Spare us the World Hijab Day tokenism, and listen to us instead

Spare us the World Hijab Day tokenism, and listen to us instead
Comment: The FCO event reminds us that Muslims are only ever discussed in binary. We are secular, liberated and good, or religious, extreme and bad, writes Ruqaya Izzidien.
5 min read
13 Feb, 2018
The UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office invited employees to wear the hijab for a day[Getty]
On 1 February, the UK Foreign Office marked World Hijab Day by inviting  all employees to wear the hijab for a day.

In the week that followed, the government department headed by Boris Johnson faced growing criticism that taxpayer money was spent on the event. Meanwhile in Iran, women were protesting the mandatory hijab.

In an internal email, staff were asked "Would you like to try on a hijab or learn why Muslim women wear the headscarf? Come along to our walk-in event."

Employees were told that "Muslim women, along with followers of many other religions, choose to wear the hijab. Many find liberation, respect and security through wearing it. #StrongInHijab. Join us for #WorldHijabDay."

Attendees who wore the hijab for part of the day, were allowed to keep the headscarf.

Conservative Party MP Andrew Bridgen criticised the move, saying "I'd like to know whose bright idea this was. It is ridiculous, a complete waste of taxpayers' money and not the business of a government department."

Between 27 December and 2 February, 29 Iranian women were arrested for appearing in public without their headscarves. Critics of International Hijab Day lauded the hijab protests, and condemned the Foreign Office for promoting the oppression of women.

But the discussion around the event only reinforces the good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy.

Frankly, it is a little boring to have what we wear discussed at length week in, week out

Muslims do not exist only in extremes. Not all women in hijab are oppressed, and not all those without it are liberated. The hijab doesn't need to be celebrated by the Foreign Office, nor condemned by those who hate Islam.

Most British women in hijab would prefer that the hijab were ignored, as discussion of its role in Britain is only ever considered in these polemic extremes. And, frankly, it is a little boring to have what we wear discussed at length week in, week out.

Critics of the event called for the department to hold a No Hijab Day in solidarity with Iranian women, which, presumably, would look like every other day at the Foreign Office.

Others suggested that Muslim women should go hijabless so that they can experience the world without a headscarf, since it is well known that hijabs are donned in utero and no Muslim woman could possibly know what it's like to walk around without one. Personally, I haven't seen my hair since 1993.

Read more: The hijab is a chip on Britain's shoulder

The Iranian women choosing to discard their veils in the name of freedom of choice are undeniably brave. So too are the Iranian women who prefer to wear the veil, but protest in solidarity with those who do not. These are levels of courage that should not be underestimated.

But there are other, smaller, kinds of courage too.

Persisting in wearing the hijab every day, when your peers, your colleagues and your society tells you that anyone in a hijab is a combination of oppressed, stupid and evil - that takes courage too. And perhaps that is what the Foreign Office was aiming for with their event.

World Hijab Day was established by Muslims, and aims to promote understanding of the hijab. There is something to be said for good intentions, and World Hijab Day does challenge the prevalent social code in non-Muslim majority countries that the best Muslim is one who is invisible.

These days, a Muslim woman who removes the hijab can expect to be congratulated for escaping, even when she removes it against her own wishes.

The reaction to the Foreign Office event is disheartening for those among us who freely choose to wear the hijab. It reminds us that Muslims can only ever be discussed in binary. We are secular, liberated and good, or we are religious, extreme and bad.

But, oddly, I find myself in agreement with the right-wing whatabouters who have condemned the Foreign Office. For all their good intentions, what is the point in offering people free headscarves and the experience of wearing a hijab for the day?

There are better ways of expressing solidarity with Muslim women. It plays into the misconception that you cannot understand or appreciate something unless you do it yourself - the kind of attitude that paves the way for appropriation and speaking over minorities.

Read more: Token brown faces are not what Muslim women want

Wearing a hijab does not enable you to walk faster, or reach a higher shelf, or eat more dessert. It doesn't change anything about the wearer, and that should be obvious.

What it does affect, is how society views and treats you. It's not uncommon to be subjected to prejudiced and racist comments when you wear the hijab, but why must non-Muslims experience this for themselves in order to believe Muslim women when we tell them so?  

Anyone at the Foreign Office who wishes to know what it is like to wear a hijab need only listen to the thousands of British Muslim voices.

So, though well-meaning, spare us the World Hijab Day tokenism, and, instead, listen to us when we tell you the struggles we face with the hijab: When we're being compelled to wear or remove the hijab, when we face discrimination, or when we're just having a bad hijab day.

Amplify our voices, instead of speaking for us.  

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.