Muslim: Why Muslim women should thank Jack Straw

The veil is not a religious obligation — it is a symbol of the subjugation by men of their wives and daughters

My parents moved here from Kashmir in the 1960s. They brought with them their faith and their traditions. But they also arrived with an understanding that they were starting a new life in a country where Islam was not the main religion.

My mother has always worn traditional Kashmiri clothes — the salwaar kameez, a long tunic worn over trousers, and the chador, which is like a pashmina worn round the neck or over the hair. But no one in my immediate family — here or in Kashmir — covers their face with a nikab (veil). As a child I wore the salwaar kameez at home — and at school a typical English school uniform. My parents never felt that the uniform compromised my faith; the important thing was that I would fit in so that I could take advantage of all the opportunities school offered. I was the hockey team captain and took part in county athletics: how could I have done all of this wearing salwaar kameez, let alone a veil?

My mother has worked all her life and adapted her ways and dress at work. For ten years she operated heavy machinery and could not wear her chador because of the risk of it becoming caught in the machinery. Without making any fuss she removed her scarf at work and put it back on when she clocked out. My mother is still very much a traditional Muslim woman, but having lived in this country for 40 years she has learnt to embrace British culture — for example, she jogs in a tracksuit and swims in a normal swimming costume to help to alleviate her arthritis.

Some Muslims would criticise the way my mother and I dress. They believe that there is only one way to practise Islam and express your beliefs, forgetting that the Muslim faith is interpreted in different ways in different places and that there are distinct cultures and styles of dress in Muslim countries stretching from Morocco to Indonesia. But it is not a requirement of the Koran for women to wear the veil.

The growing number of women veiling their faces in Britain is a sign of radicalisation. I was disturbed when, after my first year at university in 1988, I discovered to my surprise that some of my fellow students had turned very religious and had taken to wearing the jilbab (a long, flowing gown covering all the body except hands and face), which they had never worn before and which was not the dress code of their mothers. They had joined the college’s Islamic Society, which preached that women were not considered proper Muslims unless they adopted such strict dress codes. After that, I never really had anything in common with them.

It is an extreme practice. It is never right for a woman to hide behind a veil and shut herself off from people in the community. But it is particularly wrong in Britain, where it [is] alien to the mainstream culture for someone to walk around wearing a mask. The veil restricts women, it stops them achieving their full potential in all areas of their life and it stops them communicating. It sends out a clear message: “I do not want to be part of your society.”

Some Muslim women say that it is their choice to wear it; I don’t agree. Why would any woman living in a tolerant country freely choose to wear such a restrictive garment? What these women are really saying is that they adopt the veil because they believe that they should have less freedom than men, and that if they did not wear the veil men would not be accountable for their uncontrollable urges — so women must cover-up so as not to tempt men. What kind of a message does that send to women?

But a lot of women are not free to choose. Girls as young as three or four are wearing the hijab to school — that is not a freely made choice. Girls under 16 should certainly not have to wear it to school. And behind the closed doors of some Muslim houses, women are told to wear the hijab and the veil. These are the girls that are hidden away, they are not allowed to go to universities, they have little choice in who they marry, in many cases they are kept down by the threat of violence.

So for women such as them it was absolutely right for Jack Straw to raise this issue. Nobody should feel threatened by his comments; after all, the debate about veils has been raging in the Islamic community for many years. To argue that non-Muslims have no right to discuss it merely reinforces the idea that Muslims are not part of a wider society. It also suggests, wrongly, that wearing the veil affects only Muslims. Non-Muslims have to deal with women wearing a veil, so why shouldn’t their feelings be taken into consideration? I would find it impossible to deal with any veiled woman because it goes so deeply against my own values and basic human instincts. How can you develop any kind of a social relationship with someone who has shut themselves away from the rest of the world?

And if we can’t have a debate about the veil without a vocal minority of Muslims crying “Islamophobia”, how will we face other issues, such as domestic violence, forced marriages, sexual abuse and child abuse that are rife in the Muslim community? These are not uniquely Muslim problems but, unlike other communities, they are never openly debated. It is children and women who suffer as a result.

Many moderate Muslim women in Britain will welcome Mr Straw’s comments. This is an opportunity for them to say: “I don’t wear the veil but I am a Muslim.” If I had been forced to wear a veil I would certainly not be writing this article — I would not have the friends I have, I would not have been able to run a marathon or become an aerobics teacher or set up a business.

This is my message to British Muslim women — if you want your daughters to take advantage of all the opportunities that Britain has to offer, do not encourage them to wear the veil. We must unite against the radical Muslim men who would love women to be hidden, unseen and unheard.

I was able to take advantage of what Britain has got to offer and I hope Mr Straw’s comments will help more Muslim women to do the same. But my argument with those Muslims who would only be happy in a Talebanised society, who turn their face against integration, is this: “If you don’t like living here and don’t want to integrate, then what the hell are you doing here? Why don’t you just go and live in an Islamic country?”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday October 9, 2006.
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