This morning I was listening to Vanessa Feltz’s phone-in show in London which is every weekday from 9am to noon. I tuned in just before 10am at which point I was heading out on the M3 towards Andover, and they were talking about Islamophobia in the light of an arson attack on Finsbury Park mosque in north London, and an interview with its general secretary on the station’s morning show (about an hour in). Feltz said that a previous caller had said that Muslim women should “show solidarity” with the victims of the French attacks by going out without their head or face-coverings for the day. This was in among a lot of claims that, despite the press releases and open letters, Muslims weren’t condemning ISIS loudly enough — the usual complaints at a time like this, mostly from people who don’t know that many Muslims and a long, bigoted email which among other things criticised the host for giving too much airtime to Muslim women and accused Muslims of showy praying at various motorway service stations. (Feltz read out a letter from me; it’s after 1hr 44min.)
I don’t know if it was a man or a woman who made the demand for a “hijab-free” day, but the demand is offensive because the vast majority of people who carry out terrorist attacks on behalf of ISIS are men (the woman who may be behind yesterday’s San Bernardino shooting being the only exception that I know of; I don’t count the one the French police shot dead after the attacks last month). Other terrorist movements have used women as operatives, but al-Qa’ida and ISIS almost never do, and have never done so in attacks on western targets. There are men who wear distinctively Muslim dress, although far fewer than women; most of these are as innocent of any association with terrorism as the women (and terrorists usually wear western clothes, not shalwar-kameez and certainly not long robes and turbans), but the women are blamed because they are easy targets. It’s even more offensive that this suggestion is being made in the context of an attack on France, a country where Muslim women and girls who wear hijab are subjected to routine harassment and discrimination as a matter of state policy. Essentially Muslim women in the UK are being asked to “show solidarity” by accepting the way the French express their bigotry and chauvinism.
We sometimes hear it suggested that men stay off the streets or off public transport for one night a year, so that women can go about their business without feeling threatened by men. There are problems with this (most men are not rapists, some of the women’s business and pleasure involve men, and so on) but it is not in the context of hate crime against men stirred up by politicians and tabloid papers. We do not have groups of women beating up random men in the street or burning their houses down because another man raped another woman in another country. Women should not have to behave in accordance with another nation’s prejudices to disassociate themselves from a group of people who (just about) belong to the same religion who attacked that country without their consent, to maintain their right not to be attacked by strangers, mostly men, in the street. I’ve never heard of this being expected of any other group in similar circumstances (though it’s difficult to think of an exactly parallel situation).
As for advice that women not wear hijab for personal safety reasons, this is something they need to judge based on what they or their friends have experienced in their areas. I have noticed that since the artificial controversy over niqaab in 2006, the number wearing it outside of Muslim areas such as the Whitechapel/Bow area in east London has declined dramatically (I used to see it a lot in Kingston, particularly among students), but plenty of women still wear hijab. The situation is going to give a lot of ammunition to older people in the community who do not like the hijab and do not want their wives and daughters to wear it and to headteachers and school governors who similarly always opposed it. Years ago, Shaikh Nuh Keller gave a speech in which he said that although it might be acceptable for women to remove hijab for safety reasons, there was a danger of taking it to excess, as with someone leaving off hijab in London because a woman was attacked in San Francisco, which is completely unacceptable — it is still a religious obligation. I say this not to criticise women who take it off because they are scared, but to make it clear to anyone who would stop them.
Women already restrict their movements enough to avoid male street harassment or rape. We should not accept it that some women should face the additional danger of threats and assaults from ignorant racists stirred up by the tabloids and talk shows. We should not blame them because the community don’t “condemn it enough” or demand “proof” (which will never be enough) that the community really opposes terrorism. Much as with every other kind of street harassment, it cannot be blamed on the victims’ dress but on the attackers’ ignorance, arrogance, sense of entitlement or bigotry. When women are being beaten up in the street and mosques are being torched, phone-ins featuring complaints about showy praying at the service station just add fuel to the fire. Bigots are the cause of bigotry, not their victims.
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