Colleague and friend Julian Bond put together a piece on the niqab non-debate, that has been raging for the past week or so. With a little help from moi.
“The current debate over the niqab is another example of unwarranted attention being given to a Muslim issue simply because it is a ‘Muslim’ issue.
The current media debate over the wearing of the niqab (the full face-veil for Muslim women) is another example of unwarranted attention (much of it negative) being given to a Muslim issue, precisely (or only) because it is a Muslim issue. This is inevitably why I am writing, though I have consulted with my colleague Akeela Ahmed and why this article is in both of our names.
1. This is a free country
Unless people are committing a crime or outraging public decency they can wear what they like and choose how much they cover or reveal. It may be worth noting that a British politician was not allowed to wear a ‘No More Page 3’ T-shirt in the House of Commons. Other than that, no-one should be telling people what to wear or how to wear it. Difficulties arise where there are no precise rulings or new situations arise. Responses to these situations may not be accommodating of minority groups and legal action is sometimes necessary to achieve inclusion (rather than special treatment) of those who are different e.g. when the Sikh turban was eventually permitted instead of a motorcycle crash helmet in the 1970s.
2. It’s OK to wear the hijab
Whatever a Muslim, or Jewish, or Christian, or Sikh or Hindu, woman chooses to wear on her head or face is her own decision. Wearing a niqab harms no-one and does not, in itself, cause any problem. If there are security or identification issues there are usually procedures in place to address them. Muslim women have not suddenly appeared wearing the niqab in 2013! It has been suggested that the niqab (and perhaps hijab, the open head covering) is a sign of oppression and that women have been forced to wear it, with little or no evidence being offered in support of the argument. It is worth noting that:
A very small minority of women wear the niqab
Within close Muslim families the women will cover differently, from niqab (still a very small number) to hijab to entirely bare-headed
Families and friendship groups of women are usually very comfortable being with each other and this spectrum of hair-covering decisions
The niqab is an article of modest clothing
If we are worried about women being forced to wear the niqab then forcing them to not to wear it will not solve the problem
3. Why are we so keen to ban?
It seems that as soon as an issue like the niqab enters into the public arena there is no shortage of self-appointed commentators – usually those in a position to gain or create media attention – who begin to use the language of ‘banning’. This highlights both the sensationalism that accompanies what passes for discussion of public issues and the limited ways in which they are explored. It also shows an impatience to establish why a woman might be wearing the niqab in the first place and how this might be handled sensitively.
4. Are we talking to the women themselves?
Talking to women wearing the niqab is very important, I have not done so on this particular occasion but have done so when the Christian Muslim Forum has worked with professionally active women wearing niqab. We have been pleased to welcome them as presenters and participants at our events. The niqab has not prevented conversation, collaboration or cohesion! There is a real risk of largely white, non-Muslim men commenting on this issue and it has been encouraging to see female Muslim (mainly non-niqab wearing) commentators making positive contributions to the national discussion.
5. What does the law say?
Judge Murphy’s ruling on the wearing of a niqab in a Crown Court (rather than other types of court) acknowledges: ‘There is a pressing need for a court to provide a clear statement of law for trial judges who have to deal with cases in which a woman wearing the niqaab [sic] attends Court as a defendant. Given the ever-increasing diversity of society in England and Wales, this is a question which may be expected to arise more and more frequently, and to which an answer must be provided. I have found no authority directly on point in our domestic law. There are various extra-judicial sources which offer some guidance as a matter of general principle.’ (p.4) In a civilised and democratic society what is and is not allowed is a question that needs to be explored within a legal environment.
6. We’re not experts on Islam
I do not class myself as an expert on Islam, though I may well have a greater amount of knowledge of Islam and of Muslims than some. It is a feature of conversations on the niqab (and hijab) that non-Muslims will take the opportunity to state that Islam does not require a woman to cover herself. If we are committed to honest dialogue and conversation we need to hear Muslims speaking for themselves, though frequently there is not a commitment to dialogue. As non-Muslims; we need to work harder at listening, before deciding how we might solve a perceived ‘Muslim problem’.
7. This creates more negativity towards Muslims
There is no shortage of negativity towards Muslims, witness the recent attempt by the English Defence League to march through Whitechapel to object to the presence of the local Muslim population. There have also been a series of attacks against Islamic centres and individuals in the weeks following the appalling murder of Lee Rigby which, as the anti-hate monitoring organisation Tell MAMA has reported (and Metropolitan Police stats confirm), continue at a higher level than before the attack in Woolwich. Negative views of Muslims can also be seen in responses to the Christian Muslim Forum’s twitter feed (@chrismusforum). These are the more significant aspects of the negativity that has been reported in various surveys, including the 2010 Social Attitudes Survey which was the subject of a Forum discussion event. With the niqab issue, Muslims are again under the spotlight, seen as unwelcomely different and difficult and – as social observers say, ‘problematised’. The front page of The Sun on banning the niqab (screaming “Unveiled!”) is a good (or rather bad) example.
8. This creates more negativity towards Muslim women
Those who have a problem with Muslims have problems with Muslim women and what they wear. Some ‘anti-Muslim’ groups describe Islam as an oppressive religion which subjugates women. This inevitably – rather, bizarrely for those claiming to be protecting women’s rights – violence and attacks on Muslim women by non-Muslim extremists. For example, a significant number of attacks on Muslim women, and also online hate directed at them, have been linked to EDL members. Their apparent (though questionable) focus on women’s rights has not led to better regard for women but in fact the opposite, suggesting that they do not actually care for women, let alone Muslim women, but are motivated by hatred and misogyny.
9. Let’s make Muslims, and anyone else who is ‘different’, feel welcome
Niqab-wearing Muslim women are always welcome at our events. The challenge for our society is to become hospitable and welcoming, to be mature enough to cope with difference, rather than seeing the world as ‘us’ and ‘them’. It shouldn’t be necessary to say that many niqab-wearing women in the UK were probably born here but it’s worth highlighting.
10. It’s time for some proper national conversations
The Christian Muslim Forum is ready to host and enable conversations on issues like this that are often characterised by conversations not taking place. Instead we have excessive negative interest in some media, sensationalising of people’s lives and the creation, or encouragement, of fear, hostility and prejudice. My colleague Anjum Anwar, one of the Forum’s Presidents, regularly grabs the nettle with both hands for public conversations on sensitive issues in lunchtime dialogue sessions at Blackburn Cathedral and also on her CommUNITY Platform show on Ummah TV. What is missing is for others in society to open up the conversation and encourage calm reflection, rather than over-heated negativity.”
Over a week ago on a Sunday afternoon I saw that a not so well known MP from Totnes, Sarah Wollaston, had tweeted about the niqab (face covering worn by some Muslim women for religious reasons). I immediately responded, see photo below:
I also tweeted responses to a few more of her tweets, which were simply inflammatory and problematised Muslim women who choose to wear the niqab. Now I personally do not wear the niqab or necessarily agree with it, however I felt compelled to defend the right of those who do wear it. All too often we see or hear Muslim women being talked about in a disparaging and negative way, with no recourse to answer or defend themselves. Certainly there lacks an equal mainstream platform from which Muslim women can speak. And to be honest I felt annoyed that their voices are being silenced, yet again, and by a fellow woman no less, who rather comically appeared to take the very act of covering ones face as a personal attack.
What I did not anticipate was the resultant media interest in my views on the niqab, the right to wear it and whether or not a female defendant had the right to wear it in court. The following day (Monday) was an enormously hectic day with a total of eight media appearances and further requests which did not materialise.
The day ended with a Five news panel discussion debating Anne-Marie Waters of the National Secular Society, on whether the niqab should be banned.
You can watch the discussion here: http://youtu.be/9qtDDDmQXtA.
Monday the 16th September was a whirlwind of media appearances, (more on that later), beginning with a appearance on BBC Radio4’s Today programme. Being grilled by the legendary John Humphrey’s was not easy but have a listen about two to two and half hours in and hear for your self.
Huffington Post reported on the Muslim Women’s Network report, ‘Unheard Voices’ which examines sexual exploitation and abuse amongst Asian and Muslim children, and young girls, through 35 case studies. They asked whether I thought the report would debunk the EDL myth that Pakistani and Muslim men target ‘white girls’. Click below to read what I had to say:
Last week a seminal report by the Muslim Women’s Network, MWN, examining sexual exploitation and grooming of young Asian and Muslim, women was launched. This report is heartbreaking and shocking to read. It destroys the myth that only “white girls” are sexually exploited by Muslim or Pakistani men.
The report itself received much media attention and I was very glad to be asked to talk about my experiences of working with young girls who have been sexually exploited, coerced and abused, to BBC Radio4’s flagship the Today programme. You can listen to the whole piece here:
There is much work to be done in addressing the issue of sexual exploitation at a national and local level. However this report makes a first and brave step in deconstructing the racialised narrative that has surrounded the issue to date. This stigmatising narrative only serves to silence victims even more and is a barrier to addressing this phenomenon fully.
So I had a twitter spat with a bigot which made me write this: ‘5 tips to integrate Muslims like me’: http://christianmuslimforum.org/blog/5-tips-to-integrate-muslims-like-me/
And then an EDL dude responds with all Muslims are inbreds, groomers etc.. You get the idea! However it just proved the point of my piece.
Having been a mother who has worked, mostly full time, for the last ten years or so, I have just recently had another child and taken time out to concentrate on and dedicate all of my time to my family. Whilst juggling work and motherhood, I worked long hours – often 50 hour weeks, and would then come home in the evening and work again once the children were in bed. I was a “working mum” in every sense but still managed the day to day running of the household (with the help of darling husband who shared the burden), cooked, cleaned and did the laundry (when I could), as well as spend time with my children, husband, extended family and friends. I did have great support in my parents who often helped with school runs and cooking. My husband and I felt additional paid help with childcare or household duties was a luxury that we could not afford. And yes I had the inevitable missed parents evenings, trips and sports days, although the more senior I became, the more confidence I had in pushing back and making sure I could attend such events. It wasn’t easy, however these were the choices I had made.
So now I am a “stay at home mum”. And this label I find frustrating. If before I was a “working mum” that now “stays at home” it rather sounds like I have taken an easy, more comfortable option of “just” taking care of my family. Almost like a holiday or one might say – a staycation.
One thing that struck me over these last ten years is that the hardest job I have ever done is and still is being a mum, not everyone would agree with me, but often I found being at work was a break from being a mum. Like many parents and women before me have said, being a mum does not come with any manual or instructions -you simply are plunged into parenthood from the birth of your child. As each child and parent are different you have to learn how to be a mother on the go, and failure is never an option.
If I were to compare motherhood to working as a CEO ( my last role) being a mother is definitely, hands down, the most taxing. As a CEO I had years of experience behind me, a team to delegate to, a board to supervise me, mentors to advise me, training that I could attend and a number of tools to guide and support my daily work in the form of targets, strategic plans, software etc.
A mother however does not have a ready made support structure within which she can work. She has to seek out her own peer support networks in the form of similar friends or online forums. Parenting books can be helpful but I am yet to come across a parent who has used one as a prescriptive guide for their child and it has worked. (To be honest, the best advice I ever had was to ignore the books and do what feels right for you as a mum). And then there are the goverment guidelines on how best to bring up your child which again are useful, but are guilt inducing if you do not follow them to the T. All in all, in our very British culture stepping into the role of mum is far from easy, and just as challenging if not more, than any other job.
For me, concentrating on my family full time is just as hard work, entails equally long hours, is challenging and just as enjoyable as working full time. But I can’t help feeling that the label “stay at home mum” hardly encapsulates all of those things.
The term “stay at home” does a disservice to the important and challenging role of motherhood. It also implies privilege for women of a higher socioeconomic status or lack of stature for women from lower socioeconomic status groups. Embracing motherhood and concentrating on one’s family full time should not need any sort of pre-qualification. So if people ask my current job role is ‘mother’, and in the near future, I may, most likely, additonally work in another role.
With Self-harm awareness last Friday the 1st March 2013, I was reminded of the high percentage of calls that the Muslim Youth Helpline received relating to self harm and suicide. Still very much a taboo subject within wider society, it is even more so within the UK Muslim communities. It also does not help that self harm is misunderstood and seen to be a “sin” within Islam. So young people that do self harm are often seen as seeking attention, succumbing to peer pressure and are chastised.
I wrote a short blog piece for the community care magazine website, which is still relevant today. If, as mental health workers and social care providers we are going to support young people in particular BAME young people, then we need to collaborate across agencies and sectors – mental health services and third sector – in order to reach those hardest to reach. Then only we can provide adequate care, ensuring that a significant minority of young Muslims do not slip under the radar. Like any other young person they need help to overcome their issues. In particular young South Asian females are more likely to self harm than their counterparts, the majority of whom are of Pakistani and Bengali origin, hence Muslim.
So at the risk of seeming narcissistic, I am posting stuff that relates to my past achievements and recognition. One blogger, who wrote about myself and hubby in not so nice terms, wrote that he likes to prick the ego’s of the famous and those in the public eye. At first I was appalled, now I take it as a badge of honour – never really thought of myself as someone in the public eye. Still do not. Just like to do good work.
Anyhow, a few years ago I was given the accolade of being included in the Muslim Power List. I was very honoured and humbled to be recognised in such a way, but didn’t have the time to mention it anywhere. The list was created independently and anonymously, so I didn’t actually know I had been included until a former colleague mentioned it.
I was doing a search on myself and this came up. Reminding me that I had spoken at the launch of the Centre for Identities & Social Justice, alongside Sunny Hundal and others, in October 2011.
I will have to dig out my speech, but the gist of what I said was that British Muslim young people were more than likely to be marginalised, suffered from fractured identity and had a significant lack of access to opportunities that ensured good psychological well being. Government funding under the prevent programme meant that much needed funds were available for Muslim communities to capacity build internally and begin to address these issues. Thereby promoting social cohesion and a sense of belonging for young British Muslims. However the lens of securitisation through which this funding came from, also meant that young Muslims felt pathologised and were often problematised.
Care needed to be taken to achieve the right balance of how this funding was used positively, and not to ultimately isolate young Muslims further. Through the discussion and debate, I agreed that a civil liberties approach could safeguard against this.
The socio-political landscape has changed a lot since I spoke at that launch. Prevent funding now focuses exclusively on counter-terrorism. And the coalition government only funds projects which tackle extremism, including far right ideology, and Muslim extremists.