Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Muslim Women Speak Out

A few weeks ago a debate raged within the columns of the Northants Evening Telegraph and on their web-site. The issue? Should the burka (niqab) be banned. This followed Kettering MP Philip Hollobone describing the burka as a "paper bag" and subsequently calling for it to be banned (the burka that is, not the paper bag!).

This follows similar debates that are taking place around the UK and internationally (especially in France and Turkey). Often a unique feature of these debates is that they are overwhelming dominated by "Christian" or "secular" men wanting to control what a (small minority) of Muslim women should or shouldn't wear. In France the debate goes even wider than the burka, with the Hijab (or headscarf) being banned in certain public places and in education. What is, however, often missing from the debate is what Muslim women themselves feel on this issue (whether or not they wear the burka, hijab or other forms of clothing).

Recently, however, the views of some Muslim women in Kettering has been sent to me and, with their consent, I have agreed to publish it in full. It takes the form of a letter that was sent to Philip Hollobone. I make no further comment myself.

Dear Mr Hollobone

RE: Your views on Women wearing the ‘Burka’ that was reported in the press

United Kingdom prides itself on Freedom of speech and expression. This is the foundation for our politics and our British Lifestyle and as British
Citizens we are proud to say that we have the platform to express how we feel and have the freedom to express our individuality.

Hence, everyone has an individual right to choose what they wear and no one has the right to impose their personal views and make judgements on other people’s character, personality and behaviour based on their dress. Furthermore, we live in a society where fashion is an expression of one’s inner personality.

The wearing of the ‘burkah’ or veil (by the way the correct term is niqab) in public by a practicing Muslim woman is an individual choice, its an expression of how she wishes to dress and she is fulfilling the requirements of her faith, just as it is for Nuns who wish to adopt a way of life of covering of their head. When you see a Nun, she portrays a positive image in most people: you think of purity, someone friendly, humble, caring and a religious person serving God.

Furthermore, from observation, a Nun’s dress has an impact in the way most men would behave toward her. She is treated with respect. Also, no one would question that Nuns cannot communicate or interact with society due to the way they dress. Similarly, a Muslim woman who decides to cover her face is doing so due to her individual and religious choice and to make judgements about her character and about her relationships with others because of the way she dresses is insulting and disrespectful to her.

Your comments about Muslim women wearing the ‘Burka’, portrays a negative image in the media and it is validating racial and religious intolerance in our society. Such viewpoints incite hatred; lead to victimisation and it gives support to the extremists living in our communities. As a public official, an upstanding member of the community, surely it is your responsibility to promote harmony, tolerance, good community relationships and portray a positive image of all faiths in our community and not cast/ endorse such stereotypical views.
Indeed, your comment could be interpreted as a breach of the Standards Board of England Code.

By wearing the veil or Burka, you have questioned the competency of these women interacting with society and you have made judgements without any evidence about them. If according to you this woman finds our society so objectionable, then you would have not seen her in public, at a social, friendly, family environment.

A woman should not be judged by what she wears. Some people may decide to cover up and others may decide to wear as little as possible. Some people may admire some women who wear sexually provocative clothes and some might find such dress shameful or offensive and make judgements about her intentions and her character. Intelligence, personality and competency cannot be determined by clothes. We live in the 21st century in a country where we have freedom to express ourselves, and women now have the right to vote, a right we were once denied in Britain.

If you think that the Burka restricts a woman’s competency to function in society then by your stereotype she should have been home locked away and never be seen. Your level of intolerance towards what women wear in public does not seem to be any different from oppressive male dominated regimes and countries we accuse of having little or no regard for the rights and freedom of women.

The views you have expressed in the media, demonstrates that you have little understanding of our religion and dress. Education is liberating as is the way one dresses. The Muslim women in Kettering are a mix of working women and housewives who positively contribute to society. We have never found that our dress code has restricted us in anyway. We take part in activities in the community and have good relationship with all irrespectively of their race, ethnicity, culture, faith or intelligence.

You have an Islamic Community Centre in Kettering and it is there not only for its congregation but also for anyone who is interested to educate themselves about the religion of Islam. If you wish to discuss this matter of the Burka further or wish to learn more about women or men’s dress or women’s rights or on any other issues, then please feel free to arrange a meeting where we would be happy to have a dialogue with you.

Kind Regards

On behalf of
Women of Kettering Muslim Association
Kettering Ethnic Minority Women’s
Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council



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    I was tempted to comment and put forth some opinion, but have chosen to sit on the fence.

    However, I thought it would be interesting to throw some facts out there.

    I work in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, so have seen first hand some of the culture in the 'home of Islam'.

    Firstly, my understanding is that the burkha/abaya is the body covering, niqab - face veil, and hijab - head scarf. Apologies for my ignorance if these are wrong, but even here people often use the wrong terms sometimes.

    Many women here do fully cover up (head scarf + veil), though it is not a religiously enforced act. It's through choice or insisted upon by husband/family. The rules are purportedly more strict in the capital Riyadh where it is often enforced (i hear).

    Many women local and ex-pats choose not to cover their faces and hair is free flowing! One 'rule' that is adhered to, though again not strictly enforceable, is the wearing of the abaya (full body black wrap a.k.a. burkha). Again, here, they don't 'have' to wear it, but them must be covered up to ankles, wrist, neck; in practise it's not often, if ever, you'll see a women not sporting the traditional black garb. Quite silly in this heat, especially when men traditionally wear nice cool white outfits!

    Most women don't like the situation but it's just the way of life here. Other things that are the way of life:

    Women cannot drive. (no comment, it's just the law.)
    Women absolutely cannot associate with men that they are not related to. Period.
    All cafes/restaurants (even McDonalds) are segregated; singles section / family section.
    Some schools are co-ed, but mostly ex-pat, plus it is frowned upon.
    Petrol is cheap (sorry, it's not relevant, just thought i'd gloat. :P )

    Food for thought....