Part 1 of this article had a loose legal theme flowing through it and here’s an addition. I’ve just had a fascinating discussion with a female judge about the the subject. I think she articulated the central issue very well when she said:
‘ We need to understand that the face veil is not a religious requirement. It’s either a choice by a Muslim woman to practice extreme modesty or a cultural requirement imposed on her and is that by mainly men or wider cultural pressures?
These questions make it a feminist issue; are women being pressured into it or are they practicing a true free choice? Can the women themselves even perceive the difference?
This is the real discussion we should be having but we’re not because it’s too difficult. Feminists should be leading the debate on these challenging questions but unfortunately they’re not. So what we’re left with is an angry, polarized fight over grotesque caricatures which doesn’t help anyone.’
The row over burkas is not new. It’s been ongoing since the early 2000s, notably post 9/11 when increasing numbers of Muslim women in the West began to adopt Arab dress no matter what their own national/ethnic origin. Few people even know that the Hindu caste system was actually the early proponent of women covering their faces. Those from the higher castes didn’t want the gaze of the lower, poorer classes to fall on the faces of their women so the women covered up. So face covering for women doesn’t exactly have a very social justice origin.
In 2006 and 2009 I undertook surveys with over 2000 British Asians about a range of topics, including the way these Muslim women had started to dress.
Summary of findings of 2009 survey:
The perception of Muslim women is a bleak one – across the board.
Women in black with drooped shoulders, walking 5 paces behind men
Tied to the home
Ghosts in their long, black cloaks and hidden faces
These views came from observing Muslim women in public, personal experiences and media portrayal.
90% of participants considered that clothing such as face veils (the burqua and niqab) and headscarves (the hijab) contributed to this image.
There was universal dislike and even mistrust of women wearing the face veil. Face veils were deemed to be unacceptable in public life and unnecessary generally.
While headscarves were tolerated, only a small minority saw them as a symbol of piety. They were largely seen as symbols of:
Separatism and hostility
Political, social identity
A fashion trend
No participant considered that showing your religion through your appearance made you a ‘good’ Muslim. It was the kind of person you were that mattered , they said.
About 90% considered that to be effective ‘leaders’ in British society Muslim women needed to ‘TAKE OFF THE HIJAB.’
This was an INTERESTING development. In the 2006 survey people were more tolerant of overt symbols such as the hijab. It seems the constant pushing of separatism by dress, the divisions within Islam as to what is actual Islamic dress and what is cultural/political grandstanding have worn down the more liberal approach.
Younger participants, interestingly, in 2006 had also suggested the hijab would soon be ‘over’ ie it was a fashion trend that would lose its appeal over the coming few years.
Already young girls were changing the basic concept by experimenting with colours, designs and showing some of their hair.
The general view was that Muslim women should come to the forefront for their talents NOT for being Muslim.
There was a strong view that wanting to be seen as or being ‘religious’ isn’t the sum total of human endeavour and identity.
However, 20% of participants also pointed out that Muslim women are not a homogenous group. They are businesswomen, revolutionaries, Imams, academics, film makers, scientists etc and we should not lose sight of that.
HOWEVER, about 97% of participants could not think of ANY Muslim women of influence or in leadership roles in Britain.
As one woman put it: ‘I would love to name just a handful of Muslim women who have changed the face of how Muslim women are perceived in Britain but I can’t.’
THE WAY FORWARD
Education, education, education was the clear message. Access to a broad ranging form of education not just Islamic studies would help Muslim women realize their potential. The potential is there, said participants but it needs to be tapped into.
Muslim men need to stop representing Muslim women. The women need to speak for themselves. A number of women opined that it was not Islam per se holding Muslim women back but Muslim men and their interpretation of Islam.
Segregation of the sexes needs to end. People need to network to get ahead. If Muslim women are segregated from men they miss out on half the opportunities.
A SAMPLE OF COMMENTS;
1.Who are the moderate Muslims? This is the central issue. People don’t know who the moderates are because politicians and media only talk to community leaders who say they represent moderates but then they go and boycott holocaust memorial day or rant against homosexuals. That isn’t very moderate.
The true centre line has been hijacked by right wing, very conservative people who don’t speak for moderates.
Everyone wants to be thought of as a moderate. It’s become a badge. The word is being used and abused. So people are trying to find other words like progressive Muslims. We are regarding each other with suspicion within the community as well as having to prove ourselves to outsiders.
For Muslim women we have all the above issues to contend with as well as the fear of Muslim men.
2. I’m sick of it, the hijab, the burkha, all of it. Muslim girls are being indoctrinated. It gives girls the impression that wearing the hijab or burkha is what Muslim women do and all they are.
3. I’m a law abiding British citizen who happens to be a Muslim. I just want to live a secure life with my family and follow my religion. But these clowns who give Islam a bad name with their violence and self segregation are making it difficult for the majority of Muslims. Many Asians would say that they no longer suffer racial abuse on the streets because of the progress we’ve made in Britain. We’re seen as part of British society but these guys are taking us back to where we’re the outsiders again.
4. We can’t consider the French law against the hijab offensive and ignore the Saudi and Iranian laws enforcing compulsory wearing of the hijab or burka. If we genuinely want rights for women why aren’t we questioning the hijab laws of Saudi Arabia and Iran?
5.I hate to say this but when I have a baby I pray it won’t be a girl. I don’t want her to deal with all this cover this, cover that.
6.What image of Muslim women does this clothing create in 2009? What message does it send young Muslim girls?
7. Why do politicians and the media go on about this? I don’t actually know that many women who feel it’s appropriate to mask themselves away from public life.
8. It’s not part of our Pakistani heritage, It’s an Arab thing. Why are our girls suddenly dressing like Arabs? And why are they judging those of us who don’t wear it?
9. I hate the media focus on it. It makes us Muslim women these poor little oppressed things and we’re not!
10. Why are politicians and the BBC promoting hijabs and veils? Where did THEY get the idea that to be Muslim you have to be veiled? Why is the non-Muslim establishment fixated on Muslim women in hijab? I’m sick and tired of it. We’re so much more than a piece of cloth.
11. I’m a Muslim. If I see a woman in a black tent on television I get put off. I can’t even imagine what non Muslims think. The hijab had not been seen on the streets of Pakistan for 50 years until the radicals in the West indoctrinated the youth in Europe and persuaded them this was ‘Islamic dress.’ It isn’t. Islam asks you to dress modestly. Everything else is culture.