Muslim Women Resist Stereotyping

July 26, 2008

Author: Elizabeth Bryant

Source: The Washington Post/Religion News Service

Like most young French women, Wafa Ben Salem goes out to movies and dinner, dates men, albeit usually with a chaperone, and is an avowed fashion maven.

But it's not hard to see how she stands out with her form-covering clothing, a headscarf tied under her chin and her pledge not to engage in pre-marital sex.

"I'm Muslim, and it's been taught to us in our religion, and I believe in this," said the 24-year-old university student from the southern French town of Cagnes-sur-Mer.

Like many young Muslim women here, she is trying to strike a balance between personal empowerment -- "I'll meet men before I get married to decide which one is right for me" -- and tradition -- "But I'll keep my virginity until marriage."

A series of highly publicized incidents involving Muslim women has reinforced popular perceptions that an intolerant, sexist brand of Islam is on the march in France, home to Europe's largest Muslim population.

Yet religion experts, and many Muslims, caution against easy stereotypes. Far from submissive, they say, Muslim women are looking for a fit between their faith and the highly secularized society around them.