On hijab, ‘neutrality’ and threat

Last week I heard a conversation between Shelina Janmohammed, the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M and a columnist for The National, a Dubai-based newspaper, and the LBC presenter Sheila Fogerty, about hijab and others’ attitudes to it. This had been prompted by a call from a woman to the station the night before who claimed that the country was becoming ‘overwhelmed’ by Muslims. Some of the responses sent to the two women on Twitter claimed that Muslim women’s dress, the face-covering in particular, was considered ‘threatening’, a long-standing claim of people seeking to ban it. Fogerty suggested that the caller the previous night might be “just racist”, and although I didn’t hear the call (I very rarely listen to LBC), this is a reasonable assumption when someone calls a radio station and spouts bigotry about a minority.

Fascists contacting the media and pretending to be ordinary Joes and Janes while spouting racist views is a long-standing tactic of theirs. The BNP in particular knew that the majority of people would not vote BNP, but if enough people with aggressive voices and working-class accents were heard spouting racist views on radio phone-ins and below the line on newspaper websites, mainstream parties would get the impression that this is what the real “man in the street” thinks, rather than those in the “elite” or “Westminster village”. Sometimes mainstream media writers were fooled: in 2008, Brendan O’Neill, then writing for the New Statesman, met one Charlotte Lewis whom he described as an “unemployed woman from Croydon … wearing a loud gold lamé jacket and black jeans” with “a south London twang”. His impression of her was of a “ditzy woman with a chip on her shoulder” but in fact she stood as a BNP candidate in the St Helier ward of the borough of Sutton despite being ineligible as she lived in Croydon. She complained of sometimes being the “only white person” on the bus which was “a bit distressing”; even though (and I’ve lived in Croydon) this is actually a rare occurrence in most of the borough, I never found it distressing to share a bus with people who weren’t white. Why would anyone — other than a racist?

The idea that women wearing niqaab pose any kind of threat needs to be challenged. As I said when the leader of UKIP tried to make an election issue of it, if it were a threat to public security, the security forces would have said so years ago, most likely not long after 9/11 and certainly not long after the 2005 bombings. They haven’t. It’s left to extremist politicians and to anonymous callers to phone-ins. These people must be challenged to explain why they regard a group of women who harm nobody as being threatening — as in, exactly what any one of them has ever done that constitutes a threat. Not rumours (like that story of the Somali terrorist who fled the country in 2005 wearing his sister’s veil) and not accusations that are unproven (like the women arrested in the anti-terrorist raid in London last week), but facts, and moreover what the niqaab has to do with those facts. I have never heard a radio presenter pin down a caller who claims the niqaab is threatening on exactly why.

A common excuse for banning hijab is that it allows for a religiously ‘neutral’ space; this was the rationale offered when the European Court of Justice ruled that it was legal for companies to ban hijab if there was a company policy requiring ‘neutral’ dress (rather than because a customer just refused to be served by a woman wearing it). This concession reflects the common fallacy that hijab is a ‘symbol’ of Islam when in fact Islam does not really do symbolism. Islam is represented by the word, not the image; The flag of Islam used the Shahada or profession of faith (the battle flag, currently used by Saudi Arabia, has a drawing of a sword on it in addition). Many flags of Muslim countries use the crescent and star to represent Islam, but this is actually an architectural feature found on mosques in Levantine countries that were previously Christian churches; the symbols were also used by Crusaders, hence their appearance on the insignia of the City of Portsmouth and its football club. It’s useful as it can be displayed on things that might be treated in a way Muslims would want anything with the shahada on it treated (e.g. on a football which will be kicked around), but it is actually an innovation to associate it with Islam. There is no tradition of wearing crescent and/or star pendants equivalent to the crucifixes or crosses and chains worn by Christians. The stated purpose of hijab in Islam is that women will be seen as respectable and treated accordingly; it has come to be seen as a ‘symbol’ of Islam only because, in most societies (not all), head-coverings of that type are only worn by Muslim women.

So, a woman wearing a headscarf to work is not displaying a huge identity badge; it’s not a defining garment of a Muslim. To wear hijab is not to preach; it is to live according to one’s religion. There is no set way of “wearing hijab”; it is simply a matter of wearing clothes loose enough to conceal the figure and cover one’s hair. You can get purpose-made headscarves for hijab (the “al-Amira” brand is very popular) but you can wear any cloth you like as long as it’s not sheer (and it’s clean, of course). Banning the normal dress of a locally well-represented religious group does not usually make for a “religiously neutral” atmosphere. To achieve that, one meeds only to have a rule saying that nobody is allowed to, say, preach or criticise anyone else for how they behave on the basis of religion.

What it makes for is an exclusive one: there is no reason why people should not be expected to tolerate one of them at work, or seeing one of them as a representative of a company they do business with, if they are part of the local community. If one sees Muslim women everywhere in town but are never served by them, the space is not neutral, but rather those women are conspicuous by their absence. Much as it’s often observed that “gender neutral” clothing and so on often looks a lot like masculinity, so “religious neutrality” just means everyone follows White, Christian norms. For all but the minority who wear it only because of parental insistence, leaving off hijab is not neutral to a woman who wears it; it represents a break with their religion, much as being made to eat pork just because “everyone else does it”.

A major obstacle to the wider acceptance of hijab is the lack of high-profile Muslim women wearing it, meaning politicians those with regular access to the media. Recently Nesrine Malik wrote an article in which she complained that Islam was being “splained” (as in mansplained, etc) to the public by non-Muslims and by a select few Muslims who are “ventriloquizing on behalf of non-Muslims”. She complains that “hijabi women … get most of the high profile exposure even though they are a minority within a minority” and that “there are more Muslim women in hijab fronting social activism campaigns than there are that do not wear the headscarf”, yet typically the women who get the most mainstream media exposure, including bylines in major newspapers both in Europe and North America, are those such as Nesrine Malik who do not wear hijab. While I do not blame ordinary Muslim women who do not wear the hijab, especially if it is out of fear of violence, Muslim female public figures who trade on their Muslimness or speak about Islam or on behalf of Muslims are betraying other Muslim women, at a time when violence against Muslim women is an ever greater threat, if they do so without hijab (even if they do not wear it normally, they should wear it for such occasions). It often seems to be a signal, a way of saying “I’m not like those others, I’m a modern Muslim, I’m more like you”. One should not complain about other people ‘splaining’ your religion to the public while contributing to the problem, even if unconsciously.

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