Thursday, 23 of October of 2014

Category » Veil

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.


European leaders legitimise anti-Muslim sentiment: latest is burqa ban in France

This is my weekly column published in The National (UAE) today.

France has gone all burqa-phobic again. As of Monday, it will be illegal in France for anyone to cover their face in public. The ban has been on the horizon for some time, so nothing much new here, but the wider context has intensified.

courtesy ska-p.net

The leader of the far-right Front National, Marine le Pen, is campaigning hard against Muslims and immigration, and her popularity is increasing. She has compared crowds of Muslims praying in the streets outside mosques to the Nazi occupation.

Not to be outdone, the president, Nicolas Sarkozy, this week organised a debate on secularism and the role of religion. His prime minister, François Fillon, refused to attend, saying that it would further stigmatise Muslims. Abderrahmane Dahmane, who was fired from his post as Sarkozy’s adviser on integration for criticising the debate, called on Muslims to wear a green star in protest against the discussion. It is aimed to echo the yellow star that Jews in Europe were forced to wear during the Nazi era.

With such emotive references on both sides to the Nazi era, it’s clear that France still needs to come to terms with its own history in dealing with minorities.

Despite arguing that the ban and the debate are in defence of secularism, Sarkozy has had no qualms in simultaneously praising the “Christian heritage” of the country.

And even though a 1905 law separated church and state, churches and synagogues still receive indirect subsidies from the state. If mosques were included in this it might help put an end to the lack of space in them that forces worshippers to overflow onto the streets.

It is easy to understand the motivation behind the ill-conceived debate on secularism held this week, as it is the political context for the ban on face veils in public.

However, this would fail to illuminate the bigger picture. By pandering to the far-right to gain votes, Sarkozy is giving anti-Muslim sentiment legitimacy and a national platform that it does not deserve and that could have long-term and dangerous consequences.

courtesy politicshome.com

He is not the only leader guilty of this. Germany’s Angela Merkel was keen to score cheap political points last year when she stated that the “multikulti” project had failed, and pointed her finger at Muslims. Merkel would do well to remember that Germany’s earlier mono-culture project in the 1930s and 1940s did not work out so well.

Following hot on her heels was the UK’s prime minister, who repeated the same vacuous mantra in February this year at a conference in Munich.

He told world leaders that state multiculturalism had failed in the UK and pledged to cut funding for Muslim groups that failed to respect basic British values such as freedom of speech and democracy. Strange words from a government that harped on about “stability” when the protesters of Tahrir Square were demonstrating for democracy.

Europe must be more principled in its approach to dealing with its Muslim populations. Countries such as the UK and France are taking bold actions in Libya to support the movement towards freedom and democracy. At the same time, domestically they wish to suppress Muslim self-expression.

You can’t have it both ways. Freedom, self-expression and democracy need to be accompanied by one more value to be meaningful: a consistent standard for all.


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.


Europe vs the Burka

Today I’ve been blogging at Faith Central, at the Times Online. Guess what, the face-veil is in the news (again!). Here are my thoughts on the trend sweeping Europe:

Bess (of Faith Central) writes: Faith Central welcomes back Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, blogging today on the topical issue of new laws in Belgium and France regarding the Burka.

Shelina writes:

No matter how itsy-bitsy the face-veil might be in physical size, it has the ability to drive political and emotional sentiment at a national level.

Recently Belgium became the first European country to vote for a full ban on the face-veil in public, and the law could come into force by July. The 400-odd women out of Belgium’s 280,000 Muslim population who wear the face-veil could face fines of £110.

A woman in Italy was recently subjected to a 430-euro fine for wearing a face-veil on the way to a mosque. And the French, in a show of one upmanship, are to introduce sanctions that would fine husbands who force their wives to wear the veil up to 15,000 euros and send them to jail for up to a year.

France is particularly worried as  it has such a huge immigrant population that it simply doesn’t know how to handle. Ghetto-ised  in suburbs, without jobs, education or prospects, the five million or so immigrants who hail mainly from North Africa and identify themselves as Muslims are increasingly agitated.

The wider French population has been encouraged to see them as problematic, and instead of identifying the lack of policy to resolve these issues as the cause of  riots, are instead jumping on their “Muslim” character as the problem. 

The face-veil is, of course, perceived as the symbol par excellence of Islam. This was particularly apparent over the weekend when two passers-by pulled the veil off a Muslim woman  in a shopping centre in France, telling her “Go back to your own country.” The violent nature of the attack hardly flies the flag for ‘enlightenment’ values, and the remark reflects a worrying racist undertone.

So far Britain has taken a different stance – with politicians arguing for women’s choice to dress as they please. Even Jack Straw – who stated in 2006 that he felt uncomfortable when he spoke with his veiled constituents – has stated that he believes it is still up to women to decide for themselves.

Just what has made continental Europe veer in such a different direction to the UK?

France would argue that it is the entrenchment of secular principles in their constitution and its historic trailblazing of human rights. But today’s human rights lawyers have been telling Sarkozy that such legislation would be contested on those grounds.

So maybe the reason for Europe’s stance is more about “defending our values” from overrunning hordes bent on Islamisation? Certainly that was the sentiment behind Switzerland’s vote to ban minarets. It wasn’t about the size and shape of the minarets given the number of physically similar church spires that dot the Swiss landscape. With  provocative posters that depicted minarets as missiles, it was clearly about fear-mongering. Unsurprisingly the posters featured images of  a woman in a face-veil – linking the idea back to the concept that face-veils are a threat to Europe.
Is it about security? Well most Muslim women who veil have no objection to being cleared through security, in fact they most likely would support such security checks.

Is this about racism? The difficult question that no-one dares to ask is whether in this vitriolic response to a group who looks a little different continental Europe is reverting to type? Dare anyone mention the scapegoating that took place in Europe in the 1930s?

Maybe it is simply a symptom of insecurity within Europe about its identity. Given recent troubles in Greece, Spain and Portugal, Europe’s power on the world stage is looking shaky. Sometimes it’s easier to know what you are in opposition to  – the ‘other’ -  rather than having the self-knowledge and conviction to stand for what you actually believe in.

Europe has always taken upon itself the burden to “liberate” Muslim women, blind to the suffering of its own women. For Muslim women who choose to veil, being forced to strip off and pay a fine hardly seems any kind of liberation. For those who are in fact forced to cover, such legislation will only confine them to their homes, rather than allow them to talk to their peers and neighbours, get educated and assert themselves. It’s not just Muslim women who face oppression and domestic problems. In France for example, 40,000 women a year suffer domestic violence at the hands of their partners.

When arguing in favour or a ban on the face-veil, Europeans often resort to what I call the “reciprocity” argument saying in effect “if women are forced to veil in countries in the Muslim world like in Saudi Arabia, then why can’t they be forced not to veil in Europe?” I wonder  do we really want to look to oppressive non-democratic regimes for guidance on freedom?

Of course, while the politics of the veil hints at  wider tensions between Europe and the Muslim world perhaps this is more to do with faith than politics. Religion has been getting a hard time recently, being pilloried and driven out of public consciousness as no longer important in our national life. Islam is painted – wrongly in my opinion, as it shares an Abrahamic heritage with Christianity – as different and alien. So when it comes to rejecting faith, rejecting Islam is the most symbolic way of expressing this rejection. And when the face-veil is seen as the most potent reference to Islam, it’s no surprise that Europe’s many insecurities and tensions become focused on a seemingly innocuous bit of fabric.


The many faces behind the veil – in today’s Independent

The Independent published this double page spread today, with stories from 5 different Muslim women about why they wear the hijab, niqab or not at all, including yours truly. It’s a colourful and varied piece of coverage. The opening introduction runs as below.

The many faces behind the veil
A symbol of female subjugation? These women believe their Islamic headwear is a
liberating way of expressing their identities.

Jilbab. Niqab. Al Amira. Dupatta. Burqa. Chador. Even the language used to describe the various kinds of clothing worn by Muslim women can seem as complicated and muddied as the issue itself. Rarely has an item of cloth caused so much consternation, controversy and misunderstanding
as with the Islamic headscarf or veil. For those Muslims who literally wear their religion on their sleeves, hijab (from the Arabic for curtain or screen) can be many things. For some it is a cultural practice handed down through the generations, an unquestioned given that is simply adopted. For others the need to dress and behave modestly can define a person’s relationship with God, their
religious devotion or even their politics. For others still hijab is a complicated journey, one with twists and turns where veils are briefly discarded on the ground or taken up with willing fervour.
“Muslim women wear hijab for many reasons including piety, identity and even as political statements,” says Tahmina Saleem, the co-founder of Inspire, a consultancy which helps Muslim
women become vocal members of their communities. “Most do so willingly, some unwillingly.”

To its detractors
the headscarf – and in particular its more visible cousin the face veil – is
simply a form of oppression, regardless of whether modest clothing has been
adopted willingly or not. Why, the abolitionists ask, would any woman ever
voluntarily choose to hide her hair or face in public?
Later this month
France’s ruling party will debate a law that could see the face veils banned in
public, meaning any woman caught wearing a niqab or a burqa (the Arab and Afghan
versions of a full face
veil) could be fined £700. If the law is passed it
would represent a watershed moment in Western Europe’s relationship with its
Muslims citizens and could encourage politicians in neighbouring countries to
promote similar legislation.


In the
argument over whether to ban or not to ban, the polemicists usually reign
supreme. Hijab is either good or evil, wrong or right. The voices of the women
whose lives would be monumentally affected by any sort of curb on Islamic
clothing are rarely seen or heard from.
Today The Independent speaks to five
British women from different walks of life about what form of hijab they choose
to wear and why they wear it. From a graduate who became the first one in her
family to cover her face entirely, to the mother of four who chose to take
off her headscarf and sees no problem with remaining a devout and practising
Muslims – their stories are as varied and colourful as the scarves on their
shoulders. “

Now, regular readers of my blog will know that I have been advocating more recently (here and here) that we don’t need to get “behind the veil” as much as we just need to get past it. However, whilst others want to talk about it, there is a duty to respond, explain and communicate. I think this piece makes a good effort to do so by letting Muslim women tell their own stories.Link By using their own
words, at least the thinking and decision-making behind the choices – the women’s own free choices – is apparent.

It’s quite a different approach to Yasmin Alibhai Brown’s comment piece last week in the Evening Standard. I’m generally an admirer of Alibhai-Brown and have great respect for the trail that she has blazed in the media. I enjoy her writing, and her commitment to say it how it is. But in this particular case, I need to politely disagree. In this piece, she warns women that they should be “wary of romanticising Islam“. By ‘romanticising Islam’ her concern is that these women are saying they are finding moral certitude in Islam from lives they see as having lost their compass.

She gives the example of Boris Johnson’s ex-wife Allegra Mostyn Owen, who is now married to a British Pakistani man. She says about her: “… she is going for complete surrender, an uncritical acceptance of the most regressive practices of some of my co-religionists. ” This is an assumption about this woman, her beliefs and her choices. We don’t actually get to hear from Mostyn Owen about the nature of her marital relationship, the details of why she made the choice to (one assumes from Alibhai-Brown’s article) become Muslim and what her feelings and thoughts are about various practices along the vast spectrum of liberal to orthodox Islam. The reasons for choosing to marry her now husband are also obscured. These are huge assumptions about someone’s personal choices and beliefs.

Alibhai-Brown concludes: “Mostyn-Owen and other such submissive converts may think their new lives are excitingly exotic but their choices drag the faith back to the dark ages.”

The notion that converts must be ’submissive’, despite the fact that they have to generally create great change in their lives and in their personal relationships is absurd. Alibhai-Brown herself describes Mostyn-Owens as “clearly not a woman to shirk challenges”. I only wish we’d actually got to hear Mostyn-Owens telling her own story, rather than assumptions about her motivations and beliefs.

Update (15-01-10): Allegra Mostyn Owen has come by the blog and left a comment for clarification (thanks AMO). You can read it for yourselves below, but she clarifies that she has not become a Muslim but has a “serene relationship with Allah “.

My point, however, still stands. She has her own story, beliefs and motivations and these were huge assumptions about these things without letting the woman tell it for herself, and let her explain for herself why she has made those choices.


Hopes for a post-veil society (part 2)

I wrote a follow up on the theme of “we don’t need to get under the veil, we need to get over it” for The National, aiming at a Muslim and also a Middle Eastern audience.

You can read the full piece here: http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20091226/WEEKENDER/712259830/1311

However, here is an extract which adds to the original piece which was written for EMEL magazine.

“…Four women elected to the Kuwaiti parliament found themselves at the opposite end of another discussion about veiling – an insistence that they should cover in order to be admitted to fulfil their constitutional roles.

Their election came after Kuwaiti women received full political rights in 2005. Since two of the women choose not to cover, an ultraconservative MP asked the ministry of Islamic affairs and endowments’ Fatwa department if Sharia obliged women to wear the hijab.When the ministry agreed that women were indeed obliged to do so, there was a movement in parliament to impose hijab on the national assembly’s female members, stating that it was incumbent on women in parliament to subscribe to Sharia.

[...] The constitutional court has upheld the right of the women to remain uncovered if they choose. We can hope that this will drive home the importance of what the women have to say, and the value they will bring to the political process, rather than reducing them to their clothing, as though they were vacuous Barbie dolls.
Wherever you are in the world – Muslim country or otherwise – the issue of veiling is a hot topic. Muslim women are bundled into a single-issue “problem”, and that issue is the veil.That is the problem with Marnia Lazreg’s recent book Questioning the Veil. Lazreg, an American academic with Algerian roots, lays the problems that Muslim women face at the feet of the veil. She claims to systematically demolish every reason that Muslim women give for wearing the veil. She highlights issues such as sexual harassment, men defining women’s bodies, gender politics in the workplace, the anonymity of women, men wielding full control over women and women as the vessels of male honour.
She then draws the tenuous conclusion that the veil lies at the heart of all these issues.I disagree. Even if the veil was removed, these underlying problems would still be rampant. The veil is the wrong symptom she is trying to treat. What we should be doing is tackling the underlying causes.She also adds that, if a woman truly believes that wearing a veil is the right thing to do, and she has made an informed choice to do so, then we should accept her decision. Simply put, we do not need to force women to veil, nor do we need to force them not to veil – what we need is education and free choice.

[...] Curiously, it is veiled Muslim women themselves who [are] fed up with seeing themselves portrayed as nothing more than the veil they wear. I feel it too as a Muslim woman, yet I feel compelled to write about it in order to create a movement to get over it. I have to keep writing about it till the Sarkozys of the world stop women gaining citizenship because of it. I am driven to keep highlighting the Marwa Sherbinis of the world – a woman stabbed in full public view in a German court, at the hands of a man who hated her for her headscarf.

It may shock both liberals who oppose covering of any sort, as well as traditionalists who would enforce mandatory veiling on women, that Muslim women more often than not have other priorities, and also want something other than their clothing discussed. For example, in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, where “saving”Muslim women is high on the list of justifications for invasion, the discourse on veiling is low on the list of women’s concerns. Security tops their needs, something that the “liberating” forces have denied them. We need to get past the veil, and into the business of living – education, employment, security, personal law and civic and political participation.

Aseel al Awadhi, one of the women elected to the Kuwaiti parliament asked: “Why do only women have to comply with Sharia law and not men? This is, by itself, discrimination.” Her subtext: veiling and visible religiosity are used as gatekeepers and excuses to exclude women from public and
political discourse – that it has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with power.”



Hopes for a post-veil society

We don’t need to get under the veil, we need to get over it.

Earlier this year, the head of of Al-Azhar Islamic university found himself in agreement with Italy’s extreme right-wing Northern League, the BNP’s anti-immigration anti-Islam stance and Turkey’s rampantly secular constitution. The subject was the veiling of Muslim women, a topic that makes for unlikely bed-fellows.

Al-Tantawi, the senior sheikh at al-Azhar, was visiting a girl’s school when he told an 8th grade student to remove her face-veil saying, “the niqab has nothing to do with Islam and it is only a mere custom”adding bluntly, “I understand the religion better than you and your parents.”

At his insistence she removed the veil. He said shockingly: “You are actually like this (this ugly). What would you do if you were a little bit beautiful?”

Whether you agree or disagree with his intervention, it surprises me that a scholar -and role model -feels that he can use public intimidation on a young woman, and that he has a right over a woman’s clothing, defining and commenting on her intelligence, her family and her looks.

French president Sarkozy used the historic occasion of his first speech in the French parliament to pick out the veil as an issue of primary concern to the French public. It was subsequently reported that only 367 women in France’s population of over 62 million wear the face veil. This raises questions about why the veil is of greater concern than other issues relating to all women, across all social groups. For example, why not raise the serious topic of domestic violence, whose victims numbered a heart-rending 47,000 in France in 2007? Further, I found it spooky that French intelligence could offer such a specific number of niqab-wearers – were these women being monitored?

Sarkozy’s speech follows a ban on the headscarf in French schools and universities since 2004, not unlike a similar ban in Turkey which labels the headscarf as contrary to the country’s secular principles. Turkey finds itself in the peculiar situation that the out-of-power secular party is advocating against freedom of religious expression, resulting in women who wish to veil being denied high school and university education as well as public sector jobs.
Italy’s Prime Minister Berlusconi is a man who is not known for his dignified treatment of women. He too is advancing proposals with the anti’immigration Northern League to ban the veil in Italy, overturning a historic exemption in Italian law that allows the veil on grounds of freedom of religious expression.

Wherever you are in the world – Muslim country or otherwise – the issue of veiling is a hot topic. Proposals to wear, discard or ban it are put forward for political reasons that vary depending on the country. But this much is certain – Muslim women are bundled into a single-issue ‘problem’, and that issue is the veil. I’m not even going to elaborate on the many variations in veiling – headscarf, niqab, jilbab, burqa – because that is irrelevant to the discussion. This debate is centred around the interchangeability of ‘Muslim women’ with ‘veiling’, as though a Muslim woman and her veil are one and the same thing. To make matters worse, complex issues underlying the inflammatory political positions of people like Sarkozy and Berlusconi – issues like integration, unemployment and identity – are blamed on the veil. This is simplistic single issue politics at its worst – offering a bland and unintelligent analysis of the very real problems Muslim women, as well as society at large, are all facing, grouping them altogether as caused by ‘the veil’ and producing the wrong ignorant solution: ‘ban it.’

This obsession with the veil as the source of contention is illustrated by the constant stream of news and opinion pieces with titles like “uncovering Islam” “behind the veil” “beneath the veil” and “under the veil”. We don’t need to get under the veil, we need to get over it.

If Obama believes that a nation torn apart by race issues can become a post-racial society, then there is legitimate hope for a post-veil society. It is a society where a Muslim woman can get on with the task of living her life – in education, employment, security and safety in the family, private and public spheres. It is a society where who she is, rather than what she wears is her definition and her contribution. In such a society, the veil is no longer her only definition, no longer even her primary definition. This is a society where a woman’s choice to veil or not to veil is her choice and hers alone.


BBC Radio 4 this Friday, discussing "Questioning the veil" by Marnia Lazreg

I’ve been invited onto Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour this friday to discuss Marnia Lazreg’s recent publication “Questioning the Veil.”

The book’s description says:

Across much of the world today, Muslim women of all ages are increasingly turning to wearing the veil. Is this trend a sign of rising piety or a way of asserting Muslim pride? And does the veil really provide women freedom from sexual harassment? Written in the form of letters addressing all those interested in this issue, Questioning the Veil examines the inconsistent and inadequate reasons given for the veil, and points to the dangers and limitations of this highly questionable cultural practice. Marnia Lazreg, a preeminent authority in Middle East women’s studies, combines her own experiences growing up in a Muslim family in Algeria with interviews and the real-life stories of other Muslim women to produce this nuanced argument for doing away with the veil.

Lazreg stresses that the veil is not included in the five pillars of Islam, asks whether piety sufficiently justifies veiling, explores the adverse psychological effects of the practice on the wearer and those around her, and pays special attention to the negative impact of veiling for young girls. Lazreg’s provocative findings indicate that far from being spontaneous, the trend toward wearing the veil has been driven by an organized and growing campaign that includes literature, DVDs, YouTube videos, and courses designed by some Muslim men to teach women about their presumed rights under the veil.

An incisive mix of the personal and political, supported by meticulous research, Questioning the Veil will compel all readers to reconsider their views of this controversial and sensitive topic.

I’ve just started reading this, and will post a review in due course, but do blog readers have any opinions on this book (especially if they’ve read it) and the issues and contexts that Lazreg raises?

You can read the full introduction to the book here: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i8986.pdf


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.