• On the FT this week, global Muslim fashion – She’s a dedicated – and faithful – follower of fashion.

    I wrote this article for FT.com this week on the growth of global Muslim fashion

    The fashion industry is currently showcasing its wares for next year’s spring/summer collections. New York and London have already strutted their stuff and with Milan winding up and Paris on later this week, you might be forgiven for thinking Europe and North America have the global fashion business stitched up. (Pun intended.) Not so.

    Big fashion brands may be wondering how to stem a decline in business – Dolce & Gabbana for instance announced the closure of their diffusion line last week. But there is one growth segment just waiting to be brought into the mainstream of the industry: global Muslim fashion.

    Muslim fashion? I hear you ask in surprise. Isn’t that all just long black cloaks and dour headscarves? Far from it: Bloomberg has estimated that the global Muslim fashion market could be worth $96bn. For scale, compare that to the entire UK fashion industry, which is valued at £21bn. What makes it even more attractive is that those driving the development of Muslim fashion stem from a young demographic. Of the world’s 1.8bn Muslims, nearly half (43 per cent) are under the age of 25 – meaning they make up more than 11 per cent of the entire world population.

    Milan Fashion Week has got wise to this. Next year they have invited Malaysia’s Islamic Fashion Festival to showcase its designers. Started six years ago under the patronage of Malaysia’s First Lady, the IFF has already visited Abu Dhabi, Astana, Dubai, Jakarta, Monte Carlo, New York, Singapore, Bandung and London. And Malaysia is not the only place that the Muslim fashion industry is fast developing.

    Indonesia has an Islamic Fashion consortium whose chairwoman hopes to establish Indonesia as a global centre for Islamic fashion. And Dubai’s Fashion Week, to be held next month, aims to combine tradition with modernity. Muslim women are looking for echoes of their culture and religion in their fashion. In Dubai, this means including the traditional ‘abaya’ of the region into the upcoming Fashion Week. The abaya is the long black cloak beloved of women of the Gulf region, which has become popular with Muslim women around the world.

    Far from reviling the abaya, Muslim women are showing pride and love for this traditional fashion form, and increasingly re-inventing it, and aspiring for it in the Western world. One woman writes here about how it brings her a sense of elegance and grace. And last year Harrods stocked a line by a Qatari designer, whose creations had Muslim women flocking to purchase items costing as much as $20,000.

    The abaya has also attracted haute couture interest from designers like Galliano and Ferreti, who showcased their designs at Saks in New York at the request of some Saudi Arabian customers who commission evening dresses from them.

    Primarily however, this is a grassroots development by young Muslim women wanting to combine their love of fashion with a desire to uphold the tenets of their faith in Islam. And this is where the opportunity lies to open up an underserved segment and meet a genuine untapped need. This summer the Washington Post asked why mainstream fashion retailers weren’t serving the 250,000 Muslim women in the Washington area. In these troubled economic times, this is an audience that is optimistic and affluent but surprisingly ignored.

    These fashion forward women have found the high street wanting around the world. They have been driven to designing their own lines, showcasing ideas on how to wear the hijabsetting up blogs to discuss how to ‘hijabise’ what you can find in the retail stores, as well as creating videos on how to wear your headscarf in a fashionable style. There are even magazines springing up to cater for this trend.

    The internet has proved to be a boon to these consumers – who are tech savvy. According to a report by London College of Fashion, modest dressing is a growing phenomenon, and not one limited to Muslim women. As entrepreneurs, they are turning to online retail as a way to reach out and market products. As consumers, the internet gives them wider geographic reach to producers of goods that embody the modest values they are after, modest values which are shared by a global body of fashion-conscious Muslim women.

    The broad religious prescription for Muslim women is that clothing should conform to modest parameters – long sleeves, long lengths, comparatively loose, usually topped with a form of headcovering. But with this prescription taken care of, these faithful fashionistas – sometimes called ‘hijabistas’ as a derivative of the word ‘hijab’ which is used informally to refer to the headcovering – are as much in thrall to trends as their non-Muslim counterparts.

    Other religious audiences may interpret modesty in different ways but the definition allows for plenty of crossover – and plenty of room for brands to speak about modesty in their fashion lines whilst respecting the differences with which different faith groups approach the subject. In fact, modesty even unrelated to faith is proving appealing to women in general, as this news incident last year about celebrity chef Nigella Lawson proved. Her full body covering at an Australian beach prompted female commentators to wonder if they too might be brave enough to cover up.

    Muslim fashion is a pan global affair, not limited to one country or region.

    Whilst cultural and regional diversity remains – for example in the way that the headscarf is worn, or the colours and prints that are used – these are underpinned by shared values espoused from Americans in Brooklyn to British women with Japanese heritage.

    The bottom line is that designers, labels, marketers and fashion houses looking to serve this market will be able to develop hijab friendly lines which appeal to a global audience. The values underpinning global Muslim fashion are exactly that – global. The audience is connected through the internet and shares styles and ideas. This means that the basic ideas, communications and brand values are consistent wherever these hijabistas are to be found. And since they exhibit a sense of collectivity, brands can quickly develop loyalty amongst them, if they show that they understand that these women want to be on the cutting edge of fashion, as well as entirely dedicated to their faith.

    To paraphrase the famous song, there is no need to seek her here, or seek her there. She is ready and waiting to be served: the dedicated – and faithful – follower of fashion.

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  • You say burqa, I say burqini

    This is my weekly column published yesterday in The National newspaper.

    Nigella Lawson sporting a burqini (image from telegraph blog)

    Nigella Lawson has unwittingly moved forward the debate about Muslim women and the way they choose to cover their bodies.

    Lawson, a celebrity TV chef, is famed for being proud of her curves and for eschewing the pressure on female stars to show off skinny bodies.

    Last week, she was spotted on Australia’s famous Bondi Beach sporting a “burqini”. This is an all-over black bodysuit with cap that covers almost every inch of the female form apart from the face, hands and feet. Islamic swimwear like the burqini is something that has seen a rapid rise in popularity in recent years, usually worn by Muslim women wanting modest dress by the beach.

    Newspapers are keen to plaster their pages with photos of female celebrities in bikinis, commenting on either how “hot” she looks, or disparaging unsightly flesh as unsuitable for public display.

    So what would the press make of the voluptuous chef covering herself up and denying the paparazzi their expected moneyshots?

    A columnist in the conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper indulged in some mockery at the supposed horror of Lawson’s attire: “The world stopped spinning this week when a woman wore some clothes on to a beach … You can’t just turn up on a beach in this day and age covered from head to toe and showing only the bare minimum of flesh. It’s offensive, and this so-called woman needs to realise that.”

    That’s obviously what Muslim women are told all the time – that covering up is offensive to “our” values, in today’s “modern” and “liberal” age. Yet, here was one of their own, covered unapologetically from head to foot.

    The surprise of the whole incident was that alongside the expressions of horror and criticism at Lawson’s level of covering was the begrudging hankering to follow Lawson’s lead, to which many female commentators admitted.

    Some echoed Lawson’s own logic behind wearing the all-in-one: to protect sun-sensitive skin. Others suggested her choice was a snub to the media piranhas who feast on female bodies. But there was one additional thread of realisation: that maybe, just maybe, here was an escape for women from relentless body fascism.

    “This must be what people mean by the “liberation” and “privacy” of the burkini – by refusing to strip to what is effectively skimpy underwear, non-Muslim women such as Lawson are saying: “To hell with your fake tans, diets, ‘bikini-readiness’,” wrote one commentator in the liberal Guardian.

    And that is the whole point of the realisation that Lawson’s actions have prompted: that women don’t have to submit to baring all.

    “Was there a woman in Britain, I wonder, who didn’t feast their gaze on Nigella and who didn’t on some level think … I wish I was brave enough to do that?” asked Rachel Johnson, sister of the London mayor, Boris Johnson, in The Times, a conservative tabloid. “Nigella’s capacious burkini has clearly liberated her, and there must be a positive message for us all in there somewhere.”

    Lawson’s fear of sunburn may have inadvertently prompted the realisation that there is liberation in covering. This is something that Muslim women like me have expended much effort in explaining and defending. But maybe we can now move on from this constant need for explanation, defensiveness and the vague sense of liberal apologetics that occasionally appears. Perhaps it’s time to be a bit naughtily smug and say: we already told you so.

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  • Segregation: A Muslim woman writes

    This article was published today in The Times Online

    Gender separation is not inherently sexist. We have single sex toilets, stag do’s and hen nights, boys nights out and Anne Summers party nights in, as well as single sex schools, monasteries and convents.

    Every culture has places and occasions where men and women find themselves congregating towards each other through custom, nature or by design.

    I’m deliberately not using the word segregation – a word that carries far too much baggage with its connection to apartheid in South Africa, and the Civil Rights movement in the US. For segregation was premised on a lesser value being placed on those who were being segregated away, and that lesser value meant that they were deserving of less opportunity, respect and participation.

    Separation in itself is not discriminatory because in theory – we’ll come on to talk about practice in a moment – it treats both genders equally. In the theory of separation men and women have equal respect and rights, equal access to opportunity and resource, but are also given the space to flourish or relax in a single sex environment.

    India Knight wrote beautifully about how our culture has many moments of joy where men hang out with men, and women with women, and that we have no need to be in a mixed sex environment all the time.

    The separation of the sexes is always a hot topic for debate. It was always widely held that both boys and girls gained better results in single sex education.

    Boys and girls are more likely to take a wider range of school subjects including those which are not considered ‘typical’ of their gender when in separate schools – girls taking more sciences and boys taking more arts – and more likely to go onto careers less typical of their gender and more suited to their talents.

    Women educated in single sex schools also go onto earn more money. In the working world the policy was always to encourage women to broaden their choice of professions out of the usually ‘women’s professions’ and get more men involved in things considered feminine.

    In a recent study by the University of Cambridge, amongst a sample of 20 countries, those which have more occupations dominated by one sex have more equality in pay between the sexes overall, contradicting assumptions about the advantages of bringing men into traditionally women-dominated occupations and women into male-dominated occupations.

    These examples are not to distract us from the topic in hand, nor to discuss the methodologies or accuracy of their findings and not even to suggest they are directly comparable to the issue we are about to discuss.

    Rather they should set the landscape to a more sophisticated debate on separation and illustrate two points.

    First, that this is a nuanced topic with many complexities. There is no simple right or wrong to policy and execution and the issue of separation permeates all aspects of society.

    Second, this issue of separation is not limited to “Muslim weddings bad” as an MP raised last month.

    Jim Fitzpatrick MP for Poplar and Canning town, which has a large Muslim population, was invited to a Muslim wedding but on arrival, finding that the men and women were to be seated separately, decided to leave, and tell the press about it.

    I wrote about it at the time, disappointed that he was rude enough to make a fuss about a private matter, and surprised that he was ignorant that many Muslim weddings are separated, in both the UK and around the world, and have been as far back as I can remember.

    Gender separation definitely is discriminatory when it normalises male behaviour as the “baseline” and the male side robs the female side of the equation of access, agency and participation.

    This is an extremely problematic area in the Muslim community.

    Let’s for the moment assume that there is no intent to discriminate, but that Muslims feel as though creating a physical boundary for gender separation is in line with Islamic principles.

    Even from this starting point, even those Muslims who support it must acknowledge the reality that the physical arrangements exclude and diminish women’s participation simply because of the arrangement of physical space and location.

    Those “holding the microphone” have control “from the men’s side” and it becomes a kerfuffle to make even a comment from the women’s side. This is not about social occasions of enjoyment like weddings, but serious civic institutions where decisions about the life of the community and its future take place.

    Sometimes women aren’t even invited or told they “don’t need to be there”.

    Herein are the clues which are more revealing about what really lies beneath. Sometimes the sound system is poor, there is no visual, or women are not even in the same room or building. The rooms are smaller, dank, poorly ventilated, or hurriedly found to plonk the women into.

    Those Muslim men who don’t believe me should perhaps investigate these rooms for themselves.

    Not all mosques are like this – the ones I attend have seating in the same room, or separate rooms but with excellent facilities for both men and women.

    When the less favourable locations are challenged about the lack of facilities for women they say that there isn’t enough space to fit the men and women, or the women prefer to stay at home, or so on.

    This makes it apparent that it is the same gender discriminatory attitudes that are often prevalent in wider society rearing their ugly heads here, but hiding behind the false statement that it is religiously “required” separation that makes it so.

    I don’t buy it.

    If it was important to have women there, if it was a natural instinct to include women as Islam dictates, then space would automatically be found.

    The separation can cause other problems too if not carefully patrolled – women become anonymous and indistinguishable. When events are reviewed, their presence and participation is unrecorded. And of course their talents remain untapped for the benefit of the community, which is a great loss. Participation in the running and management of a community is then denied to women – when it never was in Islamic history.

    In Islamic thinking, separation stems from the importance placed on modesty in public – this covers modest clothing (for men and women), modest behaviour (for men and women) and humility (for men and women). In a society which has sexualised almost every aspect of life this can appear a stark contrast or possibly even austere. But for many Muslims the call for modesty is actually a relief from adverts that hallucinate naked men and women in supermarkets after wearing certain deodorants, or the constant debates about body images of female celebrities (she looks like a pre-pubescent child vs. she’s put on a few pounds on holiday).

    The debate on Muslim dress almost always seems to be hijacked by notions that men are uncontrollable lust-monsters who would ravage a woman as look at her, and that women are nothing but sexual objects that need such extreme protection that they can’t be in the same room.

    Frankly I find the former insulting on behalf of men, and the latter infantilising and patronising on behalf of women.

    By instituting a physical separation as the vessel for modesty-management the responsibility for modesty is devolved to the physical partition rather than necessarily imbuing the men and women with the social graces of modesty and respect in the way that they interact with each other.

    Personally, I believe that there is a time and place for separation, and a time and place where a cohesive participation is required. In either scenario it is the behaviour that is primary, for me the physical separation is simply about allowing a space for both men and women to unwind, relax or flourish – as with all the examples I quoted at the beginning.

    Those who insist on separation as a requirement of religious law in order to exclude women’s participation are actually hiding prejudice behind the law.

    For law is always a product of the values and ethos of a community – the law serves a community’s vision rather than dictating how the community should behave. And the Islamic ethos is that men and women are equal creations, that have equal value and equal responsibility in the life of the community.

    The Koran talks about men and women being equal “garments for each other” and “finding peace and tranquility” in each other.

    Those who wish to uphold physical separation, as well as those who want to make clear that separation is not discriminatory, must make extra efforts to eradicate the difficulties of access and participation that usually come for the women. They need to make doubly sure that resources and respect are fully provided so that women can be fully functioning and valued members of society.

    It’s a bit like thinking of the Yin-Yang symbol in representing the male and the female. They interact with each other, but don’t need to be constantly mixed up or in each other’s pockets. Neither can one be completely excluded. When you get the balance and the interaction right you achieve a fully functioning whole.

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  • The marital rights of the British Muslim wife

    This article was published at Faith Central at the Times Online

    Bess Twiston-Davies writes: Melanie Reid, our columnist, is merely one of many commentators who has asked why Britain’s soldiers are apparently fighting for the right of Afghan men to mistreat their wives, in the wake of the new so -called “Marital Rape” Law (although the original clause permitting men to withold food from wives who refuse sex was eventually removed). Here Faith’s Central’s Muslim guest blogger, Shelina Janmohamed, author of Love in a Headscarf and the blog Spirit21 looks at the disturbing, related issue of the lack of legal protection for many Muslim women who marry in Britain

    Shelina writes: One of the reasons Britain gives for its military intervention in Afghanistan is the liberation of Muslim woman from oppression.

    But what if anything has really changed for them in the 8 years in which the UK and US have been present in the country? In fact, with laws like the recent legislation dubbed the “marital rape law” where a husband can supposedly starve his wife if she does not have sex with him, it’s hard to see that Muslim women are indeed being ‘saved’.

    Let’s look at the example of veiling where women are forced to wear the Afghan-style burqa. This is utterly wrong as it is a woman’s choice as to how she should dress. Some in Afghanistan, however, who would argue that it is a more traditional society, where women being uncovered is ‘alien’ to the ‘culture’. This really is about culture not religion because this is absent in the majority of Muslim countries bar a few exceptions.

    Back in Britain, some Muslim women do face pressure to veil, but on the whole veiled Muslim women are exercising their own freedom of choice. This can be seen from the fact they tend to be younger, well-educated, British-born women, often decked out in the latest fashions. These women are exercising the same freedom of choice that Britain says it is fighting to give Afghan women.

    Now let’s look at marriage. Married Afghan women have little protection from mistreatment and abuse. The scale of magnitude in Afghanistan is clearly different to the UK, but British Muslim women can suffer from lack of protection by the law in Britain too. If we care about Muslim women’s rights in Afghanistan, we must demonstrate clearly that we care about them here as well.

    I’m referring to the ‘nikah’, the Islamic wedding ceremony, which is not recognised under British law as a legal marriage. For this, the bride and groom must undertake a further civil marriage ceremony. A Church of England marriage by comparison is automatically registered as a legally recognised marriage. For Muslims, as with many of other religions, it is the religious ceremony that is paramount, and once this is conducted the couple are considered married. Rightly or wrongly, the civil marriage is often not carried out.

    If the marriage doesn’t work out, or the husband leaves the wife, the wife is still married but has no legal protection under British law. Further, if the husband proves unscrupulous, he can marry another wife legally under British law without committing bigamy. Recognising the nikah as a valid British marriage with all the parameters of the civil marriage is the first step to solving this problem. Some mosques do insist that the civil marriage certificate is proffered before they will conduct the nikah, but these are too few. Tying the nikah into civil marriage has nothing to do with ‘Islamifying’ Britain, but is rather a small development which will offer much needed British legal protection to Muslim women in marriage.

    Of course the Muslim community – mosques and Imams – who have conducted the marriage ceremony should be held responsible should a marriage break down, but this doesn’t always happen. Ensuring that mosques and Imams are abiding by procedures which give both bride and groom their full rights is the next step, and for that we need to talk about those so called ‘shariah courts.’ In fact, a better description would be ‘Islamic advisory panel’. At the moment they consist of volunteers with various levels of Islamic training, probably few social or counselling skills and even less legal training under British law. This is hardly surprising, since they state quite openly that their remit is to offer Islamic advice. Often faced with marital disputes Muslim women prefer to go to these panels because their faith is important to them and they want an Islamic resolution to their problems. Also, they live as part of a family and community, and any resolution agreed with such a panel is more likely to stick with the people amongst which they live.

    By recognising the nikah as legally valid, these subsequent links in the chain will be forced to deal with such issues with higher standards and in line with legal norms, thereby respecting the religious wishes of the Muslim woman, and at the same time affording her full protection in the law. A standard of behaviour and guidance amongst mosques and Imams becomes normalised over time, and the woman becomes automatically protected.

    If we are busy fighting in Afghanistan for legal protections to be put in place for Muslim women, then we need to do the same for Muslim women here. The issues are different in magnitude but are still about both choice and protection. Not only will implementing such laws and protection in Britain squash accusations that ‘saving’ Muslim women is just a pretext for war, not only will it actually protect Muslim women, but more importantly it will also demonstrate that in word as well as in practice we are genuine in our intentions and actions.

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  • Googling Muslim Women

    [This article was published in the March issue of EMEL Magazine]

    I’d like you to try an experiment that I have conducted regularly for the last year: Google the search term “Muslim women”, click on “images” and then have a look at the pictures that are returned to you by the search. The first time I did this, I was shocked, very shocked, but not surprised.

    You’ll find the first several pages are populated almost entirely by imagery of women in black niqabs, black burqas or black trailing cloaks. The others are unnerving pseudo-pornographic images with translucent veils that are best left un-described in a family magazine. The sad fact is that this result has changed very little over the time that I have been observing the phenomenon.

    Google’s mission statement is ‘to organise the world’ using algorithms that return the results to us that we were looking for. In any search we usually get a result that matches well what we were looking for, which is why Google has become an institution in our lives. When we are searching for information about Muslim women, the intelligent technology throws back these sombre anonymous uni-dimensional images assuming they are what we were referring to by ‘Muslim women’. Worse still, perhaps that is all the imagery and information that it can find. If it is the former we can blame lazy stereotyping. If it is the latter, then it is we who are to blame by not providing alternative, compelling and more widely spread diversity on who and what Muslim women are.

    Conduct a similar experiment on Amazon or in your local high street bookshop. The same images abound of books with subtitles like: “A heart-rending story of love and oppression”, “sold” “burned alive” “honour killing”. Even those books that tell of courage, struggle and freedom use this lazy visual shorthand of anonymous women’s faces to adorn their books, despite the fact that the writers and protagonists themselves have gone to great lengths to make their names, ideas and voices heard.

    The stories that are told in our public discourse about Muslim women are depressingly predictable. Most common is the Oppressed, as we’ve seen above. Some of these women truly have horrific stories, and it is absolutely right that they are at the forefront of our consciousness, and that we are working constantly to eradicate the attitudes and actions that give rise to these terrible experiences. However, these same images are used ignorantly as shorthand for the ‘barbaric’ and ‘mediaeval’ views that Islam is said to hold about women.

    Then we have stories from the Liberated, who escaped from the Oppression, and have ‘freed’ themselves, and at one extreme of the scale have ‘enlightened’ themselves and even rejected Islam utterly, and yet peculiarly still continue to define themselves in relation to it.

    And somewhere in between are the soft sensual tales from the ‘hidden world’ of Muslim women, the Exotic, which Eastern doe-eyed beauties inhabit and where secrets of desire, womanliness and oriental allure reside. This is a world of voyeuristic otherness.

    In order to register in the public consciousness, Muslim women must fit themselves into one of these categories. But they don’t. And they don’t want to.

    The challenge is that Muslims too have ideas about how and what Muslim women should be. They offer Muslim women a choice between hijab-religious or non-hijab-irreligious, making sweeping assumptions about a woman’s moral and religious character based on what she wears. But this is a false dichotomy that is saturated with an irony that most Muslims are not even aware of: that the recommendations on modest dress in Islam are specifically in order to avoid defining people by what they wear, and yet we use religious clothing as a way to pigeon-hole women.

    Whether Muslim or otherwise, the paradigms within which we understand Muslim women have been limited to these caricatured notions. In doing this, we ourselves have removed the freedom from Muslim women to express their own voices in a way which allows them to represent themselves as they wish to be represented.

    We need to create a change in the perceptions about Muslim women, their rights and the way that they are treated. In order to do so we need first of all to create in our public discourse the possibility of different ways of being.

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  • Spirit21 celebrates its 3rd birthday

    Over the weekend Spirit21 was three years old, and it’s been an exciting three years! This year has been packed full of new year resolutions, conferences and some thinking about Palestine and about love. You can read what happened in 2008, as well as a few thoughts I’ve had previously about birthdays.

    Over these years since I first dipped my toe into the blogosphere, and into the wider world of the media, I’ve been asked constantly to write a memoir of my experiences as a Muslim woman. I’ve been asked to share the honesty, humour and insight that I try and put into my articles in a book. And this weekend, just as we celebrate Spirit21’s third birthday, I will be announcing the publication of my first book, called “Love in a Headscarf“.

    You can read more about it at www.loveinaheadscarf.com

    And for those of you who are in and about London you are invited to the launch on Friday evening at the City Circle.
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  • Spirit21 in 2008 – a year in review

    We are nearing the end of the year, and it is the traditional time to look back and see how we fared over the last twelve months. In particular, it’s been a year since I won Best Blog and Best Female Blog at the Brass Crescent Awards. Much to my excitement I’ve been nominated again. It’s not the only recognition the blog has received. I won Best Non-Fiction Writer at the glamorous Muslim Writers Awards, and was named an ‘influential blog’ by the BBC.

    Shari’ah was big news this year. The Archbishop of Canterbury made some comments about Shari’ah courts which created a national controversy, and which reverberated round the world. I tried to get underneath the dense text with a detailed analysis of his speech. I mentioned a few other words too to highlight that we need to have a conversation about real meaning, not just tabloid screaming. (I used words like Shariah, fatwa, hijab, apostasy, niqab, cousin-marriage, Imam, Muslim women. I think some readers had anxiety attacks after that.) Separately, the Lord Chief Justice re-ignited the debate started by the Archbishop, and I commented that we had a significant problem with the S-Word.

    I spent a lot of time writing about Muslim women, and declared that it was Time for a Womelution. It is time for things to change, and I kept up the pace demanding “Let Muslim Women Speak” both here at Spirit21 and at the Guardian. It seems that everyone out there is happy to tell Muslim women what they should think and say, but won’t let them say it for themselves. It wasn’t the only thing that made me cross. I was riled by the book Jewel of Medina, written by an American author about Ai’shah the wife of the Prophet. It wasn’t about blasphemy or censorship that the author annoyed me, but rather at her delivery of a sex-obsessed Mills and Boon frippery, about a woman and a period of history that was crying out for a high calibre text. What a wasted opportunity. I read the book and wrote a review for the BBC. It was painful. Watch paint dry, I advised readers, it is more fascinating than the book.

    I was still fascinated by hijab, niqab and modesty and wrote several articles trying to understand the different perceptions of modesty and hijab. Modesty is not a black and white issue got some interesting feedback – some people told me in person that it was the best piece I’ve ever written, others said they didn’t get it at all. I also asked, whose body is it anyway, and wondered why it is considered inflammatory by some for a women to cover her hair or face. I made reference in the former article to the rise of the muhajababe, the fabulously stylish and sometimes skimpily clad be-headscarfed Muslim woman, and posted a cartoon asking, what is the meaning of hijab, and wrote a piece considering, can you dress provocatively and be religious? It should all be based around a woman choosing her clothing for herself, but is it really a free choice, and what exactly is she choosing?

    The amazing Muslim women who often are considered oppressed and forgotten inspired me to create The Magic Muslims, ordinary Muslims with Extraordinary superpowers, foremost amongst them being SuperJabi. They also included MagicMullah, HipHopHalalMan and WonderBibi. Watch out for them, there will be more in the coming year!

    I was also published in the book Conversations on Religion, alongside other high profile dignitaries in the field of faith (or absence of) such as Richard Dawkins, the Chief Rabbi, AC Grayling and the Archbishop.

    On the subject of conversations, I had some amazing dialogues with people in Indonesia and Turkey, where I spent a good amount of time this year. Indonesia prompted me to think of sun, smiles and spirituality, whilst in Turkey I found myself asking, what does a Muslim country look like? Hopefully I made some fans whilst out there too…

    My comments about Valentine’s Day being banned generated some interest as i was asking if it was the day or love that was being prohibited; just as exciting was an interview with the charming and sparky Riazat Butt for the Guardian about hajj. They also enjoyed posting a piece exploring our modern ideas about what kind of hero, messiah or mehdi, we are looking for these days. Do we really need one?

    Most controversial were two pieces related to what was happening on the political scene. I had people respond to them with enormous prickliness (or excitement, depending) even months later in person, so they’ve hit a chord! I tried to separate out the political agendas that have confused the need for social cohesion with preventing violent extremism, and seems to see Muslims only through the prism of (potential) terrorism. Later in the year the political insinuations that Muslims were not wanted in politics appeared to grow stronger, and I wrote with much passion that it seems that we Muslims were being told that “The only ‘proper’ Muslim is a non-political one.” The article proliferated wildly and despite a certain level of anonymity as a writer, i had people ‘in person’ searching me out to comment on it.

    Phew! What a year! And inshallah, 2009 is going to be even more exciting – there are already some fabulous things in the works – watch this space!

    (p.s. vote for Spirit21 Best Blog and Best Female blog at the Brass Crescent Awards to show your support!)

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  • What is the meaning of hijab?

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  • The only ‘proper’ Muslim is a non-political one

    Last week Hazel Blears has announced that the government would fund a “Theology board” for Muslims in the UK. In an interview with Radio 4, she said lots of nice – and true – things about Islam: that it is peaceful, that it is a religion of compassion, and then Kaboom! She claimed that this board will allow for a “proper interpretation” of Islam. I felt like I was stuck in the blurry screen waves of a bad 1970’s sitcom which was transporting us back to the Middle Ages, to a time when the Government dictated to the public what is and isn’t proper in religion. And this was indeed, about as funny as aforementioned sitcom.

    The government has stated that it is doing its best to tackle Islamists who are the source of extremism. According to the government, Islamists are all without exception terribly violent and bloodthirsty. Islamists are apparently the cause of the world’s problems – earthquakes in China, climate change, food shortages, the fuel crisis and poverty and malnutrition to name but a few. The only good Islamist is an ex-Islamist. The government has then used this premise to go on to define its entire policy about Muslims in the UK around the issue of security, ignoring issues of economics, society, education and deprivation.

    The term ‘Islamist’ was once applied to anyone who used Islam as a political ideology. Muslims who do not have a political ideology of any sort are okay and need not be worried about being infected by Islamism. But the problem is that the term ‘Islamism’ has now been stretched to mean any Muslim who is political.

    Blears insinuates that Muslims who are not politically active are the preferred kind of Muslim. She said in a speech to the Policy Exchange: “The fact remains that most British Muslims, like the wider community, are not politically active, do not sit on committees, and do not attend seminars and meetings. They are working hard, bringing up families, planning their holidays, and going about their business.” Jack Straw was also quite clear about this two years ago: you can’t be a Muslim woman in niqab and visit your MP to engage in the political process.

    So if you are a poor confused brainwashed Muslim who cannot tell the difference between someone who is peddling violence and someone who is rocking their head with Britolerant chanting, then the government is going to help you decide your opinions, don’t you worry, poor little Muslim.

    The stance of the government takes the handful of criminals who have engaged in violent activity and states that this is a perverted interpretation of Islam, and needs to be exposed as such. Tony Blair said in a discussion with young Muslims “we have to accept that this is therefore a Muslim problem, and a problem with Islam.” I reject this utterly.

    This is a criminal issue, which needs to be exposed and rejected as such. The criminals are invoking the mantle of Islam as protection. The only way to get rid of them is for everyone together – including Muslims and the government – to isolate those horrible violent activities as outside the philosophy of Islam. There is no need for a ‘proper’ interpretation of Islam, because these activities are not to do with Islam. Rooting the problem falsely within Islam has created a hostile and prejudiced environment where the criminal activities cannot be properly attacked. The government doesn’t like to hear this being said, but this is the only sensible right-minded way forward.

    The recent refusal of ministers to attend IslamExpo is a case in point. Irrespective of their opinion of the organisers, it was a chance to engage with forty thousand Muslims who want to create and settle into a comfortable peaceful British Islam. It smacks of an increasing confusion on the part of the government who are now not only failing to engage with Muslims, but are actively disengaging with those Muslims who are working to a positive peaceful agenda. Blears is playing a dangerous and – in my opinion – futile game which can only backfire as it will leave the vast majority of peaceful Muslims feeling resentful at being singled out for undemocratic dictatorship of their religious views, something with which the government has no business.

    My government – the one that I dutifully pay my taxes to, the one that I actively engage with through support and through criticism as part of my duties as subject and citizen, the one that I cast my vote for (or against), the one that I have represented abroad on official business, the one that I support through my labour resources and contribution to the economy – this government tells me that I cannot be a Muslim and engage in politics. Government you have failed to understand that it is I, and millions of others who engage in political activity, that have put you into a position of power. And this statement refers not just to the Labour party, but to any party in power, so Conservatives take note too. Your holding of the reins of power is at the behest of those who vote you in.

    If our government makes a statement that a Muslim with a ‘proper interpretation’ of Islam is one that does not engage in political activity then our government does not have a ‘proper interpretation’ of its role and authority.

    I wrote a piece a year ago stating “Five Things I love About Being a British Muslim Woman.” In it I emphasised the importance as a Muslim of contributing to the nation that you are part of, and that part of being a contributing member is to be proud of what is good in that nation and to offer positive criticism to make the country a better place.

    I continue to be committed to the people of Britain and to making our country a flourishing, forward-looking nation. In return the government has made a mockery of Muslims like me who want to engage in the political process by the rules of democracy, shared values and freedom of speech that the government claims underpin our shared vision of society. And the government is also making a mockery of the claims of democracy and freedom of speech by illegitimately excluding from political participation those whose opinions the government does not like. The government needs instead to think clearly for itself and avoid pandering to any which old voice which is popular in fear-mongering circles for their actions are undermining both the positive goals of social cohesion as well as the political process.

    Blears said that “You can’t win political arguments with the leaders of groups… who believe in the destruction of the very democratic process of debate and deliberation”. By excluding the Muslim opinions that the government doesn’t want to engage with through the devious method of saying that being a political Muslim is unpalatable, it is the government itself who is destroying the democratic process of debate.

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  • Modesty is not a black and white issue

    Modest dress is a key component of Islam, but it’s important to retain personality and aesthetics in the way we dress

    This week I tried out the most extreme black cloak to make it into my wardrobe. A piece of elastic attached it to the top of my head, and then the single piece of long fabric hung snugly over my hair, sweeping over my shoulders and down past my feet. The final flourish was for me to hold together the two edges under my chin. Two eyes, a nose and a squashed mouth peeked through the gap under the black sheet. My husband peered into the bedroom, and nearly dropped his mug of tea.

    “You look like a black blob,” he said, horrified. “Where have you gone?” He poked underneath the black cloth like a serious Sherlock Holmes. Despite feeling uncomfortable about the cloak, no man was going to tell me how to observe modest dress. “Don’t you want me to hide my figure so I’m not attracting attention?” I barked at him. He froze, rabbit in headlights, and then looked at me for a clue.

    “Of course I want you to be modest,” he said, certain that this was the right answer.

    “And isn’t this long cloak, the most modest thing I could wear?”

    “Well yes. Erm, well no, well yes, no, yes, yeah… no? yes, yes… ”

    I looked at him sternly, with the if-you-dare glint of a determined Muslim woman, who has pro-actively chosen to wear the headscarf and modest dress. He looked more terrified of me in my new guise of crazy-eyed Muslim harridan than he had of the black blob. But he was right to be distressed.

    The question about how we should define modesty is constantly plaguing the Muslim community. Neither men nor women can map out any consistency or meaning in the higgledy-piggledy implementation of the rules of modest behaviour. At work you can interact with the opposite gender but not at Islamic conferences. Muslim men can shake hands with non-Muslim women, but not vice-versa. Brides who normally wear hijab will uncover in front of men to be shown off. In some communities, men will push into the women’s section during weddings, but will enforce segregation at home. In others it is the opposite, with women not allowed to participate in mosque management due to the fitnah (division) this could cause, but happily socialising together.

    The spirit and implementation of modesty is confused at best. Women and their clothing have become hijacked into being the symbol of how religious we are as a community. If women are properly covered, then everyone seems to think they can rest easy.

    Her choice of dress is inextricably linked to a judgement about her spiritual status. At the sober end she is considered overly pious, not to mention excruciatingly dull. By contrast those women who choose not to wear a headscarf, are immediately judged to be irreligious, un-spiritual and not considered to be ‘properly’ practising. There has been a visible increase in the number of women wearing the hijab (head covering), the jilbab (loose fitting long dress) as well as the niqab (face covering).

    Colours are subtle: greys, browns, blues, blacks. These women cite their dress as a freedom, an escape from the body-obsessed post-modern world, as well as a greater commitment to the values of Islam. At the other extreme is the rise of the Muhajababe. Her head covered, she probably wears skinny fit jeans and lycra t-shirts. For her, the headscarf itself has shown her commitment to her Muslim identity and faith.

    We sighed simultaneously at the black cloak I was still wearing. “We all end up looking the same, I feel anonymous and unknown. I’m not me anymore,” I mourned to him. “Some people say that our voices should not be heard either. I’m part of a black silent mass at the back of the room. Surely individuality is important? Especially if Allah says that there are as many ways to know Him as there are human beings?”

    He responded enigmatically: “Each flower that God has created is specifically a different colour, and design. Even when they are closed, they make an effort to show their personality, and individuality.”

    I squinted dubiously at him. “Does this mean you think women don’t need to wear niqab, jilbab or even the hijab?”

    “Defining what ‘modesty’ means isn’t easy, and we Muslims spend an awful lot of time on the outward signs like dress and physical separation. Where we need to focus more is on the complex relationships between modesty, personality and aesthetics.”

    I draped the abaya playfully over his shoulders. “Modesty isn’t just for Muslim women to worry about,” I reminded him. “To build a strong community we all have to be concerned with inner spirituality as well as outer codes of conduct like dress.” Grinning cheesily, I pointed at the cloak: “Modesty is definitely not a black and white issue.”

    This article was published in The Muslim News

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