Muslim women silenced on Muslim women’s dress

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, pictured in 2009Last Saturday, the Guardian published a long-winded screed by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (or Alibi-Brain as we call her) claiming that “the veil” as worn by Muslim women constitutes a “rejection of progressive values”. It’s basically the “single transferable Yasmin Alibhai-Brown article about Muslims”, variants of which have appeared in at least two other British newspapers, and consists of some familiar false historical claims (e.g. “the veil” originates in Persia or Byzantium and its revival is backed by Saudi petro-dollars) and spurious interpretations of scripture sourced from people without any grounding in Islamic scholarship, as well as outright baseless claims, such as this one:

Like a half-naked woman, a veiled female to me represents an affront to female dignity, autonomy and potential. Both are marionettes, and have internalised messages about femaleness. A woman in a full black cloak, her face and eyes masked walked near to where I was sitting in a park recently, but we could not speak. Behind fabric, she was more unapproachable than a fort.

Actually, you might have been able to speak to her. You just didn’t try, preferring to entertain yourself with a flight of self-righteous fancy.

The article’s headline is, to us Muslims, a lie: “as a Muslim woman”. Alibhai-Brown belongs to a sect which diverged from Islam centuries ago, the Isma’ilis. This is important, as non-Muslims often define ‘Muslims’ in terms of appearance, in terms of a professed identity, of first names, of cultural characteristics. Muslims define Muslims in terms of those who believe as we believe and worship as we worship: those who believe the Two Testimonies and in what flows from them (always the tricky bit), and who affirm them and practise what they entail. As Isma’ilism is a different religion, albeit with (some) shared beliefs and history, its followers do not have the authority to tell us what Islam is and what it isn’t. And non-Muslims are deceiving themselves, or each other, if they insist on treating someone like Alibhai-Brown as one. She is not.

On Monday the paper printed three letters in response. Not one of them was from a Muslim woman living in the UK now — the first and by far the longest is by a female professor from the Aligarh university in India (an institution where women remain barred from the main library, a rule justified by its vice-chancellor on the grounds that if ‘girls’ were allowed in, there would be four times as many ‘boys’), the other two from (probably white) non-Muslim women in England, one of them (Norma Clarke) a professor of English literature and creative writing at Kingston University. (Yasmin Alibi-Brain’s spurious “Muslim” status does not compensate for the lack of a Muslim female response to her attack on them.) The section is headed “Voices behind abd beyond the veil”, but none of the authors sound as though they come from ‘behind’ it. I briefly attended that university ten years ago, and there are plenty of Muslim women there — Prof Clarke could have talked to some of them to ask why they wear the hijab (very few wear the niqab nowadays, although quite a few did back then, before the Straw affair).

Clarke’s letter attacks the supposed phenomenon of “little girls … being turned into sexual beings”, a favourite canard of feminists regarding the wearing of hijab by little girls (as opposed to those past puberty) but in fact, Islam does not require girls younger than that to wear it, or their parents to make them wear it (and young girls in most Muslim communities never wear niqaab, only the headscarf). There are three reasons why they sometimes do: one is that they are used to it by the time it becomes compulsory (and to avoid the situation of them appearing at school suddenly and it being assumed, correctly or otherwise, that they are menstruating); the second is that it is a uniform item in some Muslim schools, or considered the appropriate dress for religious activities such as reciting the Qur’an; the third is that it’s “grown-up dress” and girls wear it because it is how their mothers and other older females dress. It’s usually a compliment in our society to tell a child they look, or act, grown-up, and we call them “young man”, “young lady”, and some mothers I know (perhaps some fathers as well) call their young daughters “my little lady”. It doesn’t mean they look sexualised; a lady usually means a female of pleasant and becoming appearance and behaviour. Muslim girls can be “little ladies” just as much as other little girls.

The last letter is from one Mabel Taylor of Knutsford, someone a brief Google search reveals is a serial letter-writer whose missives have appeared in both local and national newspapers and even the New Scientist. She opines:

As an unbeliever I find it incredible that followers of religious faiths adopt rules and regulations regarding what they wear, eat and where and how they pray etc. Why on earth do they think that an all-powerful, omniscient creator would be even vaguely interested in such mundane human-inspired ideas?

Part of the answer to this is that a really omnipotent and omniscient deity would know, and concern Himself with, small matters as well as large — Abdul-Hakim Murad mentioned that this is a debate that took place in the Muslim lands in the classical era in which some suggested that Allah’s knowledge might not include “pernickety things”, and orthodoxy held that Allah is “al-‘Aleem”, all-knowing about things large and small. We also don’t believe that the rules of our religion are merely “adopted” by us, but revealed by Him through His Prophets on whom be blessings and peace. But on top of that, why is there room for a brief side-swipe at religion in general from an “unbeliever”, but not for a thorough-going critique of the original article from one of the people targeted by it?

The paper hasn’t printed any further responses since Monday. I called the Guardian’s reader’s editor on Wednesday and asked why no response to the letter from a British Muslim woman had been printed, and was told that the letters page reflected the letters that were sent, and were not solicited. I find it difficult to believe that they did not have any response from the religious British Muslims, women in particular, that Yasmin Alibhai-Brown criticised last Saturday, particularly as they sometimes include online comments among printed responses to their reviews, obituaries, Notes and Queries entries and so on. It seems the intent is to silence an uppity minority community. There is a saying that has its origins in central European political traditions, particularly in countries with a history of foreign occupation, and is nowadays used as a slogan of the disability rights movement: “nothing about us, without us”. When Muslims are talked about in the media as a problem to be solved and shut out of the discussion, this should be our stance.

Image: Simon Veit-Wilson, via Wikipedia. Released under the Creative Commons CC BY 2.0 licence.

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