Shelina Zahra takes on anti-hijabists

Last Friday and last Sunday, Shelina Zahra Janmohamed appeared on BBC Radio debating the issue of hijab with two foreign anti-hijab agitators. One of them is part of London’s small but well-connected Iranian exile community, namely Diana Nammi; the other is Marnia Lazreg, who has just published a book entitled Questioning the Veil, through Princeton University Press. It should be noted that Lazreg’s website contains no biographical information about her, other than that she is Professor of Sociology at the Graduate Center and Hunter College, City University of New York.

Sis. Shelina appeared alongside Lazreg on Woman’s Hour last Friday on Radio 4; you can listen to that (until this coming Friday) here until this coming Friday. She also appeared on Jumoke Fashola’s show, Inspirit, on BBC London last Sunday, and discussed a lot of issues with the host but also opposed Nammi who appeared “down the line”. You can listen to that here until this coming Sunday. Note that iPlayer only works in the UK.

I listened to the Lazreg discussion but it’s not available right now. However, the promotion for it on the Princeton website makes constant reference to “the veil”, a term rarely if ever used by Muslim women who use terms like hijab and niqab to make it clear which type of veil they are talking about. While I would agree that prevention of sexual harassment is not really a good reason, because in the countries where this kind of harassment goes on, women in hijab suffer from it as well, it is not relevant to women in the west who wear hijab. Here, it is mainly about a religious obligation.

The claim made during the Woman’s Hour discussion that women who wear hijab in the west are making life difficult for those in the Muslim world who supposedly do not want to is entirely specious and irrelevant. If a Muslim woman wears hijab because she regards it as a religious obligation, she is hardly likely to be sympathetic to one who is opposed to it somewhere else, any more than Lazreg, or the woman whose rights she and those like her favour, sympathise with our women’s rights. Besides, any relationship of cause and effect between the two is difficult to prove, to say the least.

Sis. Shelina made the point at the end of her Inspirit interview that there were more important issues in Muslim women’s lives than hijab, among them poverty and lack of education, and this is what should be stressed in any debate on hijab. The right to wear hijab itself is not in any danger; what is at stake is the right to receive an education and employment, and to take part in society, while wearing it. These are not women who advocate staying out of school after 16, marrying and then settling down to become housewives and have seven or eight children. In countries where home-schooling is legal, as in Britain and France, hijab in school and the workplace would be much less of an issue if that were the case.

In the case of the Jumoke Fashola appearance, the host completely overplayed the importance of the anti-niqab campaign and those calling for it, besides persistently referring to the so-called ‘burka’ which is hardly ever used by Muslims and normally refers to garments worn in the Emirates and Afghanistan, not to the niqab which is what is worn by Muslim women in the west. The “group based in London” is the so-called Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, and their website contains a lot of material on honour killings and female genital mutilation (which they claim is widespread among Kurds), but nothing much about the ‘burka’. Perhaps that’s because it’s not much of an issue as most Kurdish women do not wear it, and they are only jumping on the anti-niqab bandwagon because it’s an anti-Islamic one? It’s significant that they have a link to the “Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq” website; that is Houzan Mahmoud’s organisation, and is a Worker-Communist Party front organisation. I am not sure if Diana Nammi is a WCP member, but she is the London contact for the International Federation of Iranian Refugees, whose English-language paper, Hambastegi, is edited by Maryam Namazie, a notorious WCP activist (commonly promoted as a secular liberal by her western friends).

In calling for the ‘burka’ to be banned, Nammi has clearly forgotten that some women do wear it for other than piety, among them the sister of Banaz Mahmod, who was the victim of an honour killing in south-west London in 2006. She wears it to hide her identity from her family who raped and murdered her sister. Perhaps they would make an exception for her, in which case there would not be much point wearing it, of course. Anyone else who wants to debate the matter of niqab with this dishonest clique of Islam-hating exiles should remind them of this.

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