Life today for Muslim women in the UK is very different from when I was growing up as a Muslim girl in a Muslim household. You know you are getting old when you start talking about ‘the good old days’ in relation to your past, but life in Glasgow, Scotland, in the 70s and 80s was actually pretty good for Muslim women. Yes, there was racism, but other communities had to put up with that too (Catholic Irish people couldn’t find jobs and were openly discriminated against, for example). The Muslim community doesn’t have a monopoly on victim status. Every group has been a victim, and every group has victimised others.
It was absolutely frightening to have our windows smashed by young white men who were not pleased that brown people with such different cultural backgrounds had moved into their predominantly white areas. It was frightening to have white men and women swear: ‘f**king darkies’ or ‘smelly paki lover’ whilst walking past them. I would hear such abuse whilst out shopping with my mother – a white Catholic who had converted to Islam when she married my father. Thankfully, the racism from children at school was less frightening and it didn’t take long for me to be accepted by my classmates. Children are better at integrating than most adults.
Back then the Pakistani community was a decent one. To the men and women, everything was new and exciting, from the food to the clothing that Scottish people were wearing, and particularly the open mingling of men and women. The Pakistani men had come over to carve out careers for themselves and earn a living. They sought to make new lives in the UK so that in time they could call for their families back in Pakistan to join them. Or, if single, they sought to create new families in the UK, the first generation to be born here, which is the generation I belong to.
Pakistani people, when they first arrived in the UK, were quite relaxed about their religion. There were very few hijabs. Niqabs and burkas were fewer still. Long beards were generally only worn by the most devout of the men. Old uncles might have one, or perhaps you’d see an occasional eccentric teenager taking his religion far too seriously and growing one. These long beards very often went hand in hand with regular praying and the learning of the Quran off by heart. The majority of Pakistani women and girls in the UK wore a headscarf, either round their neck or on their head but not so that it covered their hair.
Today, Muslim girls face far less racism than when I was growing up, and again I would argue no worse than other ethnic minorities, even whites. The more serious problems young Muslim women face are within their own communities, such as the dilemma of veiling or not veiling – assuming they have that choice.
It has reached the stage that a whole variety of agencies are now interested in what Muslim women are wearing and how it impacts upon the West’s lifestyle and the West’s future. There is a ‘fitting in’ process going on and a negotiation between cultures happening right now (from diet through to law and women’s rights), and the veil is one of the most prominent symbols of the debate.
Women’s groups, politicians, nationalists who see their way of life under threat, and the everyday man and woman on the street has at least a peripheral eye on what will be the result of what will be permissible for Muslim women to wear. Are our UK streets going to be overwhelmed with black-masked people with identities unknown?
The burkini seems like the silliest of the debates but the argument and the intentions run much deeper than they at first appear. Male surfers wear full-length body-suits without outcry. Some women on the beach, who have had too much sun, will put on a sarong, or a long robe to give their body a rest from the sun. Pale-skinned people will sit under an umbrella in the shade. To the West, a woman should be allowed to be near naked on the beach in order to top up her tan and feel the heat of the sun on her skin and absorb vitamin D into her body until she’s ready to cover up and go home. The burkini negates even this and insists a Muslim woman should be covered even in joyful, playful moments. In the West, modesty is determined by a person’s conduct – you can be wearing a thong in public but it’s how you conduct yourself that is important.
A woman wearing a thong and a skimpy bikini top, in the West, innocently minding her own business will not be considered a whore or a slut as she’s in a seaside town enjoying the weather (she might be considered a ‘bit easy’ if she started strutting her stuff and sticking out her ass and sucking on a thumb while intimating to every man around that she’s available, but for the most part – no, she’s not being immodest).
In Islam, the covering of the woman determines modesty. There is a cultural clash going on here and it’s easy to see why all eyes are on what is happening in relation to Muslim women and the veil. They are told they will burn in the hellfire if they don’t wear it, yet many ‘feminist’ Muslims will tell you it’s their choice.
A niqab ban is now on the table, and this makes perfect sense in public spaces. Besides the very obvious fact of a niqab being the perfect outfit to commit a crime in, it is also a closed door, it is not an invite to initiate a conversation. It is a deliberate divide. It ‘others’ everyone who isn’t wearing one. This isn’t how things are done in the West. We’re used to chatting to strangers at bus stops, stopping people and asking them for directions or simply passing the time of day with a stranger on a park bench and seeing facial expressions when conversing, etc. The niqab negates this. Chat to someone wearing a niqab and you would never recognise them on the street if you ever saw them again. They could also be mouthing ‘f**k you’ behind that black cloth. You would never know.
When a woman wears a niqab I am denied the ability to receive crucial non-verbal communication that is a natural part of everyday human interactions in open and free societies. These are simple things we all take for granted when conversing with one another and meeting people for the first time.
Deep down I know, or at the very least suspect, that the women wearing the niqabs will be married to, or be the daughters of, men with beards, long beards. Men who take their religion very seriously. Men who regularly pray at mosques that preach hate. Men who teach their children to hate the kaffir and all things Western.
Women can be seen in niqabs at Islamic protests in the UK, protesting with banners calling for ‘Death to those who insult Islam,’ and ‘Sharia Law for the UK’ sometimes even accompanied by children in prams. The niqab symbolises something sinister and when you see niqab-clad women calling for Sharia Law, you can understand why. It is an unnatural piece of dress, especially in the UK where one does not need to dress from the danger of finding oneself under a sudden onslaught of a sandstorm.
Nowhere in the Quran does it say to cloak the women in a black bag with only a tiny piece of mesh to allow them to see where they are going. Nowhere in the Quran does it say to cover your hair, yet many Muslim women do, and they say it is their own free choice. The whole question of what is or is not in the Quran seems to me irrelevant because if niqabs and hijabs are “nothing to do with Islam”, why is it “Islamophobic” to object to them? And why are they always justified in the name of religious freedom? Which specific religion might that be?
Women in hijabs do not concern me as much as women in niqabs, but I fear that our soft stance on the hijab, which like the niqab is also a symbol and tool of women’s oppression, has helped lay the path for making the niqab so acceptable in mainstream society. At least when someone is wearing a hijab I can see their face and I can converse with them at a normal socially-acceptable level. Some hijabs look quite nice when they surround a pretty face with good bone structure. Some are multi-coloured, layered and accessorized. It’s the sinister shade of black that is bothersome. Even in art, black is the colour of all things evil, while white signifies goodness and purity. You’ll notice Muslim men in their white robes and pyjamas while their women are dressed in black cloths like ninjas.
Some Muslim women and girls who wear the hijab also try to make non-hijab wearers feel guilty for not covering their head. This is known as ‘slut-shaming’. (I’m wearing a hijab and am therefore modest, you aren’t and therefore must be a slut.) I see women today wearing hijabs, and for all intents and purposes they really shouldn’t bother. Their faces are overly made-up and some look like drag-queens. They wear the highest heels and tightest jeans. I used to think this was defeating the purpose of wearing a hijab, but now I like to think that these women are saying ‘f**k you’ to masculine oppression and a religion that would insist they cover themselves up in order to look pious and be favoured by Allah.
Now I view these girls as being rebellious and mischievous, and I like that, even though I have no idea what is going through their minds when they get made up and dress themselves in the morning. They very well might just be making the most of Western autonomy of dress whilst agreeing that the head needs to be veiled in order for them to maintain their modesty, but other than the veil, anything else goes. As I’ve stated, some women’s faces look really good when framed by a hijab, especially if it’s of a bright colour and is co-ordinated with a nice outfit. The downside is that this ‘prettiness’ is making the hijab a fashion accessory even for non-Muslims. We’ve had fashion shows in London and NYC where ‘modesty’ was the theme and the clothing was absolutely inspired by modest Islamic dress. This normalises the hijab, but I comfort myself in knowing that fashion is fickle and changes from one season to the next.
The niqab isn’t as easily dressed up. I’ve seen some coloured ones, but they’re still niqabs. They’re still ‘outdoor kitchens’ for women to be walking around in. The niqab says only two things to me:
1 – the wearer (who isn’t always a victim) is sending out a clear message that she is not interested in integrating into a new society or getting to known non-Muslims.
2 – the wearer is being controlled by an insecure man who will not allow his wife or daughters out of the house unless they are covered from head to toe. These men claim their religion is compassionate yet they impose on their womenfolk an oppressive rule made by men in order to control their women.
Banning the niqab is probably one of the simplest ways Britain could assert itself, its laws and its cultural identity and values over a desert and primitive culture and its values in the face of hostile and uncompromising Islamisation. Banning the niqab should be low-hanging fruit. But Britain hasn’t got the bottle to do that. This is not tolerance. It is weakness. If we can’t win the easy battles, we will never win the difficult ones.
Shazia Hobbs grew up in Glasgow with her white Scottish mum, her Pakistani-born dad, his Pakistani-born first wife and eight of the 11 children the two women. Shazia Hobbs debut novel, The Gori’s Daughter, is available on Amazon now.