Insight: What dress code row means to Muslim women

Left to right: back, Raisah Ahmed, Ghizala Avan; front, Samina Ansari, Ayesha Amin and Mahrukh Shaukat. Picture John Devlin
Left to right: back, Raisah Ahmed, Ghizala Avan; front, Samina Ansari, Ayesha Amin and Mahrukh Shaukat. Picture John Devlin
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Scots who choose whether or not to wear the hijab discuss the impact of Boris Johnson’s comments about the veil on their lives with Dani Garavelli

Samina Ansari was 21 when she decided to start wearing a hijab; today she sits in Glasgow’s Amina Muslim Women Resource Centre (MWRC), her pretty white scarf framing an open, expressive face, at ease with her own identity.

Hijab wearers on the streets of Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin

Hijab wearers on the streets of Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin

Yet being so visibly Muslim has cost her; ten years ago, two white men ambushed her car, shouting abuse and smashing windows, as she cowered in the front seat, terrified for her own safety and that of her baby son.

Then two years ago, when a five-year-old had been knocked down by another car and she stopped to call an ambulance, the father of the injured boy accused her of causing the accident while his partner called her a “P*** bitch”. And earlier this year when she was dropping off her son at his father’s house, two men pulled alongside her to shout “Isis”. “These things do affect me, particularly when I am with my son,” says Ansari, who is now 37, and chief executive of the MWRC. “After the first incident, I felt I was robbed of my safety. I didn’t want to take my son to the park. I would wait for someone else to be around before I went for the groceries. I felt I was retreating into my own community.”

Ansari is one of five Muslim women who have agreed to talk to me about their experiences and the potential impact of Boris Johnson’s derogatory comments about the niqab (he used the word burqa, but the garment he described – a full veil with a gap for the eyes – is actually a niqab).

In a Daily Telegraph column opposing Denmark’s recent ban, the MP nevertheless compared women who wear them to “letterboxes” or “bank robbers” – a “joke”which has been condemned as demeaning and racist. Johnson’s offence was compounded by Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, who said Muslim women were being forced to cover up “their beauty or their bruises” – a comment that clearly linked the niqab to domestic abuse.

The politicians’ remarks sparked a furious argument between those who see Johnson as an opportunist fuelling Islamophobia for his own ends and those who – while uneasy with his flippancy – agree the niqab is a barrier to gender equality and integration .

Some of those who backed Johnson co-opted minorities to bolster their position. In another tweet Dorries wrote: “You cannot expect a society that backs gay pride and embraces gay marriage to live harmoniously when condoning the suppression of women forced to cover up, segregate and become invisible.” Right-wing commentator Iain Martin suggested burqas/niqabs were discriminatory towards deaf people because they prevented them lip-reading. In both cases, representatives of the co-opted minorities replied: “You do not speak for us.”

Largely absent from this discussion about Muslim women’s agency, or lack of it, however, have been Muslim women’s voices. As others argued on their behalf, it seemed the very people bemoaning the “disempowerment” of such women were the ones perpetuating it. Yet those who have gathered at the MWRC (most of whom work there) are keen to share their experiences and more than capable of doing so.

Three of them – Ansari, screenwriter Raisah Ahmed and MWRC development officer Mahrukh Shaukat – wear the hijab, while youth helpline development officer Ayesha Amin, chooses not to; Ghizala Avan, actor and violence against women development officer, wore one for a brief period after 9/11 as a gesture of solidarity with those suffering racist abuse. All five have friends or relatives who wear the niqab, including, until recently, Shaukat’s mother.

The women have faced a mixture of reactions to their choices: Ansari’s family were less than enthusiastic when she started wearing the hijab, whereas Ahmed was following her mother’s example. They all agree, however, that Johnson’s comments increase the risks for Muslim women and militate against the integration he claims to support.

“Here we have someone who has been elected, in a position of power, saying things that are potentially putting people in his own constituency in danger,” says Ahmed, 32. “So then you ask the question: ‘Are you there only to protect the people like you?’ With certain MPs, is there a barrier as to whom they will represent and whose needs they will address?”

The first thing that strikes you when talking to the women at the MWRC is how articulate they are. The second is that they come from very different backgrounds .

Ansari, for example, grew up in a household that was not particularly religious. It wasn’t until she went to university that she started to think more about her faith and decided to cover her hair. “I had been going through a phase where I was dying my hair every couple of weeks and I think, when I first came home with my headscarf on, my mum and dad thought I’d ended up with a really bad colour.” What did they say when they found out the truth? “They weren’t openly supportive, but they weren’t against it. My older brother is not a fan, but he too accepts that it’s my choice.”

One of her non-Muslim friends was not so accepting and eventually cut off contact. “I was surprised how closed some people were in terms of feeling that if I chose to wear the hijab, I had changed as a person.”

Ansari says that, for her, wearing the hijab is both an act of worship and a political statement; over the years the headscarf has become an integral part of her identity.

Having worn a headscarf since the age of 12, Ahmed did not have to face a period of readjustment with friends and relatives. Working in the arts, which she describes as “open”, she doesn’t experience much verbal abuse; but she does feel she has to fight against preconceptions about how someone “like her” would behave, the implication being that she would be expected to be more submissive and less outgoing.

“How many times have you seen a positive portrayal of a woman in a hijab or a niqab in a drama?” she asks. “As a writer, my battles have always been around the perceptions people have of those who wear the hijab. People will say to me: ‘A woman in a head scarf wouldn’t do that.’ And I will reply: ‘Well, I’m a woman in a headscarf and I am telling you she would.’”

Ahmed reaps positive as well as negative dividends from the hijab; when she is out at functions, it makes her stand out from the crowd. When she follows up on an encounter, people remember who she is.

This is, I suppose, where the hijab and the niqab differ. In a hijab your face can be seen; and though its principal function is religious, it also doubles as a fashion statement. Headscarves can be worn in different ways and matched with different outfits; all three women I meet look stylish in theirs.

This is not true of niqabs, which render women almost indistinguishable from one another. So how do the MWRC feel about them? Are full face veils – as Johnson and his supporters would have it – a means of isolating women? Or are they a potent expression of Muslim identity?

Ahmed points out that women who wear niqabs are often just as fashionable if not more so than their unveiled friends, they just choose not to display themselves in public. “They wear these outfits for themselves,” says Ahmed. “It’s not about pleasing or attracting someone. Their style is not dependent on the male gaze. And there’s a liberation in that.”

Shaukat’s mother – who is half Scottish and half Pakistani – started wearing the niqab at the age of 23 while living in Pakistan, and continued to do so when she moved back to the UK. At that time, it was not common in Pakistan, neither was it the tradition within her own family. According to Shaukat, her mum made a personal choice and her new husband liked and supported it.

“My mum is an extremely confident person,” says Shaukat. “What she wears does not seem to affect that confidence or her ability to interact with people.”

This latter point is borne out by her professional achievements; she is a therapist, a job some people might consider incompatible with wearing a veil, but Shaukat says she has made a success of it.

“When my mum was at Strathclyde University [training as a therapist] she was doing some research and she was asked if she would take on male clients. She said: ‘Yes, but I would be wearing my niqab,’” says Shaukat.

“The therapists [running] the research said she might not be able to continue, but she asked them to let her try, and all the applicants to her particular strand of person-centred therapy found there was no difference in the ability to receive that therapy or to build a trust relationship when she was wearing it.”

Shaukat herself has never worn the niqab, not because she thinks it alienates women from society but because she thinks society alienates women who wear it. Indeed her mother, who now lives in Aberdeen, has been on the receiving end of such a lot of abuse she no longer wears it so regularly.

“My dad asked her to think about stopping because he was scared for her. At first she said no, but then on one week-long trip to Glasgow, she had people shouting stuff from cars and a woman tried to block her entrance to a pizza shop. On another occasion, in a park in Bishopbriggs, a guy told her she shouldn’t be looking after children and swore at her.”

Shaukat says her mother feels she has had her freedom of choice taken away. “‘I don’t want to show my face, but I am being told if I don’t then people aren’t going to treat me in a way that is safe for me and my family,’ she says.”

The UK debate over the niqab began in 2006 when the then leader of the House of Commons Jack Straw wrote a newspaper column in which he revealed he always asked women who attended his surgery in veils to remove them because he believed they made communication more difficult.

Other European countries – France, Belgium, Austria and now Denmark – have all banned them. The UK has steered away from a full ban – believing it to be an incursion on people’s freedoms – but the debate about the pros and cons of women covering their faces, particularly in settings such as classrooms or courts, has rumbled on. This is despite the fact that only a tiny proportion of people in Europe wear them. Data is hard to come by for the UK, but in France, in 2011, when the ban was introduced, the figures were less than 0.04 per cent of French Muslim women and less than 0.003 per cent of the French population.

Johnson’s remarks have sparked a particular furore because of the tone, the timing and the conviction of his critics that they were born less of a desire to contribute to a discussion, than of a combination of Islamophobia and political opportunism. Though they may have backfired on the party – shifting media scrutiny away from anti-Semitism in Labour – the extent to which they have resonated with sections of the public could stand him in good stead were he to run for leader.

Though Johnson now faces an internal disciplinary inquiry over his Telegraph contract, some high-profile figures have rallied to his defence. The comedian Rowan Atkinson, for example, said everyone should be free to make “jokes”, while former chief whip Andrew Mitchell insisted there was no need for him to apologise.

But what of the contention that – while Johnson may have been wide of the mark – some women are forced to wear the niqab, thus rendering it innately oppressive and antithetical to feminism? While the women at MWRC concede there is likely to be a degree of pressure in some cases, they point out there are women of all ethnicities and cultures trapped in similarly coercive relationships. Feminist activist Talat Yaqoob believes the burqa/niqab has become such a fixation because it’s a useful “dog-whistle” for the right-wing. “‘We care about freedom for women, that’s why we are outraged by it,’ insist those who will also tell you the pay gap isn’t real and rape culture doesn’t exist,” says Yaqoob.

One risk of Johnson’s column is that it will legitimise the kind of racial hatred that spawned the threats of Punish A Muslim Day – a rallying call to violence contained in letters distributed in parts of England earlier this year.

Those threats led the MWRC to cancel several events because women who were normally active members of the community were too scared to leave their homes.

“When someone like Johnson makes comments on a public platform it makes other people [with racist views] think we can do whatever we want now,” says Ahmed.

Another risk is that the “othering” of Muslim women who wear the niqab will hinder – as opposed to foster – inclusion. “The whole practice of discussing bans across Europe is of assistance to relatively regressive voices, all the socially conservative and sometimes misogynistic voices within Muslim communities, because they get to say: ‘Are you with us or are you with them?” says Sunder Katwala, the director of the identity and integration think-tank British Future.

“What is being said by those regressive voices is that this is a slippery slope; that what the state wants is to ban Islam. There is, I think, a symbiotic relationship out on the extremes between the likes of [English Defence League founder] Tommy Robinson and [hate preacher] Anjem Choudary. They both want to assert that we will never get on and that the clash of civilisations is inevitable. Both groups are saying to Muslims: there’s no point in trying to integrate.”

The possibility that Johnson’s negative portrayal of women in niqabs will drive people even further apart upsets the women at MWRC.

“I think it is dangerous to start building these walls,” says Ahmed. “What we actually need is to talk to each other; to try to understand each other’s stories, backgrounds and the reasons we do the things we do.”

BY DEFINITION

Hijab

The word hijab describes the act of covering up generally but is often used to describe the headscarves worn by Muslim women. These scarves come in many styles and colours. The type most commonly worn in the West covers the head and neck but leaves the face clear.

Niqab

The niqab is a veil for the face that leaves the area around the eyes clear. However, it may be worn with a separate eye veil. It is worn with an accompanying headscarf.

Burqa

The burqa is the most concealing of all Islamic veils. It is a one-piece veil that covers the face and body, often leaving just a mesh screen to see through.