What on earth has got into Dr. Taj Hargey, imam of the Oxford Islamic Congregation and the Chairman of Muslim Education Centre of Oxford? I could not believe my eyes when a received an email about their ‘burqa banning celebration’ event which included burning of the garments.
It was held on Saturday evening in support of the French laws banning face coverings that came into force yesterday. Although I disagree with face veiling, I do not support his response. One cannot claim to protect the rights of women and then dictate their dress. To ban clothing is just as appalling as it is to force the wearing of it.
Also, anyone burning a symbol cherished by another group or population whether that is, religious books, flags or even clothing is deliberately being provocative, as Pastor Terry Jones was by burning the Quran. Offensive tactics are not going to curb the minor phenomenon of veiling. In fact, igniting burqas, is likely to have the opposite effect – historically when any group feels threatened, it reacts by defending its culture or faith, becoming more attached to it.
Hargey is no stranger to controversy as he openly performs marriages between Muslim women and non-Muslim men and has invited females from abroad to lead a mixed congregation in prayer. I respect his courage to challenge patriarchal interpretations of Islam, but these latest actions make no sense. While I agree with freedom of speech, these rights should be exercised responsibly.
The current environment is already very hostile towards Muslim women; their bodies are serving as a battleground for every debate. Hargey’s stunt is likely to further intensify these debates. Muslim women are under intense pressure to conform rather than make autonomous choices about their lives. Their attire is given disproportionate level of attention. Mainstream society views the various forms of Islamic dress as a threat to Western culture while increasingly religious Muslim communities are maintaining tradition by advocating the headscarf and face veil. So Muslim women are either, not integrated enough, or not Muslim enough. They are being viewed as one monolithic group by all sides; their diversity and the way they want to practice their faith is being ignored.
Like many others, Hargey also appears misinformed about the reasons behind why women veil. In the statement he sent out, he only mentions women who have been convinced that it is a religious necessity. However, the reasons why some women adopt the covering vary widely. Some feel it is a religious obligation while others admit it isn’t but want to take an extra step to feel closer to God. There are those who want to make a political statement or do it for reasons of fashion or culture or are simply going through a fad. And yes, there is a minority who are forced or coerced into covering. Many have told me they feel liberated in the veil. I can’t see how it is liberating, but that does not matter. It does not matter that some people find it intimidating and frightening because of its unfamiliarity, as my eight years old daughter, once described in her blog. None are sufficient reasons to justify banning it or burning it, activities that are only fueling tensions in society. What right do any of us have to tell those women, who are choosing the niqab out of their own free will, not to wear it?
The way forward is to address this topic within Muslim communities and engage directly with Muslim women. The debate should include the negative impact of particular types of dress on Muslim communities living in the West and the importance of women’s involvement in every sphere of British society and how the veil prevents participation. Women need to be made aware of the economic impact on their lives of not being able to access the job market. As youth are very impressionable, it is important to expose Muslim girls to arange of interpretations on dress so they are able to make informed choices. That is why I condemn the three independent Islamic schools that have a uniform policy that forces girls to wear the face veil to and from school – they are being held hostage to one interpretation on Islamic dress codes.
Muslim girls and women should have the right to make choices about their bodies, no matter how controversial that may appear to others – whether this is to cover the face or have a bare head. I receive emails sometimes criticising me for not wearing a headscarf – I am accused of being a bad Muslim or not one at all! It is interesting to note that it tends to be mainly men, whether in the Muslim world or the West, telling women how to dress. No one, whether it is politicians or religious clergy have the right to tell us women what to wear or what not to wear – it is our body and should be our choice.