ALISON O'CONNOR: Hijab allows Muslim women to articulate their faith and identity

They believe it is no wonder Muslim women are synonymous with words such as submissive, passive, oppressed, victim, writes Alison O’Connor

THERE was an audible gasp of dismay in the room as the woman launched into her speech.

“When you see the food you have the appetite, that is just how men are created, they have the appetite. We are dressed like this to support our brothers, so they do not get involved in crimes,” she explained to the sounds of groans all around.

The woman, wearing a hijab — a scarf which covered her head — was surrounded by other women similarly attired, but the similarity in their dress appeared to be all they had in common. The women were attending a conference in Dublin last Saturday entitled ‘Muslim Women Defying Stereotypes’ organised by the wonderfully titled Muslim Sisters of Eire.

On the podium, Jasmina Kid, who up to that point had been carrying out the role of introducing the various speakers, felt the need to interject. Her upset at what had been said was palpable.

“The minute you start reducing women of any faith to objects like food — whether a banana or a watermelon — you reduce that woman to simply something that is appetising, or reduced to a temptaion. Muslim women are encouraged by God to wear the hijab as an act of worship .

However even though I wear the hijab I could be a really bad Muslim and a woman who doesn’t could be a really good one… or reduced to a temptation to brothers. The hijab is an act of worship.”

The Muslim Sisters of Eire, a registered charity, organised the conference because they feel the media has become fixated with the way Muslim women look — what they are, or are not, wearing — with a lack of focus, on the achievements of Muslim women, “especially those who do not fit a veiled and victimised stereotype”.

They believe it is no wonder Muslim women are synonymous with words such as submissive, passive, oppressed, victim, voiceless and so on. In truth these are exactly the words that would spring to my mind when looking at a Muslim woman wearing the headscarf.

Seeing a woman in a full burka with only a slit for her eyes, which I see regularly, really raises my ire. How lonely it must be to engage with the world in such attire, with a seriously restricted view and never to feel the wind in your hair or the sun on your skin.

But my full anger is reserved for seeing prepubescent girls, as young as five and six, in our local playground wearing a hijab. I should make equally clear that seeing girls that age wearing clothes that are sexualised, with suggestive slogans or displaying a little girl’s midriff, I find equally offensive.

How as a feminist can you accept women being covered up in such a way? But equally if you consider yourself liberal surely then it is OK for a woman to dress however she wishes? Was I suffering from what one of the speakers, Lauren Booth, described as “white saviour complex” when I saw a veiled Muslim woman?

It is to my shame I had never, that I can remember, had as much a casual conversation with a woman wearing a hijab. I fully subscribed to the previously mentioned views of them being downtrodden and oppressed and unapproachable.

Instead last Saturday I entered a room where I met friendly, interesting women, obviously wanting to become more engaged with their wider community. Chairperson Lorraine O’Connor, in opening proceedings, spoke of their weekly Friday night charity work where they gather outside the GPO in Dublin and give food to up to 300 people.

They also wanted to make clear they did not accept the ruling of the European Court of Justice allowing companies to ban religious symbols in the workplace, such as headscarves, which obviously has a direct affect on many Muslim women.

The group feels there is a lack of focus on the achievements of Muslim women, “especially those who do not fit a veiled and victimised stereotype”.

The Muslim Sisters of Eire, a registered charity, organised the ‘Muslim Women Defying Stereotypes’ conference because they feel the media has become fixated with the way Muslim women look.
The Muslim Sisters of Eire, a registered charity, organised the ‘Muslim Women Defying Stereotypes’ conference because they feel the media has become fixated with the way Muslim women look.

Dr James Carr, of the University of Limerick, who has researched racism directed towards Irish Muslim communities, was right on the button when he said Muslim women are widely viewed as oppressed and as trying to rein in their Muslim men from wanting to engage in terror activity, or as such a terror threat themselves.

His research included 14 Irish towns and cities and included 323 participants, 41% of them female. A total of 47% of them had experienced some form of hostility, with the vast majority having been subject to major verbal abuse and 20% to physical abuse, with women more likely to experience hostility including having their niqab which covers the face pulled away, or their hijab grabbed.

He recounted some really disturbing incidents experienced by Muslim women. “Take that rag off your head”, was an example of one comment, “you’re too good looking for that”, or “you’re betraying Ireland, you were born Christian” or “filthy Arab”.

One woman had just left a public health clinic where her six-month-old-baby had a developmental check when she was spat at in the face, another told of having beer thrown at her.

He spoke of how our lack of hate crime legislation in Ireland sends a message to people that they are “not a part of society”.

I found myself sitting next to one of the main speakers Julie Siddiqi, a high-profile Muslim activist from the UK. She focuses on gender issues and encourages Muslim women to reach out and engage with wider society.

She was a friendly, warm and sensible woman, conscious that Muslims seeing themselves as “others” in society is problematic.

She was glad when Solidarity-PBP TD Ruth Coppinger told the conference that when she is asked to meet Muslim groups it is always groups of men and she would like to see women as well. Ruth pointed out there around 70,000 Muslims in Ireland.

It was a brief enough interlude in the company of these women.

Their statement that Muslim women are encouraged by God to wear the hijab as an act of worship, cuts to the core of the debate — and our understandable “Western” confusion — because for every hijab-wearing woman you hear defending the hijab there appears to be a progressive Muslim feminist academic arguing that the Quran does not stipulate such a need to cover the head.

You’re left to conclude that so much of it is down to male oppression and control.

Despite maintaining this belief afterwards I felt rather ashamed of what had been my very one dimensional view of women who wear the hijab. It’s important to remember the group at this conference were a self selecting one.

An oppressed woman was highly unlikely to be there and nor did I see any wearing a full burka. I understand they see wearing the hijab as a way to articulate their faith and identity, but I still see it as tragic that this is the form in which they must do that.

There are far too many Muslim women who do not have the choice. Nothing would ever convince me that a woman would willingly wear a burka. There is also no escaping that the personal is the political when women in Iran and Saudi Arabia could be persecuted for not covering up.

I can never see myself liking the veil but having spent some time with these women I’m certainly a little more tolerant of those who wear it.


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