A few weeks ago, columns and Facebook comment feeds flooded with talk about the burqa, which is a form of religious apparel that Wikipedia delightfully describes as an ‘enveloping outer garment’ worn by women in some Islamic traditions to cover themselves in public.
The burqa hit the headlines, once again, because our former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, less eloquently referred to wearers of the garment as looking like ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’. He’s such a charmer, that Boris.
The public knows, of course, that Johnson doesn’t really care what Muslim women wear, he was just conspicuously headline-grabbing to keep himself in the news. But that didn’t stop copious amounts of comment and debate on what Muslim women should and should not be allowed to wear.
The Wind in her Hair
As the agitated debate ensued, I was just reaching the final pages of a new book by Iranian Journalist and activist Masih Alinejad called ‘The Wind in My Hair’.
The book is a memoir of Alinejad’s life in Iran and her high-profile campaign to end compulsory hijab in the country.
Johnson’s comments and Alinejad’s book got me thinking about Muslim women, freedom of choice and cultural integration.
Alinejad grew up in rural Iran to parents who staunchly supported the 1979 Iranian revolution, which transformed the country into a pious state, where morality police roam the street. It became compulsory for women to cover their hair.
Iran was, and still is, not a great place to be a woman. While Alinejad wanted to be just like her brothers, who were free to climb trees and play in the street, girls were expected to be meek and behave ‘respectfully’.
Not a woman to be curtailed, however, even by the mighty Islamic state, Alinejad spent much of her life pushing Iran’s Islamic laws to their limits, much to her father’s shame. She was arrested for publishing ‘radical literature’ as a teenager (it was really a pamphlet that shared ideas contrary to those of the state), was pregnant before marriage, and, due to her tireless journalistic work uncovering corruption and challenging the government, was eventually forced to flee the country.
A constant theme throughout the book is Alinejad’s relationship with the hijab and chador. While all the women in her family lived, and even slept in their hijabs, Alinejad hated it. But in Iran, having just a few strands of hair exposed can result in a reprimanding or worse.
In 2014, while living in London, Alinejad shared a simple picture on her Facebook page of herself running with the wind, quite literally, in her hair– a very simple freedom denied to women living in Iran.
The picture struck a nerve with Iranian women and her ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ campaign to end compulsory hijab in Iran was born. Soon women living inside the country were posting unveiled pictures of themselves on Alinejad’s Facebook page.
Failures of Western Feminists
Any Western women, particularly liberals, would want to support the My Stealthy Freedom Campaign.
But it is Alinejad’s criticism in the book of liberal female MPs that struck a chord with me.
She says an envoy of Swedish MPs, who claim to be feminists that support religious freedom and a woman’s right to choose, visited Iran and instead of refusing to cover their heads in solidarity with Iranian women readily donned head scarfs.
When working as a journalist in Iran, Alinejad says Iranian officials would often point to Western women like these and say that even visiting female delegates cover their hair in respect and Iranian women should follow their lead.
Alinejad, along with other journalists, called these officials out for complying with a law that restricted women’s’ freedom. As justification, many cited respecting the local culture– a response that angered Alinejad.
Compulsory hijab is not Iran’s culture, she says: “When you force a seven-year-old girl to wear a hijab how can it be a cultural issue?”
When pushed, more often than not, the MPs fall back on the argument that it is Iranian law and there is nothing they can do. Alinejad’s response: “bad laws should not be respected but made respectable…if no one objected to slavery, we’d still have African Americans as slaves.”
Continuing her argument, she says that if it is the EU’s belief that visiting officials from one country to another should respect the different cultures and customs of that country – why do Iranian diplomats request no alcohol to be served with lunch, as is the custom in Italy and France, for instance? This is a request that Western host governments nearly always oblige, she says. Surely respect works both ways.
This struck a chord with me.
A year ago, I was part of the bridal party for a Muslim wedding of a non-muslim woman to a Muslim man. On the husband’s side all the family and most of the friends were Muslim and on the bride’s side none were.
I saw it as a sort of coming together of two cultures – an increasing part of modern Britain.
Obviously, because we’re British/English, our custom is to drink alcohol at weddings.
However, we were told by the groom that to do this openly at the wedding party was completely unacceptable. His parents, particularly, wouldn’t like it.
At the time this irked me a little because the party wasn’t held at a religious venue, where drinking would be understandably inappropriate. I couldn’t see any legitimate reason for us not to drink a few glasses of wine with our dinner, other than because we might offend the mostly Muslim guests.
I didn’t say much in protest at the time because it was a stressful occasion, as weddings often are (which is why people like to drink at them), and also, because we were told we could drink if we hid it, so we filled plastic water bottles with gin. Very classy, I know.
At the time when I moaned to my husband about the alcohol ban, he mocked me saying I simply hate being denied a drink – yes, yes ha, ha – or being told what to do. While this is completely true, it was more than that. I didn’t like being denied the choice for no good reason.
I believe strongly in the right to choose. To choose whether to wear the veil or not. To choose to drink alcohol or not. As long as we didn’t get drunk and behave inappropriately we should have been able – as grown-ups of legal age – to decide whether or not to have some wine with our dinner or not. A celebratory glass of champagne, perhaps. Plus, it would have been a nice gesture – to show an acceptance of our culture as we were accepting theirs.
And, plus, no one, Muslim or not, who lives in a country where the very fabric of society is built and fuelled, in large part, by alcohol should be offended by someone having a glass of Roja with their grilled lamb.
[By the way, I would love to hear from someone who disagrees with me on this; please get in touch or comment below]
This and Alinejad’s criticisms of the liberal female MPs made me realise that sometimes the left is too, and I’m not sure what the right word here is – flexible? Accommodating? Bendable? Easy going? – or perhaps just too fast to compromise in fear that we will offend. This, quite rightly, loses us credibility with our conservative peers. Compromise, tolerance and acceptance is a two-way street.
What Alinejad showed me is that you should always be uncompromisingly yourself and speak up for unfairness wherever you see it. She stayed true to this mantra in a country that seeks to control and tyrannise its women as policy.
And you can do this by still respecting different cultures, religions and choices. In fact, far-right views, such as those of
However, far-right views, such as those of Trump and the likes of Stephen Yaxley-Lennonm (aka Tommy Robinson), only serve to squash sensible debate, understanding and polite compromise on both sides.
For example, after London, Alinejad moved to New York where Trump was eventually elected as president. About Trump’s rhetoric and policy in relation to Muslims, she writes: ‘The more Trump attacked the Muslims, the more jittery the liberals, the Democrats, and anti-Trump forces became in challenging human rights abuses in Islamic countries…People were afraid to be too vocal because they didn’t want to appear anti-Islamic in the era of Trump.’
Relentlessly attacking one group of people only emboldens extremists on both sides and halts genuinely useful discussions. The moderates disengage and are afraid to say anything, but they must not do this.
Now I know my drinking example might seem petty, and in the grand scheme of things it is, but, as campaigners like Nimco Ali say, if we’re always afraid to offend people (and moderates disengage) we can’t stop bad things from happening, such as female genital mutilation.
Basically, it is possible to accept other people’s culture and also stand-up for what is right or say when you see something wrong.
The Burqa doesn’t mean oppression
Alinejad is clear that to wear or not to wear the hijab or burqa or any other religious garment is a woman’s choice. And I agree.
I do, however, agree with Muslim feminists that say young girls shouldn’t be forced by their parents to wear a head scarf because that’s not their choice.
Reading and listing to the barrage of debate sparked by Johnson’s comments, I note that much of it is focused on the assumption that women are forced to cover up by their fathers or husbands.
I have no doubt this does happen. Not just by men but by other Muslim women, too. When I was a shop assistant many moons ago, my Muslim colleague (from Afghanistan, who incidentally chose to wear a head scarf) was scolded by another Muslim woman, a customer, for wearing a crochet top that showed patches of her skin. My colleague did not respond well to this and promptly told the women where to go.
But surely oppression is a different issue. Men controlling women, vice versa, is not exclusive to the Muslim religion or culture of predominantly Muslim countries. It happens all the time in Western culture. It’s a huge problem in all cultures and religions.
When I read in Alinejad’s book that in Iran they tell women to cover up to protect themselves from men, it reminded me of things I’d been told as a young woman growing up. Things such as, if you go out late at night in a short skirt you might get raped. You must protect yourself by not wearing short skirts or walking the streets late at night. It’s no different, is it? They’re both awful and wrong things to say and put the onus on women to change their behaviour and not men.
Making a blanket statement and assumption that the burka or chador is a symbol of repression, that women are forced to wear by their oppressors– men and Muslim culture/ religion – is an assumption and not a fact and clearly not the full story.
First, we must agree that women can and should wear what they want. End of story.
And it should not be beyond you to accept that someone does want to wear a head scarf or a burqa. (Also, I am not addressing the argument that burqas present a security threat because there is no evidence for it).
Then we need to talk about women being oppressed and abused– in all cultures – and work to stop this by empowering them to speak up with their own voices. If we tell them what they can or can’t do based on our own prejudiced assumptions then we are no different to their oppressors.
And, as a side note, we can’t be so concerned about Muslim women’s oppression and then vote for governments who gut funding for vital services to help those very women. Or are we only concerned when the narrative serves to justify our own prejudiced assumptions?
As a country we must not fall for the pull of populism that deals only with assumptions and stereotypes and snappy headlines, but stay true to our core beliefs, which include freedom of expression, standing up for the underdog – whoever they may be, making dry jokes and politely agreeing to respectfully disagree, all over a gin and tonic or pint of larger.
I appreciate this is a long post, if any of you made it to the end I would love to hear your thoughts on the many points and issues raised.