.”

In France, issues over the veil continue to cause tensions. Riots broke out in Trappes, outside of Paris, in July after a routine police check on a woman who was asked to remove her face veil (as is required under French law).

The riots were brought under control in three days, but, as the Economist notes, “the French are keenly aware that a toxic mix of Islamism, joblessness and grievance can ignite copycat violence in the heavily immigrant banlieues. In 2005 weeks of rioting and car burning spread across the country’s banlieues, or outer-city housing estates, after the accidental deaths of two youths. The protests ended only after the government imposed a state of emergency."

In France, officials of all political stripes defend France’s secular law – called the burqa ban – which prohibits women from covering their entire face in public spaces. After the incident in Trappes, Interior Minister Manuel Valls said that the 2010 law “must be enforced everywhere,” according to the Economist because it’s in the "interests of women.”

Conflict over race, religion, and socio-economic divides extend beyond Europe’s Muslim populations.

Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s first black government minister, has undertaken her job amid racial slurs. This summer a lawmaker from Italy’s anti-immigrant Northern League provoked outrage in a comment comparing Ms. Kyenge to an orangutan. He said he loves "tigers, bears, monkeys, all of them, but when I see pictures of Kyenge I cannot but think of the features of an orangutan." Later, at a political rally held by Kyenge, a spectator threw bananas at the stage.

Kyenge, who originally came to Italy from Congo on a student visa, told NPR that she believes Italians have not been prepared to accept the immigrants who entering the country in increasing numbers.

"There has been a failure of education. Italians were not helped in learning about others, people with different skin color and facial characteristics," she says. "Migrants are not seen as diversity that can enrich but diversity which instills fear."

Even Oprah Winfrey has been the subject of racial tension in Europe. She said recently that on a trip in Switzerland, a clerk at a boutique refused to show her a $38,000 handbag, saying she wouldn’t be able to afford it. The incident elicited a response from Swiss tourism officials.

"We are very sorry for what happened to her, of course, because we think all of our guests and clients should be treated respectfully, in a professional way," Daniela Baer, a spokeswoman for the Swiss tourism office, told the Associated Press.

But in Sweden, many women worry that Muslim women are not being treated respectfully and fairly – and say they want to stop the "march of fascism." So women there have posted photos of themselves in hijabs across Twitter and other outlets. Campaigners include lawmakers Asa Romson and Veronica Palm, and TV host Gina Dirawi, reports the BBC

The campaigners said they wanted to draw attention to the "discrimination that affects Muslim women" in Sweden. "We believe that's reason enough in a country where the number of reported hate crimes against Muslims is on the rise – and where women tie their headscarves extra tight so that it won't get ripped off – for the prime minister and other politicians to take action to stop the march of fascism," they wrote in the Aftonbladet newspaper.  

Sweden's justice minister has agreed to meet with the campaigners Tuesday.

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