by Hareem Ghani
“When I was younger you didn’t see people in hijabs and niqabs”; “In London we got on. People dressed the same.”; “What you see now are people born and raised here who are choosing to wear the jilbab or niqab. There are questions to be asked about what is going on in those homes”.
It may surprise some of you, but the preceding quotes are taken from a recent interview with none other than the oh-so-liberal Labour Mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan. In fact, in another interview, Khan expressed similar concerns about his daughters potentially being “groomed by extremists”, or worse, “tricked into running off to Syria”.
Funny, I thought. I grew up on the same estate as Sadiq Khan. I went to a school not so far from his daughters, and last I recalled no one could afford to book a flight to Syria to join the jihadi enterprise.
I can’t deny that there is an acute irony in Khan having accused Zac Goldsmith of “racial profiling” whilst simultaneously giving into such racialised tropes and trying desperately to distance himself from the common Muslim by asserting that he is indeed a “modern Muslim” and a principled feminist concerned with the welfare of the oppressed Muslim woman.
If Sadiq Khan was truly invested in the wellbeing of Muslim women perhaps he would have used his platform to highlight disturbing trends – such as the exclusion of Muslim women from society, or the ever-increasing rise in gendered Islamophobia. For those who may not have come into contact with the term, “gendered Islamophobia” refers to a recent phenomenon in the West whereby “visibly” Muslim women (those who wear the hijab or the niqab) have been subject to targeted verbal and physical abuse. Statistics released by the Metropolitan Police, for example, reveal a 70 per cent rise in Islamophobic attacks since November 2015, which increases to 300 per cent in London.
If you’re going to begin talking about the semantics of the veil, let’s at least attempt to reach a nuance, Sadiq. It seems somewhat tedious to reduce the hijab and the niqab to oppression alone, when arguably women are far more likely to be attacked for exercising their right to wear one (at least in the West).
Admittedly, I might be coming off as too harsh on Sadiq. His remarks are indicative of a bigger issue: the mass media’s obsession with the “meaning” behind the veil, and the subsequent erasure of Muslim women’s experiences. It seems that for some we do not exist beyond the hijab, or worse, our experiences cannot be recognised unless they feed into the tiresome trope of the “oppressive niqab”.
However, it’s worth recognising that Muslim women are having a difficult time in the UK (surprise!). We are being attacked on the streets. We are being humiliated on account of our faith. And god forbid (pun intended) that you are a Muslim woman in leadership, because then you’ll have a number of false accusations levelled at you.
In light of the opening of this year’s NUS conference today, it cannot be ignored how often student politicians like NUS Black students’ officer Malia Bouattia are accused of sympathising with terrorists for highlighting flaws in the “Iraqi Solidarity” motion, which inadvertently encouraged the repression of Muslims in Britain. The National Executive Committee voted against said motion, and in the following meeting voted unanimously in favour of the motion entitled “Kurdish Solidarity” – submitted by none other than the NUS Black Students’ Officer, Malia Bouattia. Note also that she has been labelled radical, divisive and an extremist – you would think people would attempt to mask their bigotry or at least get their facts straight. But the unfortunate truth is this: even in the “progressive” 21st century, a Muslim woman can be attacked on account of her religion.
Sadly, Malia’s experiences are not an isolated occurrence – instead, they represent the experience of the average public facing Muslim (woman) in the UK. Chances are, if you’re a Muslim, you will repeatedly be questioned about your loyalties and commitment to the British cause.
The word “radical” also carries fundamentally different connotations depending on who it applies to. Student politicians are repeatedly applauded for being “radical” in their politics and belief – that is, unless you’re a Muslim student like Malia Bouattia; then the term “radical” takes on an entirely different meaning. And believe me, if you’re a Muslim student, that’s the kind of thing you want to avoid.
Malia’s experiences are shared by many other Muslim women in public positions. When I first ran for NUS Women’s Officer, for example, I knew I would be opening myself to a torrent of abuse. It’s difficult enough being a woman in politics, let alone a Muslim woman of colour. Unsurprisingly, I was greeted with a host of racist commentary on my Twitter feed, including the following reminder that I “did not belong in this country”. The conference hall wasn’t much of a safe haven either. For one, I was accused by a particular delegate of pandering to one faith group because I chose to highlight the reality of gendered Islamophobia: the fact that my best friend was verbally harassed on public transport; the fact that another friend had her veil ripped off by racists outside our campus; the fact that every so often I repeated the depressing cycle of sitting down beside my mother and desperately attempting to dissuade her from putting on a dupatta (on account of the fact that she may be assaulted for wearing one).
The saddest thing about the whole experience was that all my hard work – from achieving free sanitary products on campus, to co-founding the It Stops Here anti-harassment campaign, to getting student ambassadors paid to promote consent on campus – was reduced to a single thing: my Muslim identity. And I believe that the same has happened to Malia. She has campaigned tirelessly for students: she hosted the national #BlackLivesMatter tour and joined the UK-US Justice Tour alongside the United Family and Friends Campaign, led the Students Not Suspects campaign against the regressive and draconian Prevent strategy, and co-founded the Black Women’s Forum. Funny, I thought. How quick we are to condemn women of colour and Muslim women and erase all their hard work.
Initially, I was somewhat hesitant to speak up about my experiences of running in a national election. However, after seeing the recent attacks directed at, Malia, I cannot and will not keep quiet. For many my election for NUS Women’s Officer earlier in the month represented a “radical” shift within student movement, but there is evidently so much work to be done. Look at Malia Bouattia’s election, and you will realise how difficult a climate it is for Muslim women in particular.
The reality for Muslim women and women of colour in the public sphere is such that our existence in these spaces is an act of defiance in and of itself. The implications of the constant abuse, silencing and erasure of our voices as well as the reduction of our entire lived experiences and achievements into a misconstrued identity to fit whichever agenda is at play at the time are vast. The online harassment and targeted abuse that Muslim women in the public sphere face raises the question of whether it is worth the risk at all.
However, the effect of Muslim women of colour’s presence in the public sphere, especially those as unwavering and unapologetic as Malia, is and continues to be both transformative and inspirational. The work Malia has done to empower Muslim women and students of colour may have been overlooked and undermined by some, but it has not gone unnoticed by us, with a record-breaking seventeen PoC elected to the NUS National Executive Council and over one hundred PoC elected as sabbatical officers across the country. Regardless of the outcome of this year’s NUS conference, and in spite of the abuse that Muslim women in public life face on a day to day basis, I would like to say thank you to women like Malia Bouattia for paving the way for so many of us.
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Hareem Ghani is a third year History undergraduate at King’s College London. She is an occasional writer, with a specific focus on Muslim women in mainstream feminist discourse. She founded the Women of Colour Network, and was recently elected NUS Women’s Officer – the first Muslim woman to hold the position.
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Women in Public Life