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.

The Unspeakable: HIV/AIDS in the Muslim Community

The health issue of HIV and AIDS is generally one that evokes emotion amongst those affected, their families and the wider society. Similarly, it is not one of the topics, themes or issues I usually discuss (perhaps due to its highly personal nature). This topic is especially sensitive and considered a cultural taboo by some members of the Muslim community, which is largely due to the stigma and stereotypes attached to those who are living with HIV. The unwillingness to discuss this issue may result in some sufferers hiding from their loved ones the fact that they have the virus – in turn living with the disease in silence.

HIV is an acronym for Human Immunodeficiency Virus; it is a virus that weakens the body’s defence system impeding it from being able to successfully fight infections and diseases. It is the virus that exists in bodily fluids such as blood, vaginal discharge and semen which leads to AIDS. AIDS is acronym for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, in which the person who has developed AIDS is affected by certain infections and cancers because their body’s defences are weakened. According to statistics from the UNAIDS Global Project (2013), in the MENA (Middle East & North Africa) 260,000 are living with HIV in which 3,000 of new diagnoses are amongst children. In South & South East Asia there are 3.9 million people living which HIV positive with 21,000 new HIV diagnoses amongst children, and 222,000 AIDS-related deaths.

Contrary to popular misconceptions regarding HIV, one will not be infected with the HIV virus through everyday actions such as: handshaking, sneezing, coughing, sharing cutlery and crockery nor kissing. Rather HIV can be obtained through more intimate contact such as from an infected mother to her baby (womb, through breastfeeding or during labour), unprotected sex or through sharing unsterilised injection equipment. Likewise it is a disease that is not limited to people who are homosexual, those who are heterosexual can also be capable of contracting the virus.  

 

Why HIV/AIDS is not discussed much within the Muslim community?

Generally speaking sexual matters are not something that is widely and openly discussed within the Muslim community for a plethora of reasons, but the main reasons are due to cultural sensitivities and cultural perceptions of modesty as opposed to Islam as a religion.

Under the guise of causing “controversy”, “temptation” or “distress”, there has been reluctance amongst some members of the Muslim community to discuss sexual matters such as HIV that affect Muslims not just in the Muslim world, but also here in the UK. This does nothing to ameliorate the condition of those who suffer from the virus, but rather fosters a climate of fear, desolation and apprehension to manifest, therefore making it harder for those vulnerable to gain support and medical help. While it is accepted that when discussing intimate matters such as sexual health modesty should be ensured, this should not be used as a shield to restrict people from giving attention to such issues in order to placate the cultural sensitivities of a few. Additionally, stigmatising and developing a judgmental attitude towards those who have contracted HIV does little to give them support – by judging these people you do not define them, but rather yourself. Within the community it is unfortunate that some people have just about as much sympathy as a school of piranhas, it seems that the Islamic teachings of mercy and compassion as exemplified in the character of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) may have slipped their memory and practice.

Modesty in Islam does not negate the discussion of intimate and sexual matters. Evidence for this can be seen within the life and ways of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), in which both men and women alike did not feel embarrassed in discussing sexual matters and personal hygiene issues in order to obtain beneficial knowledge. During the times of the Prophet, there were instances where women would come to the Prophet in private regarding personal matters pertaining to menstruation and female personal hygiene. The Prophet (pbuh) has said, “Blessed are the women of the Ansar (citizens of Madinah): shyness did not stand in their way for seeking knowledge about their religion.” (Bukhari & Muslim)

 

What can the Muslim Community to help?

Although Islamic teachings make sexual contact between married couples permissible, one should not be oblivious or develop selective amnesia to the fact that there are people within the British Muslim community who are not as practicing in comparison to others. There are Muslims that have premarital and extramarital relationships. These practices are apparent and they do occur, such actions are contrary to Islamic practice and should be abhorred. In our behaviour towards Muslims living with HIV and AIDS we should show compassion towards these individuals, and should not be shun, condemn or socially ostracise them. In helping those affected, further information can and should be provided to their loved ones and the wider community on ways to support them medically, spiritually and emotionally so they also can feel part of the Muslim community. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) once said: “It is compassion which Allah has placed in the hearts of His slaves, Allah is Compassionate only to those among His slaves who are compassionate (to others).”

Education amongst members of the Muslim community, especially amongst the elders, would be immensely beneficial in dispelling misconceptions concerning those with HIV but also gaining a generational understanding – perhaps in their time it was a virus not widespread. Additionally there should also be appeals made to Muslim religious community and public figures such as scholars, speakers and imams in raising the much needed awareness as to those living with HIV and AIDS through their lectures and publications.

As the issue is something that cannot be hidden, it is only hoped that by initiating discussion and actively supporting those affected that the situation can be alleviated – unless we initiate dialogue the cycle continues. 

Making a case for the Interfaith child: Debunking myths, stereotypes and rhetoric

Perhaps one of the topics that are not as often discussed is that of interfaith children and their experiences, especially those relating to Muslim/Christian marriages as opposed to Jewish/Christian marriages. Interfaith children are those who are growing up (or interfaith adult for those who have grown up) where either parents are of different faiths – or one parent has no religious affiliation. Within the British Muslim community, there are many children, young people and adults who are growing up or have grown up in a household where their father is a Muslim and their mother is of another faith which is usually (although not exclusively) Christian or Jewish. Interfaith children arouse wonderment and awe often being subjected to a lot of questions about how they “survived” growing up, what made them chose their faith (or the lack of) and if they “feel” more of one faith than the other.

While it appreciated that interfaith children may have certain life experiences that perhaps somebody that has grown up in a single faith family may not have encountered, some interfaith children have had negative experiences within the British Muslim community. Some interfaith children and adults may recall instances where some members of the Muslim community did not make them feel welcome, or did not consider them “really Muslim”. While it is accepted that professing to be Muslim cannot be Christian simultaneously, the fact that a child or adult comes from an interfaith background is something that should not be turned into an issue of contention.

Aren’t you confused?

One of the many (patronising) questions that people who have grown up in interfaith environments and households get asked concerning their upbringing is whether they are “confused” or how they “survived”. Conversely, some are inundated with questions as to whether they have an affinity towards one faith as opposed to another – this can often play into the boundaries of emotional tennis. Growing up with an interfaith background does not always necessarily lead to confusion, rather the experiences and advantages of growing up interfaith children have is that of literacy in both religions – a dual faith education.

This is especially helpful in demystifying misconceptions and media driven rhetoric pertaining to Islam, and engaging the wider society in understanding. As a second generation interfaith child and convert to Islam, I have benefited immensely from a dual faith education. It has been especially helpful to me in actively defending and making a case for Islam and using my Catholic education for dialogue and comparative religion, along with breaking down stereotypes of Muslim women in everything I do.

Does it create disunity?

Growing up in an interfaith setting promotes a sense of transparency concerning the different faiths, especially when a child or young person reaches the age of reasoning and is capable of acknowledging the differences between the two faiths in deciding which faith to follow. Due to be raised in an interfaith family, children being raised as Muslim or have decided to convert to Islam, can serve to educate their non-muslim relatives and friends about the religion. This does not always mean that one has to be overly proselytising, but in a climate where there are a lot of negative opinions against Muslims, something as simple as your good actions and approach may alter the opinions that some hold.

As to the misconception that being raised as an interfaith child may create disunity, in a lot of cases it is often the contrary. This is because when two parents are of different faiths, the need to maintain harmony and cohesion especially where children are present fosters a climate for understanding to ensue, as a child’s early experiences of difference and diversity will start in their home environment. Having said this, it should not be disregarded that there are some instances where disharmony in an interfaith marriage do occur and while this is the case, how it is tackled it more character defining than the problem itself. Dialogue, patience and understanding are vital in ameliorating situations that may give rise to the possibilities of conflict, thus maintaining tolerance and peaceful co-existence.

You have a “watered down” understanding and implementation of Islam

Some interfaith children and adults can be subjected to pre-judgements and assumptions that their understanding and implementation of Islam is not as “pure” in comparison to those who have grown up in household where both parents are Muslim. In making these presuppositions this does not define them, rather this is character defining for the person who held such an idea. God knows best as to the internal state and religious observance of an individual, we do not have jurisdiction to adjudicate on such a matter. In many experiences of interfaith children, especially my own, being raised in an interfaith environment could mean that the non-Muslim mother can be supportive in aiding the child to become a diligent and practicing Muslim. How many instances and images have you seen of the non-Muslim mother taking her children to the Madrasa to enhance the Islamic education of her children? How many times do you find it the case that a non-Muslim mother is more encouraging towards her children becoming upright and practicing Muslims than some Muslim mothers who discourage such practices and are not practicing themselves?

Unfortunately, these attitudes are hindering many Muslim children with interfaith backgrounds from becoming integrated and accepted into their religious community. Religious observance is not solely down to the parents one has, but rather it is the commitment, love and conviction (along with piety) that one has toward the religion of Islam that is the true defining factor in your relationship and standing with God.

In debunking the misconceptions regarding Muslim children who have grown up in interfaith environments, more should be done to make them feel more welcome and included in the British Muslim community. They represent a rising trend that may lead to the gap understanding and tolerance being bridged, the potential for children and adults with such backgrounds make then not only outstanding exemplars of tolerance in Islam, but tomorrows leading orators and defenders of Islamic monotheism.

 

Are some members of the Muslim Community becoming “unmosqued”?

The term “unmosqued” is a colloquial term used for those who, identify themselves as Muslims and still affiliate with Islam, but have never or recently become detached from the mosque and the mosque culture. This term is also referred to those Muslims who have stopped participating in the mosque, mainly (but not exclusively) due to the disappointments experienced as a result of the attitudes of some of its members. This is not to imply that these individuals do not pray or observe other Islamic mandates, ultimately Allah knows best as to their internal state, it is just the case that the mosque may not play a very focal role in their lives anymore.

Although no official Islamic organisation or body has actually compiled statistics or quantitative research as to the amount of people who have become unmosqued, many relate their experiences via social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook with blogs and articles featured in leading newspapers such as The Huffington Post. Additionally there had been a documentary entitled “Unmosqued” filmed and released in the US detailing the experience of some Muslims who feel unmosqued.

Sadly, this seems to be an issue that is also present in the British Muslim community and not as often discussed in comparison to the American Muslim community. The reasons as to why it is the case that some members of our Muslim community have become unmosqued, is something that cannot be put down to one single issue, rather it is something that is multifaceted and needs to be explored objectively. It is also an issue with its reasons differing from person to person on its own set of circumstances.

The attitudes and conduct of regular mosque attendees has often been cited as one of the many reasons contributing to a generation of people becoming unmosqued. For example, some have been inundated with instances of some regular attendees of the mosque (whether consciously or subconsciously) asserting a superiority complex over those that they may deem ‘less practicing’. This can become more apparent, especially among sisters, where one sister does not observe the hijab and may be made to feel inferior to those who do. Similarly, even amongst those who wear hijab or niqab, there may be issues made about how one may wear their hijab as opposed to another – thus the debate on modesty commencing and rearing its ugly head once again. In relation to brothers, there is the age old “beard vs. non-beard” issue that some may have. This is mainly illustrated when a brother who may make a valid contribution on a contentious topic, or even just simply walk in to perform ablution and prayer, receives stares and criticism from some members of the mosque due to the fact that he may not have beard or not wear traditional Islamic dress. So the way somebody dresses adds more validity to their point? In both scenarios given, this further alienates those who are trying to become more practicing of the faith as they feel that they have nothing to offer the masjid, but also may deter others from wanting to contribute to such discussions as a way of gaining knowledge.

“Mosque politics” is also something that is turning many away from having a feeling of belonging to religious institutions. Mosque politics manifests in various forms such as culture taking precedence over religion. Examples of this are demonstrated when it comes to decisions such as who will be elected on the next committee and of what ethnic background. This is also seen where some members of the mosque may speak languages other than English and in some cases form cliques in accordance to ethnicity and race. From the perspective of those who do not belong to the given ethnicity or speak the particular language, those who are converts and the youth can feel a sense of isolation from their fellow siblings in faith and may be less inclined to go to the mosque. The wider implications of this can lead to some rethinking whether the religion they became part of is as accepting as they thought.

Equally young people may develop the idea of the mosque being only for older people, and therefore something that the youth can only become a part of when they get older. What sort of message does this transmit to our youth? For many of these people the masjid is meant to be a haven for where they can seek comfort, spiritual help and unity but instead becomes a place synonymous with division, control and negativity.

The attitudes some members of the mosque hold towards women contributes to some women becoming unmosqued. In some British mosques there have been complaints about the inadequate prayer facilities for women, in some cases women’s prayer space are restricted to smaller than average rooms sizes or sometimes no space made available for women to pray. Some women have related extreme instances where they have been turned away. There is the general consensus amongst Muslims that Friday congregational prayers for Taariq ibn Shihaab (may Allah be pleased with him) according to which the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “Jumu’ah is a duty that is required of every Muslim in congregation, except four: a slave, a woman, a child or one who is sick.”(Narrated by Abu Dawud, hadith no. 91067). This hadith is declared authentic (sahih) by Bukhari and Muslim.

However, while this is the case, this should not preclude Muslim women from having a space provided for them by members of the Mosque and neither should they be turned away. These practices are more culturally orientated as opposed having any Islamic basis, and are therefore contrary to the teachings of Islam. Correspondingly, the exclusion of women from the mosque often results in women being silent and absent figures in the Muslim community. The resonating effect this may have upon the perceptions of young Muslim girls is that they may internalise the idea that they should not and cannot have a functional role within the mosque and the Muslim community at large.

Imams can, to a lesser extent, be instrumental in fostering an environment for some people becoming unmosqued. Some imams have a reluctance to tackle issues that affect the community they serve and the international Muslim community at large. While there  is an appreciation that some topics may be taboo causing awkwardness and discomfort, it does not negate the fact that these are issues that affect members of the Muslim community. These should be discussed in order to facilitate reflection and dialogue needed to solve the problem. Imams within many communities across the world are instrumental in creating a sense of cohesion, and by tackling culturally taboo topics and addressing the problems the members of the Muslim community experience this can make the mosque a more inclusive place.

The problem of people becoming unmosqued in the British Muslim community is something that, hopefully after reading this, should ignite dialogue in trying to ameliorate this issue and help both the disconnected and the attached reconnect once again.

Bridge the Gap.