The hijab and the Saudi factor

Submitted by AWL on 18 December, 2019 - 10:36 Author: Sadia Hameed
Sadia Hameed

Sadia Hameed is a spokesperson for the Council of ex-Muslims in Britain, and a director of Gloucestershire Sisters, a women's organisation working in minority communities, particularly around tackling harmful traditional practices. She was interviewed by Sacha Ismail for Solidarity. See here for wider debate in Solidarity on the ban of the hijab in schools.

We need to question the idea of multiculturalism. Diversity of culture is a great thing, but harmful ideas and practices need to be challenged and criticised. Multiculturalism should be about taking the wonderful parts of all cultures and discarding outdated, harmful or oppressive practices.

We are in a place where some communities are demanding that religious law override the laws of the land, including practices such as child marriage and honour-based violence.

Where I grew up in Oxford, it was a really diverse area, with people from all ethnic backgrounds, as well as South Asians from various religious backgrounds. Today, that same area is largely Pakistani Muslim. There is no longer even religious diversity.

Multiculturalism has failed, communities are more segregated now than they have been in my lifetime. Multicultural policies need to be replaced with robust integration policies.

The first thing we need to do is to scrap faith schools entirely. Why on earth are we allowing children to be segregated on the basis of their religion? Children are great at learning from each other.

I attended a normal state school, thankfully not a religious one, but because of growing insularity within my community, I still had quite a sheltered experience. For children today, it can be far worse, if they are going from the same community at home to the same community at school.

Next, we need the abolition of all parallel legal systems. Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters talks about the impact of austerity on an already struggling legal system. She explains that austerity allows the state to redirect already vulnerable people into the exploitative hands of parallel legal systems that offer then no justice at all.

When my grandparents came to the UK in the 60s it was a country that was still racist, so one could understand why ethnic minorities may have wanted separate services. Yet at that time, my family interacted more with the wider community than they do now. We are now living in more tolerant times, but thanks to religious identity politics, they are more segregated than they have ever been before.

Q. There’s a debate in our organisation about girls in primary school wearing the hijab. What’s your view?

In the context of this discussion, I see hijab and bikinis on the same spectrum: they both sexualise children. Would you want a girl to wear a bikini to school?

Adults have a right to wear whatever they wish. Even if I disagree with it, it’s none of my business once they are legally adults. However, let children be children. Let them be free from the restrictions of hijab and modesty.

I have worn the hijab and niqab in three countries, the UK, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. In Pakistan and Saudi, it served its purpose in a way. Even in those countries, a veil does not protect women and girls from harm or harassment. However, in the UK, rather than detracting attention, I attracted more attention.

I view hijab as a form of victim-blaming. Would you ask a child survivor of sexual violence, where was your hijab? Or why were you with a non-mahram? [A mahram is an unmarryable kin with whom marriage or sexual intercourse would be considered impermissible in Islam.] These would be my first questions to those advocating child veiling.

For advocates of child veiling, the obvious query is, do you have concerns about child sexual abuse within your community; if so, do you really think veiling your daughters is the answer? Is this any different to the myth that women get raped because of miniskirts?

The idea behind hijab is that men are unable to control themselves. This is highly offensive to the many good and decent men out there. If one believes this, surely it is more appropriate to educate the men within the community, rather than policing the attire and movements of women and girls.

I view hijabs as similar to chastity belts. They are both designed to control women and place no responsibility on the perpetrators of sexual violence. But of course in countries where it is mandatory to wear hijab from as young as eleven, women and girls still experience sexual violence, harassment and rapes.

Many women talk of the silent pressure to put the hijab on. I too experienced this. Putting on the hijab increased my status within the community that I grew up in; removing it reduced it again.

This hype around hijab and modesty has increased in my lifetime. As a child growing up in Oxford, I seldom saw a woman wearing the tight hijab or niqab we are accustomed to seeing today. Often, I would see women with a colourful dupatta – a scarf placed loosely on the head that would sometimes fall off. It was even rarer to see small girls wearing hijab or niqab.

There is an imperialist element to this. Saudi imperialism is impacting the whole world. In Muslim-majority countries, funds are being pumped in to Islamise the country ,and in other countries they are directly engaging with and funding Islamic institutions, schools and centres. This has resulted in increased segregation and conservatism.

Other examples of increased Islamisation can be seen on the Pakistani high street. We saw the gradual transformation from the usual sale of salwar kameez (Pakistani attire) to more Islamised attire.

Prior to the war in Bosnia, much of the Muslim population were secular, non-practising Muslims. After the war, many turned back to religion as a way of coping. Saudi monopolised on this and offered to help rebuild the country on the condition that they accept their form of Wahabi Salafi Islam.

The left is quick to talk about western imperialism and colonialism. It fails to talk about any past or present Islamic imperialists and colonialists. What we are seeing today is Islamic imperialism, and this battle is being fought on the bodies of women and girls.

Q. On the hijab, women argue they have different motivations.

I am pleased for the woman who doesn’t feel oppressed or pressured to wear the veil. This conversation is not about those women. There are countries where women and girls are imprisoned and tortured for removing their veils. Similarly, there are countries that do not have mandatory veiling laws, but where unveiled women are viewed as prostitutes.

This conversation is about every woman or girl made to veil. Can a child really consent to veiling? Do they really understand what that piece of fabric represents?

Those women that advocate for hijab, why don’t they advocate just as aggressively against forced veiling? Or child veiling?

In the UK, not every woman that wears the hijab is oppressed, but many are. I work with many non-believing women who are unable to remove their veils, as this would put them in danger.

There are two categories of Muslim feminists: Muslim feminists who outright lie and say that women are empowered in Islam and that it is a religion that promote gender equality. I dislike this dishonesty. And then Muslim feminists that wish to identify as both Muslim and feminist and admit that there are problems in Islam, but wish to remain a part of the faith. I may disagree with them on their beliefs and ideas; however, I respect their honesty.

I will always fight for the right for individuals to live how they please. However, I would not support them in their fight to force their beliefs on others, particularly children.

Q. If the hijab is banned in schools, won’t more parents withdraw their kids from more integrated schools?

Parents can be prosecuted for preventing their children from going to school, if they wish to take that gamble, let them.

We have already stopped parents from being able to take their kids out of school during term times. This policy also needs to be aimed at parents.

The simple fact is that hijab has no place in school. Those parents wanting their daughters to wear hijab can make them do so at home.

Q. What about other religious symbols or dress?

Yes, I am in favour of banning all religious symbols at school. Schools should be a secular space, a place for education, not proselytisation. Pupils should be able to learn about all religions and philosophies in schools, without favouring one over the other, so they can make their own minds up.

Q. What about political badges? Shouldn’t we celebrate young people engaging with politics, for instance the climate strikers?

It depends on the kinds of politics you mean. If children come to school talking about maxims, they are probably speaking to their parents about it.

If we are talking about the environment, young people are very engaged with this issue at the moment, and I think the environment is above party politics at the moment.

Q. But in this context such measures will play into the hands of the anti-Muslim right and far right?

Why is every conversation about Muslims considered to encourage the far right?

I used to work with survivors of sexual violence and they’d tell me they couldn’t tell the significant male in their life about what had happened, because of what they might do to the perpetrator. I now see this playing out in a bigger way.

In the three areas that I work on, harmful traditional practices, child sexual exploitation and apostates from Islam, whenever victims or survivors of abuse speak out, they are expected to take on the responsibility of preventing harm against actual or potential perpetrators. Why is there the automatic assumption they are claiming that the entirety of one group is committing these offences, when they never say such a thing?

Sadly, the reality is that there are some individuals that have a vested interest in protecting the perpetrators, so they start conversations about the far right to deflect from the experience of the victims and survivors. In reality, what has galvanised thuggish groups has been inability to speak truthfully about victim and survivor experiences, about how to ensure justice is served and how to do better by them.

Journalists have played a role in this too. Many have given a voice to the perpetrators, to people defending them and the far right, but not to the women who have suffered at their hands. Meanwhile nothing significant changed for the victims.

Why does nobody ever ask the perpetrators and those minimising what they have done, “Do you not think your behaviour has given ammunition to the far right”? It is highly inappropriate and insensitive to ask victims and survivors whether them sharing their stories risks emboldening the far right.

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