The hijab is a chip on Britain's shoulder

The hijab is a chip on Britain's shoulder
Comment: Dentists, star bakers and newsreaders. Seeing these perfectly British women as a stain on the fabric of society reveals a widespread problem with the hijab, writes Ruqaya Izzidien.
5 min read
05 Feb, 2018
Scottish dentist Furheen Ashrif supporting her husband's campaign to be Scottish Labour leader [Getty]
Barely a week passes without a British Muslim woman hitting the headlines. 

In the last week alone, endless column inches have been devoted to the Muslim mother-of-two who blames UKIP's Jayda Fransen for her miscarriage, to Amena Khan, the beauty blogger whose contract with L'Oreal ended because of her political opinions, and to Furheen Ashrif, dentist, Scot, and wife of Scottish Labour politician, Anas Sarwar.

This week, Sarwar went public about events that took place in summer 2017, in which a prominent Labour member revoked her support of Sarwar's bid for Scottish Labour leader after seeing his wife in hijab.

Sarwar also described how Davie McLachen told Sarwar that he couldn't back his bid, because Scotland wasn't ready for a "Brown Muslim Paki". McLachen has since been suspended from Scottish Labour, pending investigation.

Although McLachen's reported comments were explicitly racist and deeply concerning, there is a particularly telling perversion to the comments made about Furheen Ashrif's hijab, that have garnered far less attention.

The hijab is the chip on Britain's shoulder.

It doesn't matter whether it's on children imitating their parents, on mannequins in Debenhams, or on an NHS dentist who was born and raised in Scotland, we cannot get the hijab out of our head.

We say that we want Muslim women to be free, but only if it's a freedom that we recognise

Reporting the events of last summer, Sarwar said, "The point I would make about my wife is she was born in Scotland, she was raised in Scotland, she studied at Glasgow University, she is a dentist by profession, she works in the NHS… She is a Scot in every way possible and her identity is way more than what she chooses to wear on her head."

Britain's hijab obsession is rooted in the belief that we know better. It is modern-day secular colonialism. We say that we want Muslim women to be free, but only if it's a freedom that we recognise. Because what kind of person would willingly choose to wear the hijab?

But allowing people the right to live in a way that you wouldn't is the whole point of a pluralistic society. It is why I don't have a problem with any Brit who chooses to practice boxing, or work in IT and wear a suit every day, or go out drinking in clothes that don't protect them against the weather.

Because what makes Britain great is the right to choose to practice something that you would never choose for yourself. 

As a Muslim woman, my choices make no sense to some people. But that's okay. If nobody is forcing me into a boxing ring, or a starched collar, or a hijab every morning, then why does it matter?

Of course, the issue of consent should be high on our lists, no person should be forced into doing or wearing anything they don't wish to.

But knee-jerk disapproval, or assumption of coercion isn't going to help those who are forced into the hijab. Working with community leaders, imams and families, and funding resources that support all vulnerable women, on the other hand, will. 

These days, it's rare that we find cause to commend a politician. Defending his wife's (and his own) choices, Sarwar said, "What right do I have to dictate to any woman, far less my wife, about what she should and shouldn't wear? What a woman chooses to wear, how she chooses to express herself, how she chooses to present herself - either in public or private - is the right of that individual woman."

This attitude shows far more integration into modern British society than can be said for many of Sarwar's peers; last October, 36 British MPs were accused of sexually inappropriate behaviour towards journalists, colleagues and assistants. Their complaints ranged from sexual remarks and gestures, to harassment and sexual assault.

What would the reaction be if Sarwar forced his wife out of the hijab to further his political career? Or do we not have a problem with the Muslim men who force women out of the hijab?

Do we only have a problem when children are forced into hijab, as highlighted by the now-reversed hijab ban for primary school-age girls at St Stephen's School, London?

The ban was supported by the UK school regulator's chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, who accused religious extremists of "perverting" education, adding that, "under the pretext of religious belief, they use education institutions, legal and illegal, to narrow young people's horizons, to isolate and segregate, and in the worst cases to indoctrinate impressionable minds with extremist ideology".

What makes Britain great is the right to choose to practice something that you would never choose for yourself

Do we have a problem with hijabi women because of their failure to integrate, or do they still make us uncomfortable even when they appear in our Christmas television adverts, when they win our baking competitions, when they present the evening news?

Because for all the calls for integration, perfectly British women like Furheen Ashrif, who contribute positively to their community and engage in its betterment are still seen as a stain on the fabric of British society.

Maybe we aren't concerned about the coercion of Muslim women after all. Maybe we are very happy for Muslim women to live in this country, just so long as they integrate, so long as they hide their religion, so long as we don't have to see the chip on our shoulder.

Ruqaya Izzidien is a British-Iraqi freelance writer specialising in social and cultural affairs. Her work has been published in The New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC and Al Jazeera English, and her upcoming novel is entitled The Watermelon Boys.

Follow her on Twitter: @RuqayaIzzidien

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.