Analysing World Hijab Day: Is it a form of Cultural and Religious Appropriation?

The 1st of February 2015 marked the world’s first “World Hijab Day”, with the aims to foster tolerance, interfaith dialogue and understanding to engage the wider society as to the daily trials and tribulations of Muslim women who experience Islamophobia due to observing the Islamic prescribed requirement of hijab. The idea for this day came from an American Muslim woman called Nazma Khan, in which she explained the reason as to why there was a need to create this day and campaign. It is common knowledge that for women who wear hijab, they are amongst the most vulnerable and are more likely to be victims of Islamophobic abuse in comparison to their male counterparts.

In the midst of the social media support that many have given for World Hijab Day, as exemplified in the numerous Facebook posts and hashtag Tweets trending the topic, it can make both the non-Muslim observer and fellow Muslims wonder as whether such day holds tenability in truly creating an understanding as to hardships endured by Muslim women. As much as one can sympathise and support the aims behind World Hijab Day, there are legitimate grounds for one to think that are elements of appropriation. Furthermore, this is an opinion shared by many, but voiced by few. In analysing World Hijab Day, it is in no way undermining the achievements of the campaign, neither is it a form of criticism. It is just simply exploring the other side of the coin: the alternative viewpoint others may have.

The first ground in which it could be argued that World Hijab Day does entail elements of appropriation would be the unrealistic results it may yield. Participating in such an event or practice in itself does not give you an authentic first-hand experience of the daily trials and tribulations that a veiled Muslim woman, (irrespective of race, ethnicity, age or socio-economic status) experiences just for wearing a hijab. Neither does it negate the fact that Islamophobic abuse, especially towards Muslim women, is a disconcerting and growing problem. Rather what would be more constructive would be to talk to a veiled Muslim woman (colloquially referred to a as a “hijabi”) and genuinely listen to her concerns, this would give a more valuable insight and understanding as to the realities of being a Muslim woman living in the West.

Additionally, for those who have been unfortunate in being a victim of Islamophobic abuse with all its emotional and psychological effects, why would such a person invite another to experience what this is like?                                                          In the instance that a non-Muslim participant in World Hijab Day incurs any Islamophobic abuse she could easily advance the excuse that she is just engaging in a social experiment, with the perpetrator backing off and perhaps apologising for ‘catching the wrong one’. Furthermore, the participant may equally appreciate the relief of not really being a Muslim woman and having to endure more abuse. Conversely, while the participant may have experienced what Islamophobia may entail, a Muslim woman may not be able to enjoy the same level of relief as she cannot deny being a Muslim but also because in the more than likely event the perpetrator of the attack would not stop their attack.

The effect that World Hijab Day may have upon the wider society, particularly in those living in Muslim minority countries, is that it diminishes the notion of hijab and the act of wearing it, to being something that can be casually worn by anybody any time they felt like doing so. It strips away the religious reverence it has and the reason as to why it is worn – because it is an act of worship (ibadah). By doing this, it may contribute to the ignorance that some members of society, and within the Muslim community, have about the hijab as a garment – further obscuring the lines of fact and fiction, culture and Islam. Although there is a margin of appreciation exercised for non-Muslim women and those Muslim women who do not wear hijab (and are considering wearing it on a permanent basis), the best way to find out first-hand what it is like is to not confine it just World Hijab day, but any other of the 364 days available in the year. If the intent is sincere and the consideration is one you have made for the sake of your Creator, surely you would not wait for one specific day to do this.

World Hijab Day arguably plays into the hands of Islamophobes and the never-ending media sensationalism of the hijab with its negative connotation to oppression. Have you not noticed how other faiths do not have an “[insert whatever faith related topic/issue or garment] World Day”?  Anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic hate crime is also another issue faced by members of the Jewish community (especially Orthodox Jews), yes, even in the 21st century Britain we reside in. But you do not see the men of the wider society dressing up in the Jewish tallit (shawl) or kippah (headcap) or the women in a tischel (headscarf) to gain an experience of those Jews who are recipients of anti-Semitism. The issue with this is that it breeds a culture of seeking validation in order for veiled women to be also seen as “normal” and therefore accepted by Western society. This exemplifies the idea of Muslims as being the “other” category – different by default.  The fact of the matter is that a veiled woman are just like any other woman; the difference is that she does not look to society to validate her choices of clothing; rather she seeks it from a higher power – despite being socially ostracised and receiving abuse for it.

The bottom line is that in order to gain an insight into the experiences of Muslim women, society is going to have to do more than have a World Hijab Day to understand the hardships and struggles endured. It is through active engagement and giving these women a platform to speak, as opposed to the media and other non-Muslim members of society telling them about the issues that affect them, that the problem really be tackled head on.

Should Nationalism and Anti-Black racism be an issue to be concerned about in the British Muslim community?

Racism and nationalism is one of the many callous and challenging aspects of human behaviour that can affect people individually, and whole communities and nations collectively. Particularly for those living in societies that are racially and ethnically heterogeneous, many people living in countries that are more racially homogenous may assume two things: firstly, that living in a country that is more racially diverse means racism is not likely to be a problem thus fostering a climate for peaceful co-existence to occur. On the other, there are some that assume that living in a racially plural society may make the propensity for racism and discrimination to permeate.

The root of racism is built upon the foundations of having a superiority complex over another due to one’s ethnicity or race, and therefore assuming that this makes one better than another.

Perhaps the earliest demonstration of such mentality can be found in the story of Prophet Adam (peace and blessings be upon him) when Satan refused to prostrate, because he believed that due to being made of fire – something aluminous – made him more worthy than Adam who was crafted from clay. Racism is an age old issue that even in today’s so called modern world affects various nations and peoples, which manifests in various forms irrespective of socio-economic background or gender. While history shows the problems incurred in trying the ameliorate the issue of racism and nationalism, the teachings of Islam derived from the Sunnah (ways) of the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) and Quranic text has addressed such problems early on. This is exemplified in various aspects of the Qur’an and famously in the Prophet’s last sermon.

Centuries have passed since the last sermon, but it seems the issue is something that continues to resonate within the British Muslim community. While many agree that discussing racial prejudice and nationalism is somewhat a subject that can cause awkwardness and discomfort, by refusing to acknowledge this issue exacerbates the situation resulting in the problem still not being solved.

 

Confronting the Issue

On Wednesday 12th February 2014, there was a Twitter discussion (which was also featured on al-Jazeera’s “The Stream” segment) initiated by the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative in the USA under the hashtag #BeingBlackAndMuslim. The discussion was on the issues and problems experienced by Black American Muslims in the American Muslim community, with contributions to the discussion made by many people all over the world including the UK, Middle East, Asia and mainland Europe. Perhaps the reason as to why this discussion was spearheaded by the American Muslim community is because it is a challenging issue that American Muslims face and demonstrate more of a willingness to talk about.

The discussion was vital in highlighting the issue as many recounted experiences of racism being displayed in many ways. For example, Black American Muslim male contributors’ related experiencing racism through stereotyping and name calling (terms such as “abeed[1]” were commonly cited). This was more pronounced amongst those males who were converts to Islam, and were assumed to have converted to Islam in prison or through the Nation of Islam (NOI). This was also experienced when making enquiries for marriage, in which many were turned down by virtue of their race. This sort of stereotyping within the American Muslim community normalises the notion that Islam is only sought by black men in times of adversity and identity crisis, as opposed to seeking clarity and spirituality. Likewise it reinforced the long-held stereotype of black men as being synonymous with criminality and incarceration.

Black female Muslims related experiences of racism particularly when it came to marriage. Some stated instances of not receiving as many marriage proposals as their white and Hispanic counterparts as well as feeling marginalised by the American Muslim community. Again, this was largely attributed to stereotypes of black women (especially those who appear assertive) as being ‘loud’ or the ‘angry black woman’.  Human Rights advocate and political blogger Dawud Walid joined the discussion tweeting: The most marginalized person in the American Muslim community is the Black female Muslim.”

 

Should this concern the British Muslim community?

The issue of inter-Muslim racism and nationalism is something that should concern the British Muslim community as this problem affects many of its members, but what are even more disconcerting are the responses of justification that are used to provide an alibi for such un-Islamic behaviour. While there is no such basis for racial superiority in Islam, to some extent these practices have been normalised within certain cultures of the Muslim community such as the caste system based on skin colour hierarchy and using this as a benchmark to decide how others should be treated. This is further exacerbated with the promotion of fair skin and Caucasian features as being the epitome of beauty, and the products marketed (both legitimately and illegitimately) in order to achieve this. If anybody within the Muslim community should be judged it should not be upon the colour of their skin but rather their level of taqwa (God-consciousness).

Also the fact that some religious institutions such as mosques are informally referred to as being for a certain ethnicity or race is quite sad as it fosters a climate for nationalism to become more apparent, often at the expense of alienating some members of the Muslim community.

 

Responses to Anti-Black Racism and Nationalism

The responses to the issue are quite mixed of which may differ between persons; therefore it would not be fitting to conclude that there is one general response. However, among the various responses to the issue of nationalism and racism is the common one of denial. This is usually demonstrated through the use of various pieces of Islamic text, Prophet’s last sermon and of course not forgetting the all-time favourite of citing Bilal (RA) as the exemplar for racial plurality. Although discrimination is something contrary to the teachings of Islam, this does not seem to correspond with the actions of some Muslims. Using the examples mentioned to deny the fact that racism is an issue dividing the British Muslim community is turning a blind eye to the oppression faced by fellow brothers and sisters in the deen in favour of appeasing the sensitivities of those who are guilty of such behaviour.

These sorts of responses are not helpful in tackling the problem rather they serve to hinder dialogue in trying to ameliorate the situation, therefore allowing the problem to continue. Perhaps the most constructive approach to the problem is not to deny its existence, but to adopt a sense of unity in tackling it. The foundations for this lie in building awareness and placing an emphasis on how Islam is universal and not allowing one’s personal or cultural sensitivities to take precedence. In addition, some focus should be made in religious sermons, schools and by community figures to discuss this issue further and educate the rest of the community on the contributions made by historical figures in Islam who were of various racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Considering all the issues that Muslims, not just within Britain, but on a worldwide scale have to endure such as the media vilification of Islam and the systematic oppression of fellow Muslims in the Muslim world you would assume that unity should be more widespread. And rightly it should, as exemplified in Allah’s statement in the Qur’an:

“The believers are nothing else than brothers (in Islamic religion). So make reconciliation between your brothers, and fear Allah, that you may receive mercy.” – Surah Al-Ĥujurāt, verse 10.

Unless we act upon the above verse, the problem will be yet another centrifugal force which serves to create more disunity in the Muslim community – with cycle and the chains of ignorance unbroken.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Abeed is an Arabic term in Arabic meaning “slave”. This is usually used in an insulting context people of African origin to attribute stereotypes. The term can also be used to describe black people in general.

Benefit Street: A normalised practice of vilifying the economically vulnerable

It seems like Benefit Street is the new show on everybody’s lips, I mean everybody from your nan to work colleagues to even teens in the playground – it’s all everybody’s been talking about …and not always for the right reasons. The show which features the residents of the now infamous James Turner Street in Birmingham and how they survive in their day to day life on welfare. Many critics from both the Left and the Right have had mixed opinions upon the show, with the critics from the Right often claiming that the snapshot into the lives of the residents is a representation of how many are cheating the system, displaying a lack of motivation to better themselves and contribute to society “living in an age of entitlement”. Whereas members of the Left offering a more sympathetic side, citing  the notion that the show does nothing more than act as a distraction and opiate to the real issues of government incompetence – in turn pitting communities against each other.

It seems that Benefit Street (arguable extending to Channel 4 executives), is following a pattern of rhetoric that seems to not only grab wide viewership through sensationalism but rather seems to fit well considering the current economic climate and the dissatisfaction held among many….ah what better way to vent out your frustration than upon the underclass? This isn’t just subjected to the Channel 4 bosses either as other media outlets such as the BBC and Channel 5, who’ve produced programmes such as “People Like Us” (targeting a community living on an estate in Harpurhey, Manchester), “Benefits and Proud” respectively have followed this same correlation in order to gain viewership by image distortion. Some of the characters on Benefit Street may be reminiscent of personalities and people that we may know of, of course I won’t pretend like these types of people don’t exist, but to tar a segment of society with the same brush presenting a biased and vilified image is anything but fair – and speaking from the experience of being a Muslim it’s something I know only too well.

While the programme has attracted widespread criticism, I do say, there have been some moments where the programme has illuminated certain social issues that permeate within our society, for example the ongoing demonization and exploitation of migrant workers and immigration (particularly of those from Eastern Europe). It’s ever so easy to sit there in your recliner chair drinking your evening mug of tea complaining about the hardships you’ve endured especially with regard to employment and housing availabilities, and attribute these difficulties to immigration. The second episode of the show highlighted how many migrant workers demonstrated a willingness to work and in some cases entrepreneurial zeal in order to alleviate themselves from their financially dire situations. For example, the overcrowding house of 14 Romanians who collected cans from scrap and even creating a business in order to survive only to receive abuse by some of the residents, who ironically weren’t making any efforts of their own to find employment. Furthermore these men were enticed and brought over with the prospect of working for £40 per day, only to be conned and exploited by their employer and paid £10.

Another heart-breaking scene, involving a small boy belonging to another Romanian family who was the only English-speaking member negotiate restoring his electricity with a slum landlord after it had been cut off.

The fact of the matter is unfortunately it’s become a normalised practice to mercilessly victimise and vilify society’s most vulnerable members. Some of the residents of James Turner Street have even received death threats and other forms of verbal intimidation, and subjected to online abuse by users of social media outlets such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. My theory is that this is deliberately done to act as a distraction and opiate from the hypocritical practices that go on within the economic and political system, it’s much easier to blame your woes on those less fortunate. These types of programmes divert us from the many practices committed by some of the wealthy, such as tax evasion and the financial blunders of those in the banking sector…but yet ordinary citizens have to pay for their mistakes while they continue to prosper?

What’s more, the show had left many members of the public wrongly informed about the harsh realities of living on welfare. Statistics from the 2013 Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion indicate that in the financial year 2013/14, an estimated 2.6 million families (8% of families in the UK) saw their benefit entitlement cut as a result of three welfare reforms, losing an average of £16.60. The benefit cut which had the most resonating impact was the change to Council Tax support in April 2013, in which those affected were already living in poverty. Of the 660,000 families hit by the so-called “bedroom tax” two thirds also had their Council Tax support cut.

As disconcerting as these statistics may be, the diatribes upon the underclass must be come to an end as we illuminate our mind to investigate not only the reality of poverty but we must get to the root of the cause. We may not be able to prevent it from happening but as a community at large we can aim to help those affected and collectively hold those in power accountable.