February 16, 2016

Muslim Women and the Narrative of Modernity

Tooba Khokhar, Cambridge

A lot of the time when I tell people that my Hijab liberates me, they nod indulgently, their expression a little doubtful, whilst they kindly explain ‘no darling, liberation means beingfree!’ Our interactions, almost inevitably, drift towards an impassé. We might be saying the same word: ‘liberation’, but in my mind and theirs it means different things. To me, myHijab means liberation. To them, Islamic dress represents only patriarchal oppression. But this cultural misunderstanding sadly goes far beyond the Hijab.

In Britain today, Muslim women are free to wear the headscarf and observe Islamic dress. However while our Hijabs may be accepted, many of the practices and observances which often accompany the Hijab i.e. rules on modesty and mixing are still stigmatised. From David Cameron’s patronising comments on ‘Traditionally Submissive’ or his ill-thought polemic against segregation (never mind the plethora of gender-segregated institutions in Britain) to the new D&G Hijabi range, it is clear that Muslim women today are free to keep their Hijab on, but according to some they really ought leave ‘Islam’ to the Saudis. In other words, the Hijab can stay so long as every other aspect of how we live our lives is in line with the norm in Britain. We may differ from the norm in the way we dress, but not in the way we engage with society or order our homes.

I don’t want to put ‘Islam’ in one camp and ‘Britain’ in another. Many British Muslim women today do lead lifestyles which mirror point for point those of their non-Muslim peers save for an extra garment and five daily Prayers. Indeed Islam is not at all prescriptive when it comes to such matters.

But what about the women, Muslim or not, who of their own volition choose to take a different path? Are their personal definitions of ‘liberation’ accepted? If for instance they find liberation in their mosque, their church or their synagogue? If they find fulfilment in the domestic sphere? Or if perhaps they’re more for Yin and Yang than feminist gender theory? Or is it simply Cameron’s way or the high-way? This goes both ways- with those who would impose ‘traditional’ values (I use this term generally) on all. When some women simply cannot identify with such values.

It is important to stress above all that every woman is on her own personal journey in search of peace and fulfilment. Are we to block off all routes but one? Enshrining in law every freedom and liberty, but nevertheless creating a culture which expects women to conform to an increasingly narrow definition of what it means to be an empowered and liberated female. Telling all women, Muslim or otherwise, ‘be unique, but not too different!’ Thus Hijabi fashionistas or ballerinas are celebrated while their more ‘traditional’ sisters are looked down upon for not fitting into the general narrative of modernity. Surely we should celebrate choice, and accept the patchwork of diversity that is Britain; and not just simply laud conformity to the norm i.e. to standard practices in dress, thought and domestic arrangements.

In the first poem of his Four Quartets, a long, jaggedly flowing piece entitled ‘Burnt Norton’, T.S. Eliot explores perception, time and forms. In this work, a wise little birdy chirps that “human kind cannot bear very much reality”. Alluding to this, to the limitations of human perception and to being open to different experiences, Eliot writes

Other echoes

Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?

Tooba Khokhar is studying Arabic and Persian at the University of Cambridge. She blogs at closetothesourceblog.wordpress.com