When it comes to Muslim women, it’s still all about what we wear – and the last 12 months only serves to confirm this sad state of affairs. What we say, our achievements, opinions and self-determination continue to be brushed aside. Even as women’s movements around the world continue to gather momentum, Muslim women’s looks, clothing and bodies continue ever forcefully to be policed. We continue to be reduced to one-dimensional voiceless images.
A striking photo of Malalai Kakar dressed in a powder blue Afghan burqa was hijacked by Britain First’s campaign to ‘Ban the Burqa’.
Kakar, a mother of six from southern Kandahar city, was the first female graduate of the regional police academy. She was Afghanistan’s first female police officer, a powerful symbol of what women can achieve in the face of brutal gender oppression.
Photographer Lana Slezic claims that Britain First has used this image of Afghanistan's first female police officer in their anti-burqa campaign without her permission
Kakar was killed by the Taliban in 2008. When Kakar’s photographer saw the campaign this year she contacted Britain first to say this was not her legacy, if anything Kakar was a symbol of empowerment, and wearing the burka was something she chose to do. Kakar had said: "I am not forced to wear the chaudari [burqa], my husband or the police force does not require it. I want to wear it because it gives me advantages." Whatever we might think of Kakar’s choices, the important thing was that they were her choices, and what she wore did not define her achievements. Britain First, like so many public voices chose to silence her even in death. Furthermore, Australia’s Jacquie Lambie used the image and claimed – despite Kakar’s quote – that this strong woman would have supported the ban on the burqa.
Discrimination and hatred aimed at Muslim women for what they wear continues to be a real phenomenon and its effects can be fatal. When Nahid Almanea, a Saudi student who wore the hijab and who had come to the UK to study was stabbed to death in a park in Colchester, police reported that one possible motive may have been anti-Muslim hatred. As one lead the police were pursuing this seemed entirely reasonable. And yet still, certain parts of the media and political world were outraged: how dare the suggestion even be made that Muslim women experience hatred as a result of what they wear? This denial of reality is itself a form of oppression.
Metropolitan Police figures show that incidents of hate crime against Muslims rose from 344 to 570 in the year to October 2014, and women are key targets because of their identifiable Islamic dress.
A report based on data from the Office for National Statistics' Labour Force Survey,also found that Muslim women were up to 65 per cent less likely to be employed than their white Christian counterparts. The report author said this was likely to be because of "growing Islamophobia and hostility" towards Muslims, meaning employers are discouraged from hiring them.
Over the summer, in Belgium, a senior diplomat decided to rip a face veil off a woman who approached him to ask directions. The face veil is illegal in Belgium, but it seemed a senior official felt it was perfectly fine to physically assault a Muslim woman. I suspect this incident only made the news because she happened to be a Qatari princess.
In October in Paris, at La Traviata opera, the cast stopped mid performance when they saw a woman in a full-face veil. She happened to be a tourist from the Gulf on a visit to take in some French culture. They refused to carry on until she was removed from the theatre. Again, both these Muslim women were acting contrary to stereotype – one in Belgium happy to speak for herself to ask directions, and another enjoying Western high culture. However, their choices were reduced by others to nothing more than what they wear.
The war over how we Muslim women look continues within the Muslim world too. Happy British Muslims was a version of Pharrell Williams’Happy song featuring British Muslims, smiling, singing and dancing (see below). The women who took part were criticised in the Muslim community for their participation. In a similar video at the very end of 2013, a Muslim hipsters video (‘Mipsters’) from America showed Muslim women doing nothing more than striking a pose, hanging out and enjoying themselves, and they too came in for similar disapproval.
And who can forget the Saudi groom who announced at his wedding this year that he didn’t like the way his new bride looked and divorced her on the spot? I can’t and won’t.
Muslim women’s image continues to be a territory to be claimed by others.The Sun ran a front page image of a woman wearing a Union Jack hijab claiming we needed to all stand together. The campaign did not sit well with many in the Muslim community.
Malala with her Nobel Peace Prize
The paucity of stories about Muslim women’s achievements - where clothing is not the issue - is telling. When they do happen - often these women’s Muslim identity is conveniently omitted. Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Peace Prize and achievements rarely focus on the fact that she does in fact cover her hair, wear modest clothing, and finds inspiration from her faith as a Muslim.
A similar tone of coverage ensued with Maryam Mirzakhani, the first female award-winner of the Fields Medal, a prestigious global mathematics prize.
Sometimes the only way to reclaim ownership of our image, is to define our image ourselves. No wonder young Muslim women around the world are fuelling the growth of the Muslim fashion industry. Thomson Reuters this year estimated the value of this sector at over $200 billion. It combines faith, fashion and identity. Some people simply assert it is a contradiction in terms, yet as Muslim women assert this is their form of self expression; a feminist statement for many.
Despite all this - I do see some glimmers of hope. This year we met Kamala Khan, the Muslim American female superhero created by Marvel Comics. To commemorate the war, the Post Office released a stamp featuring Noor Inayat Khan, a British Muslim woman who worked as a spy for the British to fight the Nazis in Paris and who eventually killed her. And social media continued to play a powerful role in removing barriers to Muslim women’s self expression. The hashtag#AsaMuslimWoman brought humour and insight to understanding Muslim women through our own voices.
However, the brightest moment of 2014 came from one of the darkest: the hostages held in a Sydney café. On the train a woman saw a Muslim hijab wearer removing her headscarf out of fear of being attacked after the hostage incident. She tweeted that the woman should not remove her headscarf – kickstarting the heartwarming hashtag: 'I’ll ride with you'.This statement of solidarity with Muslim women to express freely who they are and be seen as human beings, not pieces of clothing went viral. #AsAMuslimWoman more of this kind of solidarity is exactly what I hope for in 2015