So much for the sisterhood

Why don’t white feminists support Muslim women by respecting our right to make our own choices?

By Salma Yaqoob  13 Oct 2013

Harriet Harman MP, Labour’s “in-house feminist”, has entered the debate on Muslim women and integration with the observation that “the veil is an obstacle to women’s participation, on equal terms, in society”. Her comments echo those of other white female commentators, most of whom disappointingly recycle the same dish served up by a host of senior male politicians.

Veiled Muslim women are caricatured as oppressed victims who need rescuing from their controlling men, while at the same time accused of being threatening creatures who really should stop intimidating the (overly tolerant) majority. What is distinctly lacking is any sense of genuine empathy for British Muslim women and how this “debate” may be impacting on them.

A case in point is the irony bypass undergone by Allison Pearson who complains that it’s “not a nice sensation” to feel judged for wearing your own clothes in your own country. Yes, precisely. Only she isn’t referring to Muslim women, who are being judged relentlessly for wearing their own clothes in their own country. She clearly hasn’t grasped that Muslim women are British too, most of us having been born here.

Indeed, she not only declares the veil to be “downright intimidating” but claims that Muslim women are victimising other women with their dress: “A fortysomething mother in a practical Boden skirt and short-sleeved top sitting on a train opposite a woman in the full veil can suddenly be made to feel as tarty and sexually provocative as a Page 3 girl.” But wait: “…the veil also implies a submission that is upsetting when women here fought so hard to be free.” So, according to Pearson, Muslim men oppress Muslim women (who as a result are pitifully submissive), who then intimidate and oppress other women – all through the veil.

In this discussion the views of Muslim women themselves seem to count for little, and even when given a hearing are afforded little respect. For Independent columnist Joan Smith it does not matter that for many Muslim women it is an expression of choice: “Muslim women in this country may [sic] be telling the truth when they say they are covering their hair and faces out of choice, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been influenced by relatives and male clerics.” Clearly they are too naive or stupid to make any autonomous decisions.

Furthermore, Smith’s claim that “the inescapable fact being that the vast majority of women who cover their hair, faces and bodies do so because they have no choice” is not substantiated by any evidence when it comes to the British experience. Whilst it may be true in countries like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran, it certainly is not true in the UK. The Muslim community is a tiny minority in this country (forming about two percent of the general population) and, ironically, the decision to wear a hijab or veil is often more indicative of conviction and resolve on the part of those women than any enforcement by family. Indeed many wear it against the wishes of the family, who may worry about being such a visible minority. Certainly I was never encouraged to wear the hijab by my parents. Neither my mother nor my older sister wore one. I followed my own personal spiritual journey in which I was both exposed to, and free to explore, many different faith traditions. I chose to practise Islam, and later took to wearing the hijab.

This is not to say that cultural and patriarchal pressures do not exist in the Muslim community. They do, and many of us are actively engaged in challenging them. In relation to the veil this means I defend the right of women to choose, for themselves, to wear the niqab or hijab. But I equally defend the right of women to choose not to wear particular forms of dress, whether it is in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iran, or in Britain.

Much has been made of the veil as a political statement (part of its “aggressive” role). If anything, in this post 9/11 climate, the pressure on Muslim women has been NOT to wear identifiable Islamic dress out of concern for their safety. Two of my close friends who wore hijab were physically attacked and verbally abused within a few weeks of 9/11, and one has decided not to continue to wear it. Visibly Islamic women were already feeling vulnerable, a vulnerability this unwanted media frenzy has only worsened, as the unfortunate woman in Liverpool discovered.

Instead of expressing alarm that a more intolerant climate is being created, and emphasising the need for greater understanding to reduce hostile (or misinformed) attitudes in society, the victims are blamed. Phil Woolas, Minister for Integration and Cohesion, warns that Muslim women may provoke discrimination and benefit the far right by asserting their identity. It is chillingly similar to the kind of things women wearing miniskirts used to be told if they were attacked: “you were asking for it.” Where is the feminist outrage at such a proposition?

Harriet Harman’s suggestion that internal community pressure on dress is a significant obstacle to Muslim women’s integration in society is also wrong. A recent report by the Equal Opportunities Commission found that girls of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin – 90% of whom are Muslim – “…were making remarkable progress at school. They had overtaken white boys in performance at GCSE, with a higher proportion achieving five good passes at grade C or above. Despite lower family incomes they are also rapidly catching up with white girls”. This progress in educational achievement is an important signal of successful integration. It is not a piece of cloth which holds us back, but the “brick wall of discrimination”, which faces all Muslim women, and not just the tiny minority who wear the niqab.

Yet, Bill Rammell, the higher education minister, now backs universities that want to ban the niqab. Women, who have chosen to wear a veil, and who value education and the greater independence and freedom that education brings, now have a new dilemma. Remove your veil or get back into the home. And this is in the name of integration!

For those who care to look and understand, profound changes are already underway. I am proud to have been elected as the first hijab-wearing councillor in Birmingham. This could not have happened without the support of many men in the Muslim community who hitherto may have been opposed to the idea of women taking such a public leadership role. It could not have happened if my white constituents, and those from other ethnic minorities, had taken the view that my hijab was a symbol of “separateness” or “intimidation”. It could not have happened without the large numbers of women – from many different backgrounds – who actively participated in my campaign.

A significant proportion of constituents visiting my surgeries are Muslim women. I am only too aware of the disadvantage they can suffer. But the majority of the issues I have to deal with do not concern family or cultural conflicts. The problems that I am confronted with are the lack of job opportunities, racism in the employment market, the chronic shortage of affordable housing and what increasingly looks like institutionalised racism in the provision of the most basic council services. Unfortunately, the consequences of government under-investment in public housing doesn’t excite the headline writers in the same way as New Labour’s “liberating” crusade for Muslim women.

The voices of Muslim women, in all their diversity, are being heard in ways and in places that would not have been imagined just a few years ago. Sadly, these voices are often drowned out by the extraordinary attention given to the utterly marginal rabble-rousers who give ammunition to those who want to stoke fear among non-Muslims. They are also drowned out by cynical political manoeuvering to generate “national debates”, the consequence of which is not to empower Muslim women, but to make us more ridiculed, isolated and vulnerable.

White feminists who feel they are doing their Muslim sisters a favour should think again. The Muslim community in general, and Muslim women in particular, are on the receiving end of some pretty ugly racism. I don’t ask you to like the choices we make. I simply ask that you respect our rights to make our own choices, and join with us to defend our rights to exercise choices that are freely made. Right now what Muslim women need from non-Muslim women is a little sisterhood.


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