Interview with Iram Ramzan

Iram Ramzan is a Muslim reporter and freelance journalist. She is a news reporter in Greater Manchester, and blogs about a range of issues, including those which affect South Asian Muslim women living in the UK. In August 2013, she wrote an article detailing her experience of an ‘arranged marriage meet’, which became one of our most accessed entries.

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. We recently contacted Iram Ramzan to discuss these issues in more detail.

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You have written quite a bit on issues affecting Muslim women. Recently, there was a huge uproar about the niqab, and whether it should be banned. You also spoke to the Sun newspaper about this. What are your thoughts on the way that the general media, and Muslim clerics and scholars handled the issue?

I find that Muslims immediately get defensive, and I’ve noticed that even those who don’t think it’s an Islamic requirement will still defend it robustly, while claiming they don’t wish to tell women what to wear, yet scholars and clerics are forever doing just that! Then there’s the minority who defend the niqab and start attacking Western women’s clothing, as the opposite of wearing a niqab is doing a Miley Cyrus. How can you ask for tolerance when you don’t reciprocate it?

What are your thoughts on the possibility of the UK imposing a nationwide ban on the niqab in public places?

I don’t agree with a blanket ban, but the niqab should be removed in some places, such as in banks and airports. However, I don’t think it will happen. We moan about things but never actually do anything about it – that’s the British way!

This was a very controversial issue, and the debates were very heated; do you think that it is possible to have a calm discussion on this issue? Is one even needed?

Sometimes it is not possible to have a reasonable debate on this because it’s seen as Islamophobic and Muslims immediately get defensive. I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to have this debate; we live in a country where we should be free to discuss whatever we want. And don’t forget the issue was brought up because a defendant in court refused to remove her veil. If she had, it wouldn’t have been a big deal.

Do you feel cultural expectations and pressure to wear a hijab or niqab?

I don’t really feel any pressure to wear a hijab or niqab, especially in the UK; one of the reasons I love the UK is that you can pretty much wear what you want and no one really says anything. When I’ve been to Pakistan, the majority of the women there had their hair covered, so I looked slightly out of place but my family has never imposed anything on me, so it didn’t really matter. However, when I’ve been to Islamic talks or events, I do get stared at a lot for not covering my hair, and I think that women who don’t wear a headscarf are still looked down upon, their level of piety is doubted. I worked at a Muslim magazine and during a debate one colleague said that I couldn’t comment on Islam as I didn’t wear a hijab. Everyone else defended me, which is good, but there is still that attitude towards women. A man can wear what he wishes and not have his reputation or piety doubted, but if you’re a woman it’s a different story.

You’ve also spoken about the issue of gender segregation in UK universities. What are your thoughts on this issue? 

Universities UK have faced a backlash and been told by the Equality and Human Rights Commission that it is “not permissible”, and rightly so. What I want to know is: were Universities UK bowing to pressure from Islamists? Khola Hasan had an interview last month and she was mobbed by niqabis outside; Yasmin Alibhai Brown also received threats after speaking on this issue. Is this why? Are people scared of extremists? We should not kowtow to their demands. Separate but equal, why does that sound familiar? Oh yes, it was used to discriminate against Black people in America. Those who defend gender-segregation cite examples of separate bathrooms and changing rooms; this is a straw man argument, separate bathrooms and changing rooms are really a question of safety – a lecture hall is a public place. Myriam Cerrah wrote a column in Indy voices where she wrote “banning segregating will do nothing to resolve the misogyny which at times underpins it” – so is the solution is to allow it? If anything, it reinforces patriarchal traditions. If a Muslim speaker were to divide a lecture hall into Muslims and non-Muslims based on their interpretation of Islam, would this be acceptable? Where does it end? People already choose where to sit, we don’t need guidelines. If you don’t want to sit near someone in a hall then you don’t have to. Reading comments on social media and listening to debates about this topic on various radio stations, including the BBC Asian network, it seems that more Muslims are defending this. I’m disappointed, though I’m not surprised.

Do you think that there is ever a case for separating students by gender, if requested by a scholar?

No. Why is it necessary? Scholars should stay out of this matter.      

Do you think that many of the debates about issues affecting Muslim men and women account for a full spectrum of views?

I admit, these debates do bring out some anti-Muslim sentiments, and likewise the Islamists and Salafis, but that should not stop us having such debates. Suppressing discussions only makes them go underground and lead to extremism. I have been disappointed by some on the Left who defend misogynist practices and views in the name of culture or religion; what about female genital mutilation? If that was happening to white girls, would they still defend it? That is something that a very articulate Somali girl said on Newsnight. Germaine Greer once defended the practice, which I find absolutely abhorrent.

On a slightly different note, you wrote an article for us on an arranged marriage meet, which we and our readers absolutely loved. Any more interfering aunties recently?

I’m glad that readers enjoyed my article and thank you to everyone who read it. Since starting work full time, in August, and after that disastrous set-up, there haven’t been any conversations about marriage. That might be because my family see that I’m doing something I love, and that I have a goal in life, whereas before I was unemployed for quite some time and they thought that my life was going nowhere. I turn 26 on the 19th December so I’m expecting a conversation about marriage, now that I’m getting on a bit and no man will ever want to marry a woman who’s over 21. Who knows, maybe Jeremy Paxman will propose; a girl can dream, right?

Iram Ramzan blogs at: http://iramramzan.wordpress.com/and tweets as @Mari_Nazmar