Laura Stuart is a writer and activist. You can follow her on Twitter here.
Laura Stuart asks why her clothes and those of her sisters are being used as a political football yet again? And she says she is incensed by the media coverage of Muslim women’s attire.
Muslims are rarely out of the media, we have hardly had time to draw breath from the scurrilous documentary on the survey “What Muslims really think” aired on Channel 4 last week when I switched the radio on and heard a discussion about hijab and niqab with listeners being asked to call in and explain why they wear them.
The reason for this renewed interest in discussing Muslim women’s clothing came about due to a media article where the MP for Tooting and Labour candidate for London Mayor Sadiq Khan allegedly said: “A question should be asked about “what is going on” in families with Muslim women who wear hijabs and niqabs”
Khan is then reported to have said that it was not usual to see women wearing hijab in the UK or Pakistan when he was growing up, yet so many young Muslim women who were born in the UK are choosing to wear hijab, jilbab and even niqab.
Khan is reported to have come to the conclusion that “something is going on in these homes” that has created this phenomenon. The inference being that there is coercion.
Let’s be clear about the oppression of women. Women are oppressed by abusive men in every culture and by men of all religions and none. UK statistics on Domestic Violence are truly shocking with two women being killed by their partners or previous partners every week and one in four women experiencing domestic abuse during their lifetime. If men want to oppress women they will find the means to do so hijab or no hijab.
Clearly the media is capable of distorting the words that people have said during interviews; even of publishing words without the context that they were spoken in.
But judging by the reaction on social media, the Muslim community is shocked and dismayed by Mr Khan’s words. Commentators are especially concerned that his opinion on hijab, jilbab and niqab may lead to even more hate crimes against Muslim women on the streets, as if there were not way too many already.
It remains to be seen if a refutation or explanation will be forthcoming but the fact is that this should have been done as soon as possible after the article was published. At the time of writing no comment or explanation have been forthcoming from Sadiq Khan despite one Muslim organisation that I know of having contacted his parliamentary office and many people have asked Khan directly for clarification on social media.
As an aside could anyone imagine the Conservative Mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith (who happens to be a Jew) saying “what is going on in the families of Orthodox Jewish women in Hendon and Stoke Newington who wear the sheitel (wig)?” Such a question could not and would not ever be asked because the Jewish community are very organised and very outspoken; there would be immediate outrage.
It is obvious to me that both of the leading Mayoral candidates have very little to contribute in a positive way so both of them are running negative campaigns against each other. The Tory candidate is accusing Sadiq Khan of “giving cover to extremists”, a slur he hopes will cast doubt on Khan and lose him many votes in this climate of mainstream media-induced fear.
If I apply Islamic adab to this situation and give Sadiq Khan the benefit of the doubt I would suggest that perhaps Mr Khan is going out of his way to prove that he is not extreme in his Islamic belief or practice. But I wonder if he feels so certain that Muslims will always vote Labour that he fails to consider what is important to us as a community?
Mr Khan’s anti BDS views are deeply disturbing for the Muslim community and many non-Muslims who support the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement as a non-violent means of applying pressure on the Israeli Government.
Mr Khan first of all said to The Jewish News: “I have consistently made absolutely clear that I do not support boycotts, sanctions or divestment of Israel.” Mr Khan also tweeted confirmation that he does not support a boycott of Israel, which caused such an outcry on Twitter that the tweet was subsequently deleted.
Yesterday the smear campaign by the Tory party against Sadiq Khan escalated to a whole new level when David Cameron accused him of “having shared a platform with” an extremist. The so-called “extremist” is the Imam of Tooting masjid Sulaiman Gani who naturally and rightly has been quick to go on Twitter, Facebook and LBC radio denying the accusations of extremism.
It seems that because Cameron’s accusations were made in the Chamber at the Houses of Parliament that he can’t be sued for slander. In conflating the claim that Sulaiman Gani supports AN Islamic State with Sulaiman Gani supports THE Islamic State (i.e. Daesh), Cameron is purely seeking to create fear amongst potential Labour voters. The vast majority of Muslims would hope to live in an Islamic State run according to Quran and Sunnah, something that exists in no country in the world at this time.
No doubt running for political office requires the ability to parry loaded questions and handle situations designed to bring down candidates, but just how far does anyone need to go in compromising their principles to appease potential voters?
Perhaps this is a valid question that any Muslim should reflect upon before embarking on a career in politics? The Establishment and the various Neo Conservative, pro-Israel groups will never be able to accept Sadiq Khan because he is a Muslim no matter how moderate his claims.
Despite the fact that Khan is going further and further in his condemnations of perceived anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, his assurances that he is determined to be a Mayor for ALL Londoners, his distancing himself from Jeremy Corbyn, or his offer of hosting a Tel Aviv festival in Trafalgar Square, they will still never trust him.
Handling tough questions
In my earlier life I loved to read the stories in the Gospels of how Jesus (a.s.) cleverly handled the trick questions set up for him by those who opposed his message. One such instance was when questioners were sent to Eisa (a.s.) asking if the Jews had to pay taxes. It was anticipated that Eisa (a.s.) would say “no” and then his enemies would be able to report him to Pilate who was the leader of the day and the collector of taxes. Instead the Gospels relate that Eisa (a.s.) asked them to produce a coin and on being given one which had the head of Ceasar on one side he said:
“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”.
There are two lessons here: one for Sadiq Khan (or indeed any leader) that one doesn’t need to compromise their beliefs in order to give a coherent answer that satisfies the hypocrites; and the other lesson is to Muslim women that the only proper answer to the questioners on why we wear hijab is that it is worn for the pleasure of Allah (s.w.t.) by His Command.
Those who attempt to justify wearing hijab for example as a barrier to men’s gazes only fall into the trap of painting a picture of men being uncontrollable beasts who can’t deal with the sight of a female.
I noticed in a recent discussion on the issue of segregation that some sisters called into a radio station saying that mixed seating in a lecture hall would lead to them being unable to concentrate and that they would be distracted by looking at the men. If you are going to express an opinion in public you must be aware of such bear traps that make us sound weak. I actually heard a well-known presenter on a very popular London radio station during a phone-in on the topic of burkini ask a Muslimah if she wore hijab so that she didn’t have to wash her hair and why she didn’t feel comfortable about men looking at her body! SubhanAllah.
Clearly as a community we need to be much more proactive in defending ourselves. Islam can defend itself but increasingly we are seeing attacks on our beliefs and practices from the clothes we wear to the matter of should our children be fasting during Ramadan. And it is looking increasingly unlikely that even members of our own community who attain public office will be ready or in any position to defend Muslim women.