April 17, 2011 § 2 Comments
over the last few days I’ve been acutely, painfully aware of how easy it is, as a Muslim in Britain, to feel utterly helpless in the face of a barrage of sterotypes – both imagined and in-your-face real. It makes you want to run screaming through the streets and hide in a corner all at the same time.
On Thursday I came across this advert from the International Society of Human Rights. On first glance, some bin bags at the side of the road. Look again, and one of them is a woman in a burqa. The caption at the bottom reads “Opressed women are easily overlooked” (and underneath – support us in the fight for their rights). That image made me feel physically sick and I am still struggling to work out exactly why. It’s clever, sure. But it is also utterly demeaning. In trying to show (presumably) that the burqa objectifies women, what it actually does is imply that what a woman is is entirely dependent on how others perceive her – whether this woman (or, by extension, any veiled Muslim woman, because of course the image is a symbol) made her own choices or not is irrelevant. She doesn’t exist because people don’t see her. The image does two things which turn my stomach: 1) it insists that Muslim women are victims. And this may be difficult to understand, but even as a Muslim woman who doesn’t wear any kind of veil in day-to-day life, it is like a personal attack on me and my life choices. In trying to help, it only suceeds in alienating. 2) it makes a woman a non-entity, it objectifies her in every sense of the word, far more than any burqa or piece of clothing could (in fact, in the Afghan society that the image seeks to allude to, the burqa is what makes a woman visible as a woman, it doesn’t negate her existence). It assumes that there is only one kind of oppression, and only one kind of liberation. I think it’s dangerous to forget that oppression lies in the discriminatory attitudes towards women that lead to the burqa (or any manner of clothing or behaviour) being enforced, not in the clothing itself. I recoil from any concept that someone else can dictate the terms of your liberation. It’s one thing to support women to access their rights and determine their own choices, it’s quite another to tell them what their choices should be.
Friday I had another stomach-curling experience. Heading towards Regents Park Mosque after Friday prayers, I and a couple of friends encountered a gathering of protestors outside the mosque gates (a little caveat here – a sign inside the mosque grounds states that no political gatherings are allowed). Google reveals that the group has a name – Muslims against the Crusades. The Muslim version of the EDL, then. One of the black and white printed signs explained the reason for this protest – “Terry Jones burn in Hell!” So they heard about Pastor Jones’ little reported (sometimes the media does get it right) Qur’an-burning spectacle all the way in Florida. Pointelessness of the sign aside, I can understand why his blatant disrespect for Islam and Muslims got these people angry. But talk about self-fulfilling prophecy. We spoke to some of the women protestors, trying to ask what they were hoping to achieve with their angry shouty protest (ok, at this point I was assuming it would be angry and shouty. Turned out I was right). I’m still not sure they had any answer, let alone one that made sense. As the protestors started to march, the other signs revealed themselves – “Islam will dominate the world” / “Muslims will annihalate the Crusaders” and one I can’t quite remember about democracy destroying things – a little ironic since the protestors were expressing their democratic right to freedom of speech and being protected by a bunch of non-Muslim policemen while they did. There were some less aggressive signs too, but the general sense was of a loud, threatening mob.
Watching the people come out of cafes along Baker Street to watch the spectacle (and record it on mobile phones for YouTube later…), we debated what we could do – 2 women in hijab and me against the presumptions of the public and the idiots making all those presumptions appear true. Should we try to talk to the protestors? The woman making a video on her phone? One of the girls suggested hijacking the megaphone. In the end, she went up to the group and tried to talk to one of the guys (what she was planning to say is beyond me!) – only to be told disdainfully to “talk to the sisters!” – at which point we realised that this march was segregated! Men at the front, a gap of about a metre, a giant banner, and then all the women – 99% niqab-wearers. Yikes. Surely this is enough to demonstrate to everyone watching that the protest represents a tiny minority of UK Muslims? As we walk away (my friend in tears) , the tightness in my gut says probably not. The people who watched this protest will just see Muslims, living in this country and hating it. The curse of this world is that those who shout the loudest are the only ones anyone takes notice of. All the rest of the Muslims, at home, at work, in the mosque, in the park with their kids, are invisible, getting on with life like everyone else and regularly finding themselves at the receiving end of torrents of verbal and physical abuse because of the actions of this minority and the assumptions of the general public.
Which brings me to today, and the story of a woman and her family in Scotland, attacked because of her hijab. Any rise in racism in Scotland, that most tolerant of countries, sets my hair on edge. I don’t even know who to blame anymore, but I’m inclined to point the finger at “us” – the Muslims who shout and those who don’t, the right-wing fearmongers and the rest of us who watch and shake out heads at the TV, the bile spouted by the Daily Mail and those who innocently read it thinking it’s “news”… 95% of the time I am sure that whatever I or anyone else does to counter the negativity, our voices will get drowned out. The rest of the time I carry on trying to do something anyway and hope for the best. If we look to history, we might still find a way to learn.