Hijabi versus liberal Muslima

Picture of Birmingham Central Mosque, a red-brick mosque with a red-brick minaret with white decorations and a white low-rise extension at the front. There is an Arabic inscription at the entrance which reads (in Arabic) "there is no god but Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah" and another sign reading "Read Al-Qur'an, the last testament".The other day Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, a popular Muslimah poet and blogger, drew my attention to an advertisement she’d seen in a mosque in Birmingham. It was from a BBC radio producer looking for “an older, Muslim woman who feels deeply tied to a traditional interpretation of Islam — who covers her hair or perhaps wears the niqab”. The BBC would arrange for the woman to “talk to another guest, a younger woman adopting a more liberal practice”. The encounter would not be a “confrontation or a debate” but rather “each guest would take turns to talk about the experiences that have led to their convictions, while the other guest listens”. The promise of “no confrontation” might be intended to reassure, but the insistence on an older woman in hijab or niqab and a younger woman who follows “more liberal practice” is clearly not intended to demolish any stereotypes.

What are the stereotypes? One is that hijab is associated with older women while younger women are more likely to be more ‘liberal’ and less religious, at least less openly religious. The other is that a woman who wears hijab is more likely to have conservative views than one who doesn’t. Both of these are baseless. I know, and have known in the past, many women who wear hijab and are, at least, not reactionary or harsh in their views on matters like the status of women in or out of the home or even things like abortion, while many older women who do not wear the hijab, as it is commonly understood now, are more likely to think women should be housewives and serve their husbands and in-laws. That’s true of a lot of first-generation immigrants; a lot of the women who converted or became religious at university in the 90s are now in their 40s and have children (or even grandchildren) of their own and there are older women who followed similar paths to the younger ladies, but it’s not fair to cast all these women as “older conservative Muslims” because many of them were in conflict with women (and men) of the generation before them. Some of those elders even opposed their wearing hijab.

It is, in my opinion, a bad idea for mosques to allow this sort of advertising without some sort of debate among the management or some sort of consultation board. It should be understood that the media is not interested in portraying Muslims as they would like to be portrayed, or in taking a sober or nuanced view of the debates or conflicts within the Muslim community; in the case of Radio 4, their aim is to make “good drama” or headlines, even in documentaries, and to entertain a mostly white audience who want to be reassured that the ‘good’ Muslims who are willing to assimilate are predominant or growing and that ‘old’, alien customs are dying out; in the case of the more downmarket stations, they aim to give the impression of conflict and threat. This advertisement should have been refused on the grounds that it is based on ignorance and reinforces stereotypes, and this should have been explained: it’s not the community being stand-offish but wanting to protect itself from rising Islamophobia by participating in sensitive and thoughtful media coverage and not in its opposite.

Image source: Posted on Wikipedia by Oosoom - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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