Saturday, 20 of September of 2014

Category » Muslim women

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.


No sex-slaves please, we’re Muslim

This was my newspaper column in last week’s National in the UAE. It is a response to a video posted by a female politician in Kuwait where the protagonist says that men should have sex-slaves in order to protect themselves against the sins of fornication and adultery. See my thoughts below.

Muslim women rarely talk about sex in public. To do so is considered by the cultures they inhabit – not by Islam – as one of the great taboos. So what on earth possessed Salwa al Mutairi, a failed politician from Kuwait, to declare that female “sex-slaves” were a solution to meet the needs of lusty Kuwaiti husbands?

According to Al Mutairi, Kuwait is jam-packed with men whose excessive virility means they are aroused to a frenzy by the sight of female domestic help wielding a vacuum cleaner or stacking a dishwasher. Her solution to their uncontrollable libidos: buy women from war-stricken countries to be their sex-slaves. She suggests Chechnya, where female prisoners of war are in plentiful supply, and who will be grateful for being saved from starvation.

Predictably her comments have been seized upon by Islamophobes. And no wonder. She’s managed to wrap up every possible stereotype of Muslims into one mind-boggling story: men who treat women as possessions; oppressed wives; women who buy into the worldview that men are there to be satisfied at all costs and that the Arab desire for conquest is still rampant. And she’s quoted some “specialists of the faith” to make it look as though this is a religious position that all Muslims hold.

Here’s what I think of Al Mutairi’s views: bonkers.

Her opinion is about as representative of Muslim thinking as the Pope is a Muslim. That is to say, not at all. Yet because she feeds into existing prejudices, she has received wide coverage. It’s a bit Sarah Palin: all hype and no sense.

Just to be clear, Muslims don’t condone the buying and selling of women, or any human beings. We’re opposed to it. Islam doesn’t see men as ravaging sex-beasts, rather men should treat their wives with compassion and respect. Muslims are not out to conquer the world, or take prisoners of war. Instead, Islam counsels peace and harmony with its neighbours, and that Muslims should act as a refuge for those who have been afflicted by war.

Of all the craziness that props up Al-Mutairi’s strange notions, the one that really bothers me is that men are beholden to uncontrollable lust. And that’s a notion that pervades both eastern and western cultures. Let’s get rid of the idea that men are hostages to their libido once and for all.

I’m fed up with excuses rolled out for men that they are so feeble and lacking in self-discipline that they are incapable of controlling their sexual desire. But, strangely they are not incapable of being the head of a household or running a country. My view: if men can’t control what’s in their pants, then their argument that they should control society is on pretty shaky ground.

Men who have power and wealth believe that they can treat women as possessions; that “manly’ men who are overloaded with testosterone must inevitably engage in affairs. Al-Mutairi’s views fit into this same power and lust paradigm as the Dominique Strauss-Khans of this world, or the Arnold Schwarzeneggers. It’s the same wrong-headed thinking that sees women in war as legitimate targets for abuse through the wielding of power and sex, as we’ve seen in the recent allegations that Qaddafi used rape as a weapon of war.

Let’s get away from this sleazy, skin-crawling, dirty tone that sees women as sex objects. It’s a pernicious paradigm that men as well as women must challenge. And no taboo should hold us back from saying so.


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.


Women stuck between the darkness of Jahiliyyah and a brighter dawn

I came across two stories yesterday about women in the Arab world that could not have been more different.

The first was a press release I was sent from the “Network of Free Ulema” in Libya. I don’t know anything about them (other than the fact that the press release was in English, which I thought was quite curious. I’m assuming there was an Arabic version too. And the info that they’ve carefully written up in Wikipedia. They are very media savvy. Good for them!)

The press release was on the occasion of International Women’s Day in order to:

“celebrate your heroic political, social, scholarly and economic achievements. We congratulate you, and promise you that all of us, women and men, will work together towards a Libya of equality and fairness for all.”

I haven’t copied out the whole text, but I did like this line at the end:

“May the significance of this special day, become an inspiration for a New and Free Libya.”

Women’s actions can and should be an inspiration not just for women, but for everyone. I like the recognition of this.

It’s great to see this worldliness in the Ulema, and their recognition of the importance of women and the status and respect that they deserve. It gives me some hope for change. It also underlines a point I made in an article earlier this week that the up-front participation by women in the revolutions of the Middle East has forever changed their status.  It’s re-iterated in a piece written by Naomi Wolf on The Middle East Feminist Revolution.

Contrast this with a heartbreaking piece in The National yesterday about the prevalence of women in Saudi Arabia who are being forced NOT to marry by their fathers and brothers. The article writes:

Amal Saleh would like to marry and have a family, but she needs her father’s permission. And he won’t give it. A university professor in her mid-thirties, Amal has had numerous suitors asking for her hand, but her father always refuses. “They are not rich, or he doesn’t like their fathers or they are not from the same social group,” she says. Work colleagues who proposed were turned away because they were not from the same tribe. Her brothers support her father, she says, because they fear “that if I had a partner he would share in my money”. For her male relatives, Amal says, “I am like a horse. They don’t treat me as a human being. They treat me as if I belong to them and they should decide what to do with this ‘thing’.” The National is not publishing Amal’s real name because her father threatened to kill her if she sought help outside the family.

It seems that a number of reasons lie behind fathers and brothers witholding permission to marry – permission which is required under Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws for women to marry. The woman’s salary is lost to the family. They are worried that she will take away her share of the inheritance. They don’t like the family of the intended.

Even though such behaviour on the part of the family is against Islamic law – and the country’s chief mufti has stated it to be so, adding that it should bring a penalty of imprisonment, this tribal custom persists. In fact,women who protest against such behaviour are taken to court by their families for ‘disobedience’, and bafflingly the court upholds this.

Amal’s words wrench my guts. She uses a similar analogy to the period of jahiliyyah that I’ve used before. She says:

“Before Islam, they had this practice of killing a girl when she is just a baby [because] they were ashamed of her as they wanted a boy,” Amal had said in the interview. “Now I’m saying that history is being repeated. They kill us when we have emotions and can understand and are aware of our rights. Maybe if they killed me as a child it would be better than now.”

courtesy of susiesbigadventure.blogspot.com

Two corners of the Muslim world, two very different stories. On the one hand there is hope that respect for women and a recognition of their equality and status is now on the horizon. On the other hand, despair that there is still a long way to go.


Which Muslim women inspire you? (In celebration of International women’s Day)

Today, March 8th, marks the 100th anniversary of International women’s day.

According to wikipedia, : “It is a major day of global celebration of women. In different regions the focus of the celebrations ranges from general celebration of respect, appreciation and love towards women to a celebration for women’s economic, political and social achievements.” It’s a day to celebrate women – whether you are a woman yourself, or simply proud of the women in your life.

Around the blogosphere, facebook and twitter I’ve seen comments by men asking “What about a Men’s day?” or “International bloke’s day”. You forget, gentle male-people, that celebrating women and their achievements is also a celebration of humanity, and by extension of men also. You forget, gentle male-people, that for thousands of years women were taken for granted, oppressed and brutalised (still are all round the world, but slowly slowly, gradually this diminishes.) What is a just one century of celebrating one day by comparison?

Anyway, on this day, I am asking a specific question in relation to Muslim women who have inspired you or captured your imagination…

Which Muslim women, contemporary or historic, based out of Europe and the Levant, do you find inspiring or captivating, and why?


The time for women’s voices to be heard has come

This is my weekly column, “Her Say” published today in The National (UAE).

The old clichés that the women of the Middle East are backward, uneducated and complicit in their oppression have been wrenched away from the global discourse. It was a narrative that sought to take away your voices by claiming to know better than you what you want.

Egyptian women shout slogans in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Photographer: Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images

But you have changed all of that. Around the world, we’ve seen your presence across television screens, in newspaper pictures and throughout the internet. We’ve heard your voices on the radio, in interviews and speaking to friends, colleagues and global citizens. We’ve felt the strength of your emotions and beliefs translate into political change – which was unforeseeable three months ago – change that has occurred thanks in great measure to your participation. We have seen you side by side with men demanding justice and freedom. Irrespective of religion, ethnicity, geography and education, you have had your say. And your say has made a difference.

On January 18, a 26-year-old woman in Egypt, Asmaa Mahfouz, uploaded a video on YouTube, urging her fellow citizens to go out to Tahrir Square, to fight for their country. The video went viral and it is suggested that her say was one of the catalysts that sparked the revolution. She is just one example among many of how a woman’s voice can be clear, true and unafraid; how a woman can and must make a change; how a woman must be listened to and respected. In this case, Mahfouz had her say, which helped to inspire a nation.

We should pause at this moment in history to recognise the voices of such women at the front line of carrying the aspirations of their people into visible change. Even more important is that society has come to realise that women have voices, that they have something important to say. And more critically, they must be listened to.

Those in power – whether at the level of high political office, or simply at home – have realised that a woman’s say is fundamental to a healthy and dynamic social fabric. If women’s voices – “her say” – were not recognised, valued and listened to before, the time is now for them to be acknowledged for the importance and value that they hold.

This column has the most appropriate title for a piece of my writing at this moment. And it is even more poignant because March 8 will mark the centenary of International Women’s Day. Who can say if a century ago I could have written to express my views so freely?

“Her say” might have been considered inappropriate, might still be considered as such in some quarters, but the seeds of change are flowering today.

There are those who claim that women should restrict themselves to the private domain. But recent events have proven otherwise. It is only when men and women have come out together, when men and women have raised their voices together, when her say as well as his are articulated, that change can happen.

The importance of her say in public and political events is clear, but this applies equally to the private domain. Whether you are a man or a woman, take a moment this week to turn to the women in your lives and ask them: “What do you want to say?” Then make sure to listen clearly to her aspirations.

The answers might surprise you.


British Muslim women tackling stereotypes head on

This article was published yesterday by Common Ground News Service.

London – When it comes to discussing British Muslim women, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we lead a one-dimensional lifestyle: the niqab (face veil)-and-nothing-but-the-niqab. The image of long draping black cloaks and sad-looking eyes comes to mind, and it is part of the discourse of defining Muslim women entirely by what they wear.

On the other hand, there is the danger of painting a “Pollyanna-ish” gloss on the progress that British Muslim women are making by taking the examples of those in the public eye. For example, last month Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party and arguably one of the most powerful people in the country, has been out in the press – and not because she’s a Muslim woman, but for defending the government’s spending cuts. She’s joined in the media by two female members of parliament in the opposition Labour Party’s shadow cabinet, and one of the presenters of the globally popular X Factor’s sister programme, The Xtra Factor.

I created this image about three years ago - since it has been copied and re-used (without my permission, or without crediting Spirit21 I should add!)

It’s good to see the faces of Muslim women as part of the fabric of the nation, not because of the “Muslim woman” label but because of their talents and contributions. Yet this dichotomy of oppressed and hidden versus liberated and public is simplistic as well as untrue.

Most Muslim women’s existence in the UK is not defined by their decision to wear a veil or not, nor is it all glamour at the highest echelons of politics and entertainment. Like most other women, their concerns focus on the ordinary issues of day-to-day life such as education, employment, health and family. But, worryingly, they face additional barriers.

Take the arena of work. According to a 2010 report by the UK Equalities and Human Rights Commission, only 24 per cent of Muslim women in the UK are employed, and those who have little knowledge of Islam and Muslims are quick to pretend that this is correlated to Islam’s so-called ”oppression” of women by their families.

However, a 2008 report by The Young Foundation that looks at second-generation Muslim women concludes that such “common perceptions about attitudes and barriers are misleading – most women are supported by their families in their decisions to work”, adding that “some of the barriers which affect British Muslim women affect all women, such as gender discrimination, inflexibility, and lack of childcare. But British Muslim women also face additional challenges, including discrimination based on clothing and faith.”

British Muslim women, however, are tackling this head on. We have a generation of Muslim women politicians, community leaders, businesspeople and writers like me. We’re all working hard to change the narrative and create new images, stories and cultures. This will break the gridlock of the too simplistic stereotypes that hold about Muslim women and offer them the freedom and opportunity to define who they are on their own terms.

We must do this by creating a shared vision of a better future.

Take my own example: I set up my blog, Spirit 21, five years ago to provide an outlet for the unheard British Muslim woman’s voice. The BBC referred to it as one of the UK’s most influential Muslim blogs. It is quoted across the breadth of press and I am invited to be one of the voices of Muslim women in the national and international media. As a result I was named one of the UK’s 100 most influential Muslim women.

And my book, Love in a Headscarf, which tells the story of growing up as a British Muslim woman looking for love, is translated globally and sits at the number two spot on the bestseller list in India.

Or consider Jobeda Ali who organised a Cineforum showcasing films from around the world featuring Muslim women. Or Shaista Gohir’s Big Sister website, providing young Muslim girls with female Muslim role models from across the spectrum of professions.

Sarah Joseph, a British Muslim convert set up emel, perhaps the world’s first glossy Muslim lifestyle magazine. And Roohi Hasan is a television news editor and part of the team that set up Channel 5 news, one of the UK’s most popular news programmes. Meanwhile, Professor Maleiha Malik, a barrister and professor of law at the prestigious Kings College London, focuses on discrimination law, minority protection and feminist theory.

With such bright, innovative and motivated Muslim women crossing the frontier of so many disciplines, we must remain optimistic that the simplistic stereotypes will be forgotten and the richness of talent that Muslim women present will be recognised and harnessed.


Maybe the Burqa is a red herring?

These remarks were prepared for a Policy Network debate in September at a Labour fringe event. A shortened version was subsequently published in print in EMEL Magazine.

These were my remarks at the Policy Network debate which looked at the issue:

The Left’s Trouble with the Burqa.

When it comes to discussing the burqa, there is almost always one missing constant in the debate: that is the woman herself who wears the burqa.

If, as the opponents of the burqa claim, it is a form of oppression, then it is doubly oppressing that the woman cannot represent herself, and put forward her own views.

So the other possibility is that there are in fact, very few women who wear the burqa, and maybe there are just not enough to go around and speak at the numerous events and media interviews discussing their clothing choices. In fact, in Western Europe there are probably only a handful who wear the burqa – the Afghan style of covering. Those few who do cover their faces wear a niqab, a simple face veil. This might seem a small visual and semantic difference, but it highlights the point that it is the most extreme instance that is used to polarise this debate – a debate which is already about an extremely small group of people in the first place.

Maybe the burqa is a red-herring? A red herring for those who want to return to a homogenised society by claiming that there is too much difference. And as usual it is the women – in this case the Muslim women – who are caught as the scapegoats, and are paying the price.

When it comes to numbers, the Danish government thinks there are 100 – 200 such women who cover their faces. In France it’s somewhere between 367 (a very spookily specific number – what have the secret services been up to to be so exact?) and 2000.  In Sweden, the estimate is around 400, Holland around 100, and in Belgium a paltry 30.

So, why is something so incredibly miniscule in number, size and shape, the source of so much angst?

I think the last time such a small amount of cloth made such a huge social impact was the mini-skirt. Was that controversy also caused because it was another instance of self-determination by women?  And I wonder if that analogy is co-incidental in any way?

That piece of cloth changed the way that women and society looked. And changes in women’s behaviour and clothing have always upset traditionalists.

Perhaps the face-veil is today’s challenge to our vision of how society looks – the most far reaching challenge put forward by the whole enterprise of multiculturalism.

When multiculturalism first set out, it couldn’t be envisaged at that time just how far it would change the way society interacts and the way society physically looks.

By protecting the right of women to dress in the way they choose, under the freedom of religion, some say that multiculturalism has gone too far, because the face covering is a sign of visible difference. I think it is the opposite. Women’s clothing in the 20th century fundamentally signalled a change in social attitudes much deeper than the mini-skirt itself, and was opposed by social conservatives for all that it represented. Today the face-veil engenders the same vitriol because it antagonises the same veins of traditionalism and conformity which constrain people’s freedom. The vitriol is not present because multiculturalism has gone too far. It is present because it has not yet gone far enough.

These are the squeams and squirms of those who do not want society to change in any way, but we just need to ride it out, and in time, society will adjust, just as happened with women’s liberation.

When people say that the face-covering is anti-western, or does not stem from European heritage, I would remind them that women’s covering (we’ll leave men’s covering to a separate discussion) was common till 50 years ago. Even less than a few weeks ago, Cherie Blair was snapped with her hair covered with a black veil during the Pope’s visit. The mini skirt too wasn’t a ‘Western’ or ‘European’ piece of clothing inherited from any kind of European civilisational values. If anything, in earlier eras, Europeans were horrified with seemingly scantily clad heathen women that they found in their imperial travels across the world.

Society adjusted, women determined how they would dress, and our society now accepts it as the status quo.

Back to the face-veil, because everyone loves to talk about it. Well, what do they say?

Covering the face, we are told, is a sign of separation. And yet the stories we hear of British women who do cover their faces are of those who go into Jack Straw’s surgery to engage in the political process with their MP; or the tale of the woman who despite wanting to be part of French society was denied citizenship in France.

Covering the face, it is also said, makes other people feel uncomfortable because those women deliberately look different. Well, I thought we’d understood that it is our own attitudes we need to examine when others look different to us – goths, punks, hoodies, blacks, Asians… the list goes on and on.

Or, the face covering is no good because such women are a security risk, it is said. Don’t know about the last time you were in a bank that was held up by a covered woman? Or mugged by one? Or had one destroy your pension by creating a banking crisis?

The most popular argument from the left is that it is a symbol of oppression. We need to ‘liberate’ these Muslim women from their poor deluded ideals. If they claim to be free in their choice, we tell them that they are brainwashed. And, so we’re full circle back to the oppression of these women  – but this time from the people that claim to be ‘freeing’ them.  The best thing is to respect the agency of such women and the way they choose to dress.

Under this analysis of the meaning behind the veil and multiculturalism’s support for Muslim women to dress as they choose, I am a failure of multiculturalism. This is because I wear a supposed marker of separation on my head. My choice of dress is a representation of how I have been supposedly ‘brainwashed’ into being oppressed, despite the fact that I have a strong education, and my professional opinion is respected in many areas.  I may have a bomb under my headscarf, which of course is a threat to security. Some people, and strangely that is men more often than not, feel uncomfortable with the absence of my hair and my curves from their gaze.  And some feminists in particular accuse me of betraying the sisterhood, and will say that my choice to wear it in this country is a betrayal of those women in countries where they are forced to cover, even whilst I oppose that force, and have actively chosen to cover.

What can I say to you? I’m not a failure. And nor is multiculturalism. I am an active part of our society, working to make it a better place, bringing together different heritages and perspectives. What my presence, and those of these women offers us, is the knowledge that we can live in the kind of society that allows us to be proud of the heritage, cultures and backgrounds that have made each of us what we are on the inside and allows us to express ourselves with tolerance, freedom and mutual respect on the outside.


The Pink Abaya Club, or, what is the colour of freedom

Belatedly, here is an article I wrote for The National.

One of the first decisions I made when I set up my blog about being a Muslim woman was that the colour black would be nowhere in sight.

In Britain, like many other European and American areas, black is the colour that typically defines Muslim women, a shorthand way of denoting our supposed anonymity and oppression, and a lazy way to instil fear and pity about us in equal measure.

It was time for people to see Muslim women as individuals, with their own personalities and stories, so, I chose the colour for my blog that was in my mind the furthest away from black – pink.

Illustration by Pep Montserrat, from The National

My mini-me, who welcomes readers to my website, is a small cartoon that looks a bit like I do, wears a pink headscarf with sparkly pink shoes, and has a cheeky smile. In her own small way she restores individuality and agency to the debate in the West about Muslim women.

I suggested a similar approach to some lovely Emirati women I met recently on a visit to the Gulf. They were dressed in gorgeous couture black abayas, which oozed sophistication and expense. Of course, in the Gulf, black has a totally different meaning for women. The black abaya is a symbol of all things womanly, and the best of Arabic culture.

The individuality of these successful professional women was obvious in the tiny embroidered details at the edges of their sleeves, the expensive crystals sprinkled across the black fabric and in the glimpses of the bold coloured lining as they glided elegantly around the room.

I was surprised that for women who clearly have had to be determined and focused to progress in the professional fields that they had chosen, in a society that is only now slowly accepting women into the workplace, when they stood together they all looked, well, the same.

I wondered if this was about creating organised power through a collective representation of women, or whether it was a cultural mechanism to keep women’s individuality out of the public space, and turn this vibrant half of humanity into an undifferentiated anonymous mass.

Born of my own experiences in the West about the meaning that a simple piece of clothing like a headscarf and its colour can convey, I proposed to the women that they should form a Pink Abaya Club. It would be an invitation-only group, where a designer pink abaya would be worn on special occasions by women who had excelled in their field and who through their day-to-day lives were showing that women were part of the burgeoning, innovative culture that is emerging out of the Gulf.

The women were enchanted by this notion, and giggled initially with some excitement in their eyes about presenting themselves in a totally new way. It was a chance to offer their personalities to the outside world in a way that represented their vibrancy as individuals. And then abruptly they said: “But people will talk about us. They will say bad things because we are not wearing the black abaya.”

It was clear from their words that the way to succeed as a woman was by keeping femininity and individuality to linings, crystals and sleeves, and blending into the social definition of acceptability for what it means to be a woman. The Pink Abaya Club was dead.

I returned to London, reflecting on my possibly irrational phobia of black. But, as a younger woman, I had had an equal distaste for pink, seeing it as too “girlie”. What I am certain of is that I had deliberately used my pink headscarf as a political tool, with a small p. Of course, women have often used their clothing for political purposes. But I’m now beginning to wonder, am I only defying one stereotype of women to be caught by another?

In asserting my own “freedom” from black, is the colour pink as liberating for me in the West as I think it is? The colour pink in relation to the western world has a very narrow prescription for women, a hyper-feminisation that limits them to beauty and shopping, or the rather old-fashioned ideas of domesticity.

These are sold as liberating choices where women can be proud of their femininity and freedom, but do their narrow confines mean that they are just as limiting as the black lens through which Muslim women are seen? Is pink culture just as oppressive and anonymising?

There has been a recent revival in discussions about what it means to be a postmodern western woman. Are today’s post-feminism women who have greater economic power – in itself a debatable point – and sexual liberation, now confined only to notions of shopping and beauty as markers of success?

The more we shop, and the more we adhere to standardised depictions of beauty, the better we are told we fulfil our function as women. The mantras that we follow are seemingly liberating, revelling in femininity: “You can never have enough shoes” (really?), and “Because you’re worth it” (so buy this product).

Shopping and beauty are the two domains in which women are permitted to excel. It creates a strange conformity, with the only individuality that is permitted being in the detail and in the degree of being a woman in this hyper-feminine way. It’s all on the edges: what is your hair like, which brand of shoe do you buy, how big are your breasts.

Just like the gorgeous and feisty abaya-wearing women of the Gulf, individual expressions of the personality of women and their characteristics as human beings are confined to the fringes.

This is “pink culture” where Cheryl Cole becomes Britain’s sweetheart through her manufactured perfection, spending £200,000 every year on clothes and beauty; and where the glamour model Katie Price is considered a role model by teenage girls. Price has even just announced a make-up range for children.

I was given most food for thought while caught in this trap of negotiating my way between contrasting stereotypes of how to be a woman when I came across a campaign called Pink Stinks. The founders say: “We have always wanted to offer girls an alternative to all this ‘princess sparkle make-up body-image popstar fantasy world’.

“We believe that body image obsession is starting younger and younger, and that the seeds are sown during the pink stage, as young girls are taught the boundaries within which they will grow up, as well as narrow and damaging messages about what it is to be a girl.”

One of their aims is: “To challenge the ‘culture of pink’ which is based on beauty over brains and to provide an alternative.” Being a woman and having a brain, or being a bit different, demonstrating that as a woman you’ve exercised your own choices are of course threatening. Culture says it is much safer and much more appropriate to stay within the acceptable boundaries of being pink.

Does my pink headscarf play into this notion of “girliness”? A headscarf and associated modest dress is upsetting and even threatening because it is not typically womanly. How will you know if I’m a “proper” woman, if my feminine assets are hidden away? And worse still, some see the fact that I do not put luscious locks on display as inflammatory, as though it is their right that I display myself as a “proper” woman in the mould that has been cast for me.

My headscarf is a defiant expression of my choice to reject pink culture, and be a woman on my own terms. A woman who makes her own choice and flaunts it: that’s scary.

So, perhaps the reason that my pink headscarf feels approachable, acceptable and reassuring is because it re-casts me into an understandable and “safe” depiction of a western woman, focused on being girlie, beautiful and conforming to accepted standards of femininity.

It is exactly for these same reasons – but in their mirror image – that the Pink Abaya Club is such a dangerous and inflammatory idea. It would be just as elegant, modest and beautiful as the black abaya, but it would step out of the acceptable limits of the expression of womanhood which have been determined by society.

It is the simple act of a woman choosing for herself a colour that she feels best represents her individuality – whether that is pink, purple, blue, green or yellow – that makes it outside of what is “acceptable” for a woman to wear.

Whether East or West, Muslim or not, a woman’s personality is limited to being expressed only in the margins. Instead, we should be revelling in the individuality of women, not confining them to a monochromatic choice of either hyper-feminine pink culture, or collective black anonymity.


A boost to women-friendly mosques

This article was published today at the Guardian’s Comment is Free.

A report is being launched today focusing on mosques that have demonstrated good practice in relation to women’s involvement and participation.

Five key criteria for assessing “women-friendly” mosques were distilled by holding over 100 interviews with Muslim women and listening to what the they themselves wanted. These were: a separate prayer space for women, services and activities geared towards women, such as childcare, women’s training or mentoring sessions, an imam accessible to women or a female scholar, the inclusion of women in decision making and women holding office on the mosque committees.

Out of 486 mosques that were invited to participate in the benchmarking exercise, the “top 100″ are listed in the report as “five star” and “four star” mosques. The list is prefaced by pertinent verses from the Qur’an to set the context for the report’s impact in the Muslim community. They make for interesting reading, and I’d encourage anyone interested in what the Qur’an has to say about the equality of participation to take a look.

I have a few quibbles with the methodology. Of around 1600 mosques in the UK, only 486 were asked to participate, and this was not a representative sample. And the authors admit that it’s just a start. The 100 women interviewed to identify the five criteria may or may not have been representative of the schools of thought, age and ethnicity the UK Muslim population.

But, you know … so what? From reading the report I sense that this was never meant to be a piece of quantitative analysis. What is important about this report is that it should ignite a public discussion about women’s participation in mosques, why it’s important and how to achieve it. The report highlights some of the key criteria that women feel are important to them, and we get a qualitative sense of the challenges. It’s a great first step.

And here’s my advice on where the report needs to go next: it needs to be rolled out across all mosques – and ideally all faith centres (Muslims are not the only ones with issues around gender participation). We need to identify the factors that led to high women’s participation in mosques, and we need to share that best practice across faith centres.

Mosques are already a vital part of British civic society. And, as society gets “bigger”, community run organisations that cater for local needs will become increasingly important – even more than they are now. So our job is to make them the best that they can possibly be. Encouraging and then institutionalising transparency, standards and best practice is part of that work. In this regard, the support the report’s launch is receiving from the Mosques and Imam’s National Advisory Board (Minab) which was set up to encourage standards and best practice across mosques, is an excellent partnership.

Mosques have been set up through the voluntary efforts of ordinary working Muslims up and down the country in order to build a sense of community, and to offer moral and emotional sustenance. In addition to this, they provide a range of services from English and computer classes, to yoga and crèche facilities, to gyms and function halls. At a time when funding will no doubt become scarce, such services are important. In particular, where they offer support to women and young people they need to be encouraged. When stories of violence come to the fore it is usually where mosques have not been able to deliver a high level of support and services tailored to its community’s needs.

This report echoes wider societal concerns about women’s participation in the public square. If we look at the criteria where four-star mosques fell down, the lack of women’s inclusion at a strategic and operational decision-making level was one of the key failings. But this is an area where women’s participation is generally problematic.

In the political arena, much has been rightly made of the fact the Cabinetis only 14% female – a measly four women. But it’s a wider issue than that – only 21.8% of MPs are women. And the corporate sphere is little better. Only 12.2% of FTSE 100 directors are female, and only four companies have female chief executives.

So let’s see this report as a small step towards that wider social goal of women’s inclusion and participation in the civic arena. Looking through this wider lens will almost certainly effect much faster and more effective change.