THE HIGH Court last week dismissed a challenge from Shabina Begum, a 15 year old Muslim from Luton, against Denbigh School’s refusal to allow her to wear the jilbab, an Islamic dress that leaves only the hands and face exposed.
This decision provoked a storm of abuse towards Shabina Begum and Muslims from the media. Times columnist Janice Turner said, “The jilbab is not about religious faith, it is about culture, a particular, repressive culture which denies women employment, education, and equality under the law. It is a cloak of invisibility which means that women’s rights can be ignored, their dissent go unheard.”
AYSHA ALI, who attended Denbigh School, writes on Shabina Begum’s case and the media reaction.
LUTON HAS been at the centre of two very high-profile cases on the headscarf recently. As well as Shabina Begum’s case, earlier this year a young girl who was told she would not be able to wear a headscarf to school won the right to do so after to appealing to the school governors.
I am disgusted, not only by the way these students have been refused their right to practise their religion, but also by the ridiculous justifications that are given by the school, media, politicians and others for these bans. There are a number of underlying arguments and assumptions that have been used in the media to justify the ban.
One is the association with the headscarf and extremism. It is assumed by some that the more a Muslim woman covers herself the more “extreme” and “strict” her views are. The less she covers herself the more “modern” and “liberal” she is. Anyone who knows Muslim women knows this is plainly wrong. The view that the headscarf is oppressive is accepted across the political spectrum. The headscarf has represented women’s oppression in parts of the world and continues to do so today.
This however does not make it oppressive in all contexts and in the lives of all women. There has been an assumption that it is parents who impose the headscarf on young Muslim girls.
The truth in my experience has been very different. Many young women are choosing to wear the headscarf and do not view it as oppressive. State institutions taking away the religious rights of women in the UK or France and telling them that their religious beliefs are incorrect is far more oppressive.
The way the media have used this issue has highlighted how they see Muslims as the “enemy within”. The rise of Islamophobia in Britain helps the government and the right wing agenda in the current climate of the “war on terror”. The media can portray Muslims as extreme and terrorists. The Times reported that Shabina Begum and her brothers are connected with the Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Whatever my view on the politics of this group I cannot see how this allegation makes taking away basic human rights from this girl correct.
In France the ban on the headscarf is a national issue. One of the problems there has been is the inability of many on the left to support French Muslim women.
Issues around secularism and the belief that the headscarf is somehow inherently oppressive have led to many abandoning women who are facing a racist backlash from the state. In Britain the left has been supportive of the rights of Muslim women to wear the headscarf.
George Galloway, the Respect MP, Green MEP Caroline Lucas and the London mayor Ken Livingstone all supported the founding of a campaign to defend the rights of Muslim women to wear the headscarf last week.
We need to stand with Muslim women when they face institutional racism at the hands of schools and workplaces. We must not be taken in by the Islamophobic generalisations that are being made. Many Muslim women are standing up for their religious rights and their political beliefs. The anti-war movement saw millions of people stand up against the war in Iraq. Muslim women were prominent in this.
In Luton in the recent European elections Hasna Matin, a local Respect candidate, polled 2,347 votes. Hasna is just one example of Muslim women who are deciding to stand up for their views and society at large.
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