Top BBC Muslim broadcaster says no to Islamic dress code
One of Britain’s most high-profile Muslim woman broadcasters has spoken out against the post-9/11 Muslim fixation.
By Hasan Suroor
London: One of Britain’s most high-profile Muslim woman broadcasters has spoken out against the post-9/11 Muslim fixation with "Islamic dress" after being publicly accosted by a "fellow Muslim" who complimented her on her work and then said: "But you’ll have to wear the hijab one day." To which she replied firmly, "I don’t think so."
Mishal Husain described it as "an awkward exchange" that made her reflect on "what amounts to Islamic dress", and on the current debate in Britain over the issue following a series of controversies in recent weeks. Ironically, the encounter occurred the day she was appointed as the first-ever Muslim woman journalist to present BBC Radio 4's flagship news and current affairs programme Today.
Ms Husain, who grew up in Saudi Arabia, debunked claims that Islam prescribed a dress code for its followers. There was no such thing as an "Islamic dress". The stress in the Quran was on "modesty" with no specific requirement on what Muslims should or should not wear.
"In the Koran, the subject of dress is touched upon only a handful of times, with the dominant requirement being modesty on the part of both sexes. One verse puts the emphasis on actions over appearances: ‘O children of Adam, we have provided you with garments to cover your bodies, as well as for luxury. But the best garment is the garment of righteousnes’ (7:26),’" she wrote in The Financial Times.
Her intervention came amid calls for a national debate on whether Britain should consider a French-style ban on wearing veil, hijab and niqab in public after a defendant refused to remove her ‘’niqab’’ before a judge arguing that Islam did not permit women to show their face in the presence of men.
Ultimately, the judge rejected her plea saying that making an exception on grounds of religion would ‘’drive a coach and horses through the way in which justice has been administered in the courts of England and Wales for centuries’’. But he allowed her to give evidence from behind a screen to shield her from public view.
In another case, Muslim groups forced a college in Birmingham to back down and withdraw a proposal to ban burqas and niqabs on the campus. The college was widely criticised for its "u-turn’" with even Prime Minister David Cameron wading into the row to declare that he would support such a ban in his own children’s school.
Meanwhile, families of two Muslim boys of Pakistani origin are embroiled in a very public dispute with a Roman Catholic school after it banned them from attending classes for refusing to shave off their beards. The unnamed boys and their families claim that they have grown beards for religious reasons and the school’s decision is ‘’pure discrimination’’.
“Because these boys cannot shave their beards for religious reasons, they are being put in isolation for six-and-a-half hours every day…It is pure discrimination,’’ a family member who did not wish to be named told The Lancashire Evening Telegraph.
The school authorities insist that the decision has nothing to do with the boys’ religion. It is all about conforming to the school’s uniform code. “There is nothing specifically written in the Koran about wearing a beard. It is a choice those boys are making. However inclusive we are, we have standards to maintain,’’ said the head teacher, Xavier Bowers.
Not long ago, a schoolgirl, banned from wearing jilbab, went to court accusing her school of discriminating against Muslims. Shabina Begum said the shalwar kameez –the school’s uniform for Muslim girls-- "did not satisfy Islamic clothing".
"I feel it is an obligation upon Muslim women to wear this [the jilbab], although there are many other opinions," she said. The case went right up to the House of Lords, the highest court of appeal in the land, which ruled in favour of the school. It said the school had "taken immense pains to devise a uniform policy which respected Muslim beliefs’’ ,and gone to "unusual lengths to inform parents of its uniform policy." The judges criticised Begum for her "unwillingness to comply with a rule to which the school was entitled to adhere" and regretted that she lost two years of study because of this.
Not a week passes without a row over the so-called ‘"Islamic dress’’. The sight of little schoolchildren being dragged into controversy and exposed to ridicule has prompted even pro-choice liberals to question whether it is really all about free choice, and whether any group can seek exemption from normal rules of the society on religious grounds.
Besides, there is anecdotal evidence that young Muslims, especially girls, face enormous family and peer pressure to wear "Islamic’’ clothes. Some Muslim schools reportedly force girls to wear burqa.
Shaista Gohar, chair of Muslim Women’s Network, rejects the notion of an "Islamic dress’’ and says Islam does not prescribe a rigid dress code.
"Islam is not rigid and is flexible,’’ she said criticising women whose attitudes " are contributing towards portraying their own faith negatively’’. Mishal Husain’s intervention, meanwhile, has been welcomed as a timely signal to other Muslim women to speak up on an issue that is becoming increasingly divisive.
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