In the past few months there have been numerous articles, from across the political spectrum, on the issue of implementing a ‘niqab ban’ in public places in the UK. Recently, there has been increased attention on gender-segregated seating in UK universities.
Here the founder of ‘The Lifting the Veil Project’ interviews the writer Afroze Zaidi-Jivraj about her view on this ongoing debate. Afroze recently wrote an open letter to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in response to her controversial article on the niqab.
You have written for the Huffington Post about issues which affect Muslim women. Recently, you wrote an open letter to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown about her comments and articles on the niqab ban. What led you to do this?
My reason for writing the response to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown was the same as it is for writing any article; to express my own views on the subject at hand. The article I responded to particularly caused me concern because it was written by a Muslim woman and yet was so entirely unsympathetic of the viewpoint of other Muslim women. Alibhai-Brown reinforced in her article the tropes of veiled women being “objectified” or made invisible, and took away the agency of Muslim women by refusing to consider the possibility that they may choose, of their own free will and as an expression of faith to which they are rightfully entitled, to wear the niqab.
In your article you mentioned that you felt that progressive adaptation of Islam was synonymous with ‘Orientalism’ and ‘Western idealist hegemony’. Could you please explain why?
It isn’t possible to fully answer this question without launching into a lengthy academic diatribe about the features of Orientalism as a frame of reference. The majority of European colonial literature makes it abundantly clear that the West regarded itself as ideologically (and otherwise) superior to the East and to the New World in general. It is a myth to think that these attitudes are in the past; the fact remains that Western ideological hegemony carries on to this day, mostly on a subconscious level in the minds of the inhabitants of the West, and this is due in part to a highly sanitised version of colonial history being taught at school level.
With regards to Islam, I am presently studying the views on Islam as a faith expressed by British non-Muslims, and too often I see objections such as “Islam needs modernisation” and “Islam needs an Enlightenment” thrown around, suggesting Islam is, in its essence, a backward ideology which must be modernised by the efforts of its progressive adherents. The difficulty I have with this view is that, like much of the discourse on anything non-Western, it takes a highly “West-centric” approach; the lens of the critic making these objections is almost always, if not always, one that observes Islam from a Western vantage point. Islam is seen as the ‘Other’, the outsider, the archaic ideology of the East which must be helped along in order to make it catch up to the progress of the West. Whether the people expressing such views are Muslim or not is inevitably immaterial; what really matters is that those saying Islam needs modernisation do not seem to realise that modernity and progress are relative concepts, that they are not defined solely by the normative values of those in the West, and that just because something seems “less than” to us, it does not necessarily mean that this is always the case.
Is there a danger of framing the debate as a black and white issue; do you feel that the full spectrum of Muslims’ views on this issue are being represented?
It seems these days that whenever Muslims are involved, and other minorities by extension, debates are framed in black and white whether we like it or not. I think there are plenty of Muslims out there expressing a diverse range of views; the key is to ensure that those diverse views are given fair and equal coverage, and not that the views of some are highlighted or heard more than others because they are more popular or more widely supported.
Is there an important issue to be had about forcing the veil on women who do not wish to wear it?
That anyone should be forced to do something against their will is unconscionable. However, the question remains as to what extent legal penalty can be applied in these situations – what if a woman is forced by her partner to dress a certain way in front of his friends or work colleagues? What if a mother is forced by her partner to give up her career so that she can be the primary caregiver for her children? What if a wife is forced by her husband to only have a joint account between them, so that she has no financial independence? All of these situations are unjust. They are all everyday examples of women being forced to do things against their will. Yet it would be ludicrous to suggest that legislation should be put in place or a public debate should be had to prevent any of these situations from taking place in the future. But when it comes to the practices of Muslims, everyone hastens to cry oppression and come to the rescue of Muslim women. If women in the UK are being forced to wear the veil, or are experiencing any kind of domestic abuse or isolation, the solution is to provide them with support at the grassroots and, where necessary, to work with them on a case by case basis and find solutions that are acceptable to them as individuals. As for forced veiling in other countries, I have already objected to this practice in Saudi Arabia in my article, referring to it as nothing more than patriarchy in the guise of religion; what we must also consider, however, is that too often, the abuse of Eastern women by Eastern men is another Orientalist trope which is consistently used to provide justification for Western military intervention, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of Afghanistan. Let’s not forget, we are not accountable for legislation or civil society in Afghanistan. We are accountable for these only within the UK. And in the UK, if we are trying to achieve a liberal society, we have to accept that a policy of forced de-veiling is exactly as oppressive as a policy of forced veiling.
Do you personally feel any pressure to wear a hijab or niqab?
In a word: no. I chose to wear hijab at 15, which is much later than the age that Muslim girls are required to start wearing hijab by most interpretations of Islamic law (fiqh). My parents never asked me to wear it, and they certainly never forced it upon me. On a personal level, I have found hijab to be an evolving concept that is extremely subjective and intimate; while others can lay out the rules of how hijab should or shouldn’t be, I have the free will to interpret and implement those rules as I wish. I do not wear the niqab, nor have I ever done – I feel that wearing the niqab in this day and age requires a lot of self-confidence and a thick skin, both of which I lack. I admire those women who, regardless of how unwelcome the niqab may be, possess the courage and devotion for such an open expression of their commitment to God, and I will always support their right to express their faith in this way.
What are your thoughts on the possibility of the UK imposing a nationwide ban on the niqab in public places?
As I mentioned earlier, a policy of forced de-veiling is exactly as oppressive as a policy of forced veiling. If we ban the niqab, we are violating the basic rights of Muslim women in this country: the right to free expression, to dress as they choose, and the right to freely practice their faith. It has also already been argued elsewhere that if women are indeed being forced to wear the niqab by their male relatives, a ban will only further their isolation; if they cannot leave home wearing the niqab, they will not be able to leave at all – so who would this ban benefit, really? While forcing women to veil in countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan is oppressive, how is forcing women to unveil, against their will, any less oppressive? I thought we were trying to be more liberal than Afghanistan.
What did you make of the recent article by Laurie Penny about Islamophobia in feminist circles?
I enjoyed reading the article and agreed with it overall; Penny made some salient points which would otherwise seem blatantly obvious, but because the gender segregation issue is another one that involves Muslims, most people have taken a very blinkered approach to the debate. One general criticism that several people made of the article is that Penny failed to acknowledge the negative role white women have played in undermining Muslim women, for example by taking away the agency of Muslim women when assuming they are all forced to veil by Muslim men (á la Femen). Moreover, while I fully appreciate the sentiments expressed in Penny’s article, it does seem that the kind of views she expressed are generally more palatable to the British public when they originate from a white writer. Had similar views been expressed by a writer of colour, who is to say whether they would have been as well-received? Penny’s article was tweeted 782 times, as compared to only 204 tweets for Mehdi Hasan’s article on the New Statesman website saying Islamophobia had gone mainstream. Another example, in 2012 Assed Baig was slated for expressing his reservations about wearing a Remembrance Day poppy. In 2013, several white writers including Robert Fisk and WWII veteran Harry Leslie Smith, were applauded for doing the same thing. Last month following the trial of Lee Rigby’s killers, Seumas Milne wrote a piece for the Guardian website about the war on terror impacting home-grown terrorism; he said the two killers attacked a soldier as an act of military retaliation. I couldn’t help but think that these views being so well-received (shared over 4000 times on Facebook) cannot be unrelated to the fact that Milne spoke from within the safety of his white privilege. Now with the new counter-terrorism strategy in the UK, it appears that if a Muslim so much as attempts to link British foreign policy (and not “extremist ideology”) to the rise in home-grown terrorism, he or she risks being marked as a terror suspect.
What have been the general attitudes towards your articles highlighting issues which affect Muslim women?
By and large, I have received a lot of support and encouragement from Muslim readers, who may feel that I am in some part expressing their own views on the issues at hand which may not be expressed otherwise. While I have also received support and positive feedback from some non-Muslims, this has been overshadowed by racist vitriol that is sent my way via tweets or comments to the articles. And when I call it racism, I am silenced with the usual cop-out: “It’s impossible to be racist towards Muslims; Islam is not a race.”
As a Muslim woman living in the UK, you also wrote about ten gripes that you had in one week. If you could, how would you summarise the main problems which Muslim women face both within and outside of Muslim communities?
I would say one of the main problems is that of equality, and that is not just with men, but with other women as well. I gave the examples above to illustrate that Muslim women and their affairs come under a lot more scrutiny than those of non-Muslim women, and particularly women who are white middle- to upper-class. The right of Muslim women to express themselves and their faith, whether through niqab or anything else, should be recognised on par with all other women. Misogyny exists, of course, within Muslim communities as it still exists within wider British society; I have come across plenty of Muslim women who are challenging this every day within their individual roles and capacities to bring about a shift in popular attitudes. We certainly do not need a knight in shining armour to come to our rescue.
Finally, what would be your hope for the future regarding better community cohesion in the UK?
We firstly need to accept that difference is OK, and expecting minorities to assimilate into oblivion is both unreasonable and unjust. If everyone is truly free to live their lives as they choose in the UK within the limits of the law, there should be no shaming of those who struggle to learn English or adopt a “British way of life”.
We also need to begin a frank and open discussion on Britain’s colonial history, accepting responsibility for the wrongs of past governments and finally realising that the West does not know all, nor is it better than everyone else. Moreover, we must recognise that patriotism as a concept has today been co-opted by far-right groups, and just because minorities are not wearing poppies or singing the Queen’s praises, this does not mean they aren’t doing, or aren’t willing to do, any less to serve British society and the British economy on a daily basis. Freedom of expression must be afforded equally to all, and this includes the freedom to be different; if we can all remember this principle, (particularly the MPs calling for public debates on the most trivial issues which will show minorities in a negative light) community cohesion may just begin to improve.