Austria, looked upon by Muslim leaders in Europe as a model of religious acceptance and tolerance, senses trouble brewing. For Islamic feminists and Muslim groups alike, the issue of Muslim women in the country facing discrimination because they wear headscarves seems to have become the focus of this tension.
Last year, Carla Amina Baghajati - founder of the Muslim Women Forum - made headlines when she led a delegation to Liese Prokop, an Austrian minister, who had earlier told the media that she favored the banning of headscarves for women teaching at State-run schools. Muslims in general, and women in particular, were offended. When they met the minister, though, they came away assured that she respected Muslim women's right to choose their attire.
At a recent high-level international conference on Islam organized by the Austrian government in Vienna - at which Muslim leaders like Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai, Iran's Muhammad Khattami and Ahmad Bader Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of Syria were present - Baghajati stressed that in Islam men and women are equal in value, and in the sharing of rights and duties. Her face framed by a headscarf, Baghajati condemned every violation of the rights and dignity of women, whether physical, psychological or mental. Reading from a declaration released on behalf of all Austrian Muslims, she repeated that the priority remains to improve the socio-economic status of Muslim women.
She acknowledged the existence of a radical group of Muslims on the fringe, and said that responsible Muslims here were already talking to the disaffected and trying to influence negative thoughts and acts through formal training and reasoning, for a more healthy integration into Austrian society.
A study sponsored by the city of Vienna on 'Migration, Integration and Diverse Politics' kicked off a debate over migration, xenophobia and multiculturalism. The study - based on experiences gained in urban regions in the Netherlands, Sweden, Great Britain and Canada - opened up a debate on migration, xenophobia and multiculturalism. It studied how best to accommodate new cultural practices within fast transforming urban spaces in collaboration with a European Union initiative 'Changing City Spaces, New Challenges to Cultural Policy in Europe'.
Because of the discriminatory treatment often faced by veiled Muslim women, public employment offices reportedly consider the use of the headscarf "a 'disability' in the job search process", says the report.
Islam is the second religion after Catholicism in Austria and was accepted as an official religion in 1912. There are nearly one million immigrants here, of which almost half are of Muslim descent, mainly from Turkey and Bosnia. They total roughly four per cent of Austria's eight million people. There are 76 mosques in the country and 53 in Vienna alone. Children are taught Islam in schools, where the day starts with recitations from the Koran and teachers are paid by the State.
Out of Austria's 400,000 Muslims, about 15,000 are women, some of who are victims of domestic violence and discrimination at work - problems that have nothing to do with religion, says Baghajati.
Despite legal freedom, the headscarf has become the cause of problems for Muslim women at work places and on the campus. Discrimination against Muslim women has peaked in recent times and an alarm is heard each time an Austrian converts to Islam. According to a report released in March 2005 by the Vienna-based NGO International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, the debate over the 2004 adoption of the French law prohibiting religious attire in public schools helped to encourage intolerance and discrimination against Muslim women, who cover their heads with scarves, across Europe.
To defend the image of Islam in Europe, a continent suffering from increasing Islamophobia, the Muslim Women Forum was founded in early 2005 in Vienna under the existing Islamic Religious Authority that mediates legal and social concerns of the country's Muslim minority population and the Austrian government. The paranoia amongst non-Muslims over Islam has given birth to a parallel movement of Muslim women standing up for human rights. At the first International Congress on Islamic Feminism held in Barcelona, Spain in October 2004, the movement was referred to as 'gender jihad'. This form of feminism is based on the conviction that the Koran does not discriminate against women but patriarchy does.
It was pointed out that women must put up a brave struggle against the implementation of sexist and discriminatory family codes of behavior in the name of Islam. That, for women to experience liberation within Islam, the doors of Ijtihad - or the freedom to interpret - will have to reopen in the context of their existence in the 21st century.
To counter stereotyped images of Muslim women as primitive, the Muslim Women Forum encourages dialogue within Islam and with other communities and religions. A close watch is kept on what the western media reports about Islam and to highlight the success of Muslim women in the media as role models. It also attempts to familiarize Muslims of their rights and privileges under the Austrian constitution.
Closing the Islam conference, Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik promised that improving relations with the Muslim world would be a priority when Austria takes over the presidency of the European Union in 2006.
"For Europe, where a growing number of Muslim citizens are seeking their rightful place in society, this is important," Plassnik said announcing a meeting of European Imams or religious heads early next year.
Meanwhile, Dr Amina Wadood - an Islamic Studies professor, Virginia Commonwealth University, USA and author of 'Koran and Women: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective' - is one known woman who has been addressing a mixed female-male audience and leading prayers. This gesture, she hopes, will further empower Muslims to validate the female voice in the Koran and to reclaim their God-given right to lead self-determined lives.