It’s rare for me to be able to get through a feminist debate without someone starting a question with “But as someone from a Muslim background…”, I usually welcome this and rather have a conversation about it than have someone make an assumption about my beliefs (which are liberal on any religious scale). I find that when I talk about it, people have this face that reads essentially as “oh, you’re quite normal” (to those reading who thought, “obviously they don’t know you that well”, you’re hilarious).
But the debate occasionally becomes much more derogatory and heated. This is usually dependent on what is happening in the press, or more accurately for which issue we are propagating the hatred of women or Islam. Feminism and Islam often come to blows, I’ve written previously about how feminism can’t tell women what to be or not to be, as FEMEN tried to, although given that it has been revealed that a violent man is the creator of FEMEN, I think I can lay the argument to rest.
Time and time again I find myself having to defend the Hijab or Burkha, (regardless of my personal view on it, i accept that it is a religious choice for others) and it would appear my niece has had to recently and found it pretty difficult. After Birmingham Metropolitan College announced it’s bigoted policy on banning the Burkha, it came up in conversation and my niece tried to defend it but said it “didn’t feel right”. That’s probably because my niece (nor any member of my immediate family) have ever worn one, it’s not been part of our interpretation of Islam. She, like many, associates it with oppression and growing up in a society where she has been encouraged to be liberated by removing her clothes (sigh), it’s easy to see where that connection lies. Seeing a burkha as oppressive rather than chosen, is common.
But, I also don’t want to pander to Islamic culture. There are many women who are forced to wear it and it is used as a method of hiding and shaming women. That’s patriarchy for you (not specifically islam), and it seeps into any culture, religion or society. This is just one of the ways it has seeped into Islam and that force needs to be tackled. But if someone who is wearing it, does not feel oppressed and is comfortable with that choice – who are we to tell them otherwise? This is where feminism embraces choice – which is exactly the point of feminism – life choices, not expectations or prerequisites based on gender. This goes beyond a western analysis of feminism and must cross into religious/cultural definitions too.
My niece pondered this for a while and seemed more at ease, it’s not easy to realise that you may have bought into a little islamophobia yourself, by presuming a woman wearing a burkha is oppressed.
But there was much more to this Burkha ban that angered me. The college is banning the Burkha, (as they have hoodies and caps) as a security measure. It would seem that Birmingham Met college is a hotbed of criminal activity, I did not know this. But here’s the difference – banning hoodies and caps (although not something I agree with either) does not penalize a religion and in particular, specifically women in a religion. If this is about security, what about the Muslim women, who now feel unwelcome and unsafe as a result of this ban? In one of the many articles on this a student in favour commented on the ban:
“I think it;s right, you don’t know who could be under that, it makes me feel uneasy”
Dear students, let me explain your unease: It’s actually your subconscious telling you that your views are little rubbish and you should probably just go talk to a few women who wear the Burkha to figure out they are human beings.
If it is an issue of security, why not get more community patrol officers, why not install a swipe system with matriculation cards, why not simply ask for the veil to be lifted for IDing purposes? Why go for such a blanket discriminatory policy, that does nothing other than feed into an every growing negative stereotype of women in Muslim dress?
Rather than feeding into this negativity, Birmingham Met college (a diverse college in a highly multicultural area) should be focusing on methods to breakdown these stereotypes. If they did that, perhaps the security issue of who is under which Burkha would disappear, as students would actually get to know them and be able to identify each other.
In fact, I have found the perfect way for Birmingham Met College to break down some stereotypes of Islamic culture and women. Introducing to you: BURKHA AVENGER! A children’s cartoon that is probably doing more to break down stereotypes of Muslim women than Birmingham Met’s diversity policy…
I randomly came across this whilst flicking through channels. It’s a cartoon series about a women who is a teacher by day and crime fighter by night…as if that isn’t brilliant enough, she’s Muslim and wears a Burkha (she’s actually using the Burkha to hide her true identity, but I figure, she’s doing it for social justice, and every Marvel character gets away with it, so it’s ok).
So much awesome is this, that it is now compulsory viewing in my house. Just another one of those things that makes me a really cool aunty…(I may be a little obsessed with this cartoon, expect to hear more about it).
Note: since writing this, Birmingham Met college had reversed its decision, however the fact that the decision was ever taken and then justified, leaves the issues it caused open and worrying.