Nora Illi, a Swiss convert to Islam who believed Muslim women should have the right to wear full-body veils and publicly challenged bans against them, died on March 23 in Bern, Switzerland. She was 35.
The cause was breast cancer, said Ferah Ulucay, the secretary general of the Swiss Central Islamic Council. Ms. Illi had been the organization’s representative for women’s affairs.
In 2009 Ms. Illi and her husband, Abdel Azziz Qaasim Illi, helped found the organization as Switzerland was debating a proposal to ban minarets, the prayer towers on mosques. (The ban was passed.)
The Swiss Central Islamic Council sought to promote knowledge of Islam in Switzerland and gained several thousand followers, many of them Swiss converts to Islam. But it was also criticized by centrist Muslims for its radical interpretations of the religion, and it came under the scrutiny of Swiss authorities because of its links to known Salafist preachers, who promote a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.
Ms. Illi’s own actions would also draw the attention of the authorities.
In July 2016, the day a ban on full-face coverings went into effect in the canton of Ticino, she appeared on the streets of Locarno pushing a baby stroller and wearing a blue niqab, a full-length body veil with only a slit for her to see through. She was quickly surrounded by reporters.
“This is a specific law against women that violates the right to religious freedom and my constitutional rights,” she told them before the police escorted her to the station, where she was issued a fine.
Later that year, she appeared on “Anne Will,” a popular talk show on ARD, Germany’s public television station, wearing a full black niqab and describing the garment as an expression of her “freedom” that allowed her “to play an active role in society.”
When the host asked for her opinion on the thousands of young Europeans who were traveling to Syria to join the Islamic State, Ms. Illi refused to condemn them and instead urged their parents to accept their decision.
After her television appearance, the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper condemned her as “the perfect spreader of propaganda of a nihilistic cult of annihilation, because she passes off the oppression — especially of women — as emancipation.”
Nora Gögel was born on April 3, 1984, in Zurich. Her father is a psychologist, her mother a social worker.
Ms. Illi first became interested in Islam in 2002 when she met Mr. Illi, himself a convert to Islam, at Zurich’s main train station, where he was handing out fliers calling for a boycott of Israel. She converted to Islam, and the two married in Jordan in July 2003.
Her husband and her parents survive her. Her other survivors include five daughters and a son.
Her burial on March 26 was live-streamed on YouTube, as only immediate family members were allowed to attend given restrictions surrounding the coronavirus.
A poem she wrote was recited at the funeral. It read:
You stare at me and call me oppressed
because of a piece of clothing.
You don’t ask what I have to say,
but judge what I wear with pride.
I can climb mountains and cross oceans.
My spirit is free from prejudice
freedom that Islam gives.