Feminist, Socialist, Devout Muslim: Woman Who Has Thrown Denmark into Turmoil
ODENSE, DENMARK - In the land that launched the cartoons war between Islam and the west, Asmaa Abdol-Hamid finds herself on the frontline, gearing up for a new battle.
The 25-year-old social worker, student and town councillor describes herself as a feminist, a democrat, and a socialist. She has gay friends, opposes the death penalty, supports abortion rights, and could not care less what goes on in other people's bedrooms. In short, a tolerant Scandinavian and European.
She is also a Palestinian and a devout Muslim who insists on wearing a headscarf, who refuses, on religious grounds, to shake hands with males, and who is bidding fair to be the first Muslim woman ever to enter the Folketing, the Danish parliament in Copenhagen.
For the extreme right, the young activist is a political provocateur, an agent of Islamic fundamentalism bent on infiltrating the seat of Danish democracy. To many on the left, Ms Abdol-Hamid is also problematic, personifying through her dress the reactionary repression of women and an illiberal religious agenda that should have no place in her leftwing "red-green" alliance of socialists and environmentalists.
As a result of announcing her parliamentary candidacy earlier this month, the young Muslim and Danish citizen has been thrust to the centre of a debate tormenting Denmark and the rest of western Europe - on the place and values of Islam in modern Europe and the treatment of large Muslim minorities.
Ms Abdol-Hamid is unfazed. "I see more Islam here in Denmark than in Iran or in other places in the Middle East," she says. "It's easier to be a Muslim in Denmark than in Saudi Arabia. I don't feel a stranger here. I'm interested in politics. I want to talk about this society, about political issues. But I'm not in politics because I'm a Muslim."
Her ambition, combined with her insistence on flaunting her religious affiliation, have outraged the Danish political establishment and triggered a new bout of soul-searching almost two years after the publication of cartoons of the Prophet ignited violence and protest across the Islamic world.
"This goes far beyond the extreme right," says Toger Seidenfaden, editor of the Politiken daily newspaper. "Asmaa is insisting on the right to be a religious Muslim and that's provoking broad debate among the public."
The key issue is the headscarf and whether it can be accommodated in parliament. This month Ms Abdol-Hamid gained the candidacy for a safe Copenhagen seat for the leftwing Unity List.
The Danish People's Party or DFP, the far-right movement that unofficially props up the weak centre-right government of the prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, is on the warpath. A couple of DFP politicians compared the headscarf to the Nazi swastika. One described the prospective MP as "brainwashed".
"We don't like the idea of her performing as an Islamist in the parliament," says DFP spokesman Kim Eskildsen. "We find it wrong that she'll use the parliament as a tool for Islamism ... We don't consider this woman a Nazi. But the way the headscarf is used is comparable to other totalitarian symbols."
The happiest country in the world, according to one detailed survey of international living standards and public attitudes, Denmark is economically highly successful, with the lowest unemployment in the EU.
For the country's 200,000 Muslims and immigrants, however, that happiness is increasingly somewhere else. By virtue of the DFP's influence on the centre-right government, Denmark has enacted the tightest anti-immigration legislation in Europe in recent years.
Many Danes married to foreigners now commute into Copenhagen every day from the southern Swedish town of Malmo across the bridge linking the two cities because they cannot obtain residence for their spouses at home.
Ms Abdol-Hamid, who shares a one-room council flat with one of her six sisters in the "ghetto" of Vollsmose, in the town of Odense, says her political mission is to fight for this underclass.
"This is such a rich country. But we have people in Denmark in deep poverty and nobody helps them. For me the welfare system is very close to Islam. But we need to change the government."
But conservative Muslim leaders are also disapproving of her activism.
"Some Muslims don't think it's right for a female to act like this. They go to my father and tell him, get her married, get her married," she laughs. "Others think you can't be Muslim and Danish at the same time. Some of the Muslims and the extreme right are just the same.
"And there are women in my party who say that anyone who wears the headscarf is oppressed. It's like they think I'm dumb. They're taking away my individuality. We need the right to choose. It's up to us whether or not we wear headscarves.
"They think I'm a woman from the Middle East. No. I'm a Danish Muslim."
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007