• How not to marry a child bride and other helpful tips for treating women

    My latest weekly column for The National.

    This month in Steubenville, Ohio, two teenage men were sentenced for the crime of rape. They had sexually assaulted a teenage girl who was unconscious, passed her around, filmed her and shared the footage.

    In some of the media reporting, there was a skin-crawling sympathy for the “ruined” lives of the men, described as local stars in their community, high-flying footballers who were set to get college scholarships. One fact was overlooked. Rape is wrong, and they are rapists, and rapists should pay the price for their crime. The victim, who has not been identified, received little sympathy.

    This led to opinion pieces with the startlingly obvious and yet seemingly necessary guidance – both serious and satirical – on “how not to rape”.

    Inspired by the fact that even in clear wrongdoing sometimes we have to state the obvious, here are three helpful “how not to …” tips to avoid the mistreatment of women and girls.

    First, how not to marry a child bride.

    Around the world, the UN predicts that 39,000 female children are married each day. Of course there are cultural norms about the age at which women should marry, but it’s clear that a woman should be able to give her own free adult consent. Apart from violating the right to consent of another human being, child marriage increases the likelihood of death, labour difficulties and child rearing.

    Early marriage leads to early pregnancy, and girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. Pregnancy is a leading cause of death for women aged 15-19 in the developing world.

    Second, how not to kill girl babies.

    By Jorge Royan (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0  (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0 )], via Wikimedia CommonsThe scourge of killing unborn babies for the “sin” of being female is on the rise. In China and India there are 30 to 40 million more men of marriageable age than women. A whole range of causes are at work. Male heirs will contribute economically, the “shame” of a daughter and her “burden” on the family.

    But there is no shame in having a daughter, especially with economics and independence at women’s disposal. So here’s how not to kill a girl baby – love girls, love babies.

    And third, how not to engage in domestic violence against women.

    Violence against women is so obviously wrong that other than writing a spoof, I’m not sure how to explain its total and utter wrongness. And yet if I do satirise it, the crazy may interpret it is a blessing on their grotesque behaviour. Shockingly, up to 70 per cent of women will experience violence in their lifetime. In fact, according to the World Bank, women aged 15 to 44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria.

    Here’s how to remember not to beat your wife or your daughter: you wouldn’t walk up to a stranger in the street and punch them.

    Perhaps the easiest way to establish how not to treat women and girls is to ask if she wants you to behave that way or not. If she says no, then don’t do it. It’s quite obvious.

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  • It’s not women who need preaching about “corruption” and “social responsibility”

    Here’s my weekly column from The National.

    Men are poor helpless creatures who can’t control their feelings or libidos, or so it seems they want society to think. I’m a believer in the general goodness of most men, but baffled by the attitude that they are helpless in the face of womanly charms and must therefore refer to themselves in derogatory and weak ways.

    Take this comment – a mild one compared to many – I came across while reading about a new line of Islamic fashion: “If a girl attracts other males even unintentionally, it will end up to be a sin [sic] … So style in Islam is OK, but it should be limited to an extent that won’t create new feelings within the pervert males of today.” Baffling that it’s not the “pervert males” responsible for their warped feelings.

    This is on the same dimension as arguments against women being educated, or driving: that they will spread “corruption” by entering the public space. Or recent comments by the former head of the women’s studies department at Bangalore University telling women how to dress to avoid rape, but no edict telling men not to rape.

    We get it: men think women are the source of corruption and that in order to stop the world coming to an end you must tell us what to think and how to act (and what to wear) because of course we have no brains, no sense of social responsibility, no spirituality and no reason. Oh wait – you say we do? Because that is just logic? And because it is our human fitrah to have all of those? And because the Quran says that we are all equal in spirit? Oh right.

    Women are constantly preached to about social responsibilities even though we are not the ones responsible for most domestic abuse, violence, crime, rape or “corruption”. It’s time for our menfolk to preach to themselves about social responsibility.

    It takes two to tango, so even if your outrageous idea that women are responsible for “corruption” is true, why don’t you stay away from them? Too weak? Oh dear, how can you run a society if you are too weak to resist a woman?

    So now you have a choice in the arguments you employ: are you too weak in the face of women’s “corruptive” influence, which therefore means you are too weak to “lead” them? Or are you strong enough to lead, which means that it should be water off a duck’s back if women participate in society. Which is it to be?

    I want to emphasise that I believe both men and women have responsibilities to act and dress modestly. To achieve social harmony, creativity and spiritual ease, both must participate fully but be equally modest and respectful.

    So brothers, fathers, male colleagues – extend a little respect to the womenfolk around you. They are not toys, slaves, maids, objects or chattel to be bought, sold or bartered. Women are people. Yes, people.

    And if you are a man from a society that isn’t majority Muslim in culture (note my use of the word “culture” and not the phrase “Islamic in religion”), please don’t look smug. There is plenty of oppression, abuse, violence and discrimination against women in all societies that no man – and no society – anywhere can be holier than thou.

    So for men and societies everywhere, here are your mantras for 2012: be nice to women, be respectful of women’s intelligence and change yourselves instead of blaming women for the “pervert males”.

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  • Masterclasses in how to change the world: Nobel Women

    This was my weekly newspaper column published yesterday in The National, about the women who won the peace prize.

    I was thrilled to learn that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize had been awarded to three women for their non-violent struggle towards women’s rights and peace-building.

    Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the President of Liberia and Africa’s first-ever female elected head of state. Leymah Gbowee is a Liberian peace activist who worked across the country’s religious and ethnic divides to call for an end to the 14-year civil war.

    But perhaps the one who has garnered the greatest attention is Tawakkol Karman of Yemen. A Muslim woman from one of the world’s poorest countries who once wore a face veil seems an unlikely candidate for a global peace prize. That’s because her religion, her gender, and her politics raise some challenging questions across the political spectrum.

    On the one hand she is a Muslim woman, and chooses to wear a headscarf. Her work towards empowering Yemeni women began long before the Arab Spring. Does that, finally, demolish the myth that a practising Muslim woman cannot be a feminist?

    Karman wears her faith proudly, and has spoken about how she believes: “Islam is a religion that encourages freedoms and was based on the liberation of the bodies and the minds from slavery, oppression and fanaticism.”

    Her long history of activism challenges those who believe women of faith cannot contribute to women’s empowerment, nor to the peace process, unless they exit their supposedly “oppressive” religion. Karman’s strength and cultural power is derived from her religion. This point is underscored by the other two prize winners, who also have drawn on religion in their peace efforts.

    I was pleased to see that the award was shared across women from different backgrounds and cultures. It is an acknowledgement that this continues to be a pan-global struggle and that there is no “one size fits all” method of improving the status of women. Women all over the world in different backgrounds are working in ways suited to their context, and not necessarily “western feminist” ways.

    One of the profound challenges that Karman’s prize raises is to the Muslim and Arab worlds. For those who feel pride in her recognition – particularly men – the red glow of your cheeks is not sufficient. Your pride must be demonstrated by supporting her work in improving the situation of the women around you.

    I don’t doubt that she has critics who say it is improper for a Muslim woman to be politically active, that she has exceeded the bounds of modesty. I say to you: she is fighting for justice, equality and freedom. She is fighting for values that you should be fighting for as a Muslim. Are you?

    And I am just as sure that her award will have detractors who claim that it is a politically motivated conspiracy to “westernise” Muslim women, or that she was chosen before other possible winners because she removed her face veil. If that is the case, then why aren’t you showing your own recognition of the amazing Muslim women who are protesting, struggling and being killed side by side with Muslim men? Otherwise the only conclusion is that you are willing to reap the benefits of women’s struggle, but are too egotistical to give recognition where it is due.

    I for one am proud of her achievements and the recognition that she has deservedly gained, and you should be too.

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  • The politics of being a woman

    This was my weekly newspaper column published yesterday in The National

    Image from the Tricycle Theatre

    The UK prime minister has been having women trouble recently. First, David Cameron told a female MP to “Calm down, dear!” mimicking the strapline from a television commercial. He called another “frustrated”, and then joined in with smutty schoolboy giggling with his male colleagues. Accused of being sexist and patronising, he apologised, saying the pressurised environment meant his words came out wrong. But pressure is what reveals your true colours.

    At this week’s Conservative Party conference he was constantly accompanied by female MPs, hoping no doubt that this would make him seem more women-friendly and less of a “chauvinist pig”, as one journalist suggested.

    The female MPs have also come in for criticism, being accused of being used by the PM as “eye candy”. But I say to them: make the most of the opportunity. All ambitious individuals wait to get the ear of the boss for 30 seconds. Go for it, take your chance, make a pitch and make a difference. This isn’t a favour to you – you have every right to be there.

    Men should be cautious of selecting women purely because they are women, in order to claim they are promoting the rise of women or to capture the female vote. John McCain did that in the US elections in 2008 by selecting Sarah Palin as his running mate. Boy, did he get it wrong.

    Women are not pawns in male power plays. Women are smart and cynical too. Cameron should know that a few photos with the women of his party won’t count as evidence that he’s in tune with Britain’s women, especially as his austerity measures affect them disproportionately.

    The media has dubbed Cameron’s female MPs as “Cameron’s Cuties”. This echoes the label given to 101 female MPs elected in 1997 as “Blair’s Babes”. Blair did nothing to pull up the media on their own sexist patronising descriptor, basking in the glory instead. Cameron should be wiser and challenge the cutie titling.

    The Pakistani PM has taken pride in the appointment of Hina Rabbani Khar as the first female minister of foreign affairs. She was elected into her father’s constituency when new candidate guidelines meant he could no longer stand. She’s had a different start, but now in office, like her British female counterparts she ought to take advantage by exhibiting the right competencies, and quickly move away from the token female positioning bestowed upon her in her case by Daddy’s reputation and the overly proud words of her PM.

    My worry for Khar is that she may be playing herself into the “cutie” role. In a trip to India it was her sunglasses and Birkin handbag that dominated headlines. It did win her some friends among the elites for being a style icon, however, it underscored the fact that she was in her position on the back of family money, some window dressing for the powerful men of Pakistan.

    Pakistan is a country that has gone through one devastating crisis after another in the last few years, and her pricey fashion makes her appear out of touch with her nation. She must avoid living up to the title of eye candy.

    As a woman in politics it’s difficult to strike a balance between taking advantage of opportunities that are given to you as a result of being a woman, without being treated like an empty-headed opportunistic mascot. The trick is to brush off the patronising labels and make sure that when given an opportunity, you do the best job possible, using the best skills and intelligence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • There’s something about Mary: The Mary Initiative, peace, conflict resolution and motherhood

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

    Earlier this week I was invited to a late-night soirée. The evening was held at the invitation of an organisation called “The Mary Initiative” that uses Mary – or Maryam in Islamic terms – the mother of Jesus, as a springboard for peacemaking and conflict resolution. What better way to come together than by connecting through the most famous mother in history, asks the organisation. No matter how different we all are, even people in the mafia (so the adage tells us) love their mum.

    Why had no one thought of this idea before? It’s genius.

    Image from 'The Mary Initiative', by artist Husein Nuri

    This initiative is designed for Muslims and Christians to come together and connect: not by comparing theology or doctrine but by connecting hearts. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is central to both religions. But this discussion was not about Jesus, but entirely about the role of Mary, her meaning and her status.

    “It’s incredible to hear these men talking about how important Mary is,” exclaimed our facilitator. The magic of the conversation is that the point of departure is a shared person. And what makes it more powerful is that it is a woman, something deeply unusual in a time when dialogue and peacemaking is usually conducted by men who dominate the positions of power, whether it be in politics or religion.

    Nearly all of us had tiny babies, and so the conversation inevitably turned towards Mary as a model of motherhood. The Quranic description of the excruciating pain she experienced at childbirth, the gossip at her predicament and her fortitude in the face of social disgrace were subjects that brought us closer to Mary and her humanity. One of the women had named her daughter Maryam. Surprisingly, Maryam is now in the top 100 names for baby girls in the UK.

    Our conversation was filmed, and would be shown to Christian women so they could hear our views first hand. But after a while, the departure point for our discussion was quickly forgotten.

    With tea and cheesecake to fuel the conversation, we debated late into the night, like carefree students. Who are we? What does womanhood mean today? What is our place in the universe? It was liberating. I realised that in the daily grind, I had little time or impetus to debate, explore and test out ideas.

    The night’s conversation was much more raw than activities such as reflection or evaluation, both of which are very measured and task-orientated. This was about looking afresh, from a different vantage point, to see whether the truths we hold about the world were still valid.

    The discussion around Mary would still have held potency even if it had involved women of other or no faiths. That’s because despite the reduction in value of motherhood in today’s consumerist world – where a person’s value is measured by their financial contribution – we all know that motherhood is not a commodity.

    Every activity, policy decision, or initiative today is measured by politicians in terms of economic loss or gain. But if you ask people who was the most influential person in their lives, their mother often tops the list.

    The Mary Initiative has hit on something more powerful than it realises. It opens the doors to dialogue with others. At the same time, it opens an inner door to realising the soft power and influence of women, and the way that their voices continue to guide us throughout our lives. There’s no way you can put a price on that. With these thoughts, I left the evening thinking there is definitely something about Mary.

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  • 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.

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  • An absurd proposal: what if men weren’t allowed to drive?

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

    With all the recent media coverage of women not being permitted to drive in a certain Middle Eastern country, I got thinking – what would it be like if men weren’t allowed to drive?

    I came to one simple conclusion: we women would be much safer.

    Think about the dangers of male drivers. Men have higher rates of speeding, they are involved in more accidents and cause more deaths on the road. Their high-testosterone brains ignite higher incidences of road rage. They are notorious tailgaters, failing to observe any measure of safe stopping distance. And, they can’t even be bothered to ask directions when lost. The solution is simple: bar them from driving.

    If men start to whine and whinge about their “rights” being infringed, then just to stop their “waagh waagh waagh” moaning, consider this modest proposal.

    Driving lanes could be segregated by gender. Or, better still, we introduce gender-segregated streets, some for men, and some for women. This way, we women would not have to look at the horror of their balding heads, especially those of middle-aged drivers in convertibles, their toupees or comb-overs flapping in the wind.

    By limiting their access to certain streets, we would also be safe from their high-speed antics and reckless driving, which, due to their biological design, they are compelled to engage in. They can’t help it, poor things. Have petrol, will accelerate.

    Where there are roads that men insist they need access to (although what kind of roads these could be, I just don’t know – perhaps ones with football stadiums on them?), a timetable could be devised with restricted hours for men to use them at essential times only. Of course, these hours would exclude the times that the men ought to be at home putting out the rubbish, fixing shelves or cleaning out the drains.

    Segregated lanes, limited access and a timetable could be combined into a new road system based on Gender Prioritisation and Separation (GPS).

    Male drivers are genetically predisposed to road rage, and if we are to permit them to drive, then we must warn them they will only have themselves to blame if they are attacked in any altercation that ensues. Not driving is for their own good, so if they choose to ignore this, they must bear the consequences.

    Of course, we must ensure that these male drivers are not a source of temptation for women. And even more importantly we must take steps to prevent them from driving willy-nilly around on frivolous activities like collecting the children from school, caring for sick relatives or attending places of employment to earn wages to buy food.

    In fact, now that I think about it, these tasks are entirely trivial and the men can manage them quite comfortably by hiring a female chauffeur to drive them around. If they are in the back, then they won’t be able to use their wiles to tempt the poor female driver.

    When it comes down to it, I am of the view that men don’t really want to drive, but they think it’s fashionable to say that they do. I mean, why would they bother with the hassle of parking? Why get hot under the collar trying to navigate traffic?

    In short, men are simply not designed to drive. We tell them and tell them that driving is not good for them, and it’s not good for society. But that’s typical of men isn’t it: they just won’t listen.

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  • You say burqa, I say burqini

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

    Nigella Lawson sporting a burqini (image from telegraph blog)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • 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.

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