As a Muslim, I say no to the cover-up
Mona Bauwens is delighted that the judge last week threw out the case brought by Shabina Begum, who wanted to wear the jilbab to schoo
I am delighted that the Muslim schoolgirl Shabina Begum has lost her battle to wear the jilbab to school. As an Arab Muslim woman brought up in this country, I was angry that Shabina demanded to wear the strict head-to-toe gown to school because wearing the schoolâ€™s uniform was â€œeroding her human rightsâ€. To me, her demand was a flagrant abuse of the human rights this country has given her, and I feel strongly that Shabina should show more respect for life in Britain.
Shabina is a British subject. This is where her parents brought her from Bangladesh and where she gets all the benefits of being a British national; the NHS, education, sexual equality and so on. The school she attended for two years, Lutonâ€™s Denbigh high school, devised a dress code with local Muslim clerics that was acceptable to the majority of the students. Girls have the option of wearing trousers, skirts or a salwar kameez (trousers and tunic) with a scarf if they wish to cover their hair. The school didnâ€™t want its pupils to wear the jilbab because it worried that those who did might be regarded as â€œbetter Muslimsâ€ and because there was a simple safety risk of tripping over it.
Shabina, who was orphaned earlier this year following the death of her mother, wore a salwar kameez to school for two years. But, abruptly, in September 2003, she changed her mind and demanded to cover up, branding the salwar kameez â€œtoo revealingâ€. The school would not allow her to attend wearing a jilbab. Shabina claimed this violated her right to an education and her human right of religious expression.
While I respect Shabinaâ€™s interpretation of Islam, I am disturbed at the attempt to link choice of dress to human rights. I am worried because there seems to be a very strong revival in traditional Muslim womenâ€™s dress in Britain. As a child growing up here, it was extremely rare to see Muslim women in this country who were fully covered up, but recently Iâ€™ve seen a huge increase in the number of women who are fully covered on any high street.
To me, this is a direct symptom of the political repression that takes us backwards as Arabs and Muslims. What you wear does not indicate your political morality. The real reason Islamic extremists feel that women should be modest and covered up seems to be that women are becoming more educated and moving ahead of the men, and this is menâ€™s way of controlling them.
Shabina has to understand that in a free society a schoolâ€™s rules and regulations are there for the benefit of all the students and the rules should be respected. What if the 20% of non-Muslim students in her school said they found it offensive that one of their schoolmates should wear a shroud? Or what of the other Muslim girls who may be under pressure from home to cover up more and donâ€™t want to â€” what are their human rights? I fear whoever has been advising Shabina has a political agenda that would take us back to the Dark Ages.
Part of the joy of living in England as a Muslim woman is not having to cover up in the way you have to in places such as Saudi Arabia. The matter of a dress code seems trivial but by backing Shabinaâ€™s desire to cover up completely pressure would be put on her peers to do so too. This is the thin end of the wedge. To give in on this instance would provide great credibility to the religious forces of conservatism in our society.
I am so worried about this that I would be very reluctant to go back and live in the Middle East at the moment. Existing regimes deny the majority of Arabs any protection under the rule of law and any respect for human rights. Shabina should be grateful that the UK allows us Muslims to retain our culture, our tradition, our food â€” and in return we should respect our host countryâ€™s great freedoms.
As an Arab Muslim woman who came to England as a child, there were many instances where I felt I was an outsider, an Arab thrust into an alien culture. I felt I had no identity and belonged nowhere. To Arabs I was too westernised to be normal; to my British friends, too conservative. Thanks to the liberal attitude of my host culture and learning what was appropriate in different countries I learnt to feel comfortable about myself.
I am greatly concerned that some immigrants who have fled here for protection end up abusing the rights extended to them. Take Abu Hamza, the hook-handed cleric from Finsbury Park mosque who faces extradition to America on terrorism charges. He left Egypt because he felt persecuted there, and proceeded to abuse Britainâ€™s freedoms of speech and association to propagate dangerous and subversive anti-western sentiment.
I am pleased that he has now been arrested. It should have happened a long time ago; he has abused the very rights the UK extended to him. The great majority of Muslims in this country take great offence at Abu Hamzaâ€™s preachings and have no desire to see young women clad in jilbabs.
Today, living in Britain, I feel safe. I am incredibly lucky compared with thousands of my people who live in danger in Palestine
. As a result, I passionately believe in human rights, which is why I am so furious that a 15-year-old such as Shabina should confuse human rights with an issue about school uniform and play into the hands of those who would repress us.
As a mother of a teenager I frequently have to listen to arguments from my 16-year-old daughter who believes that her school dress code is silly. Most teenagers dislike restrictions on their dress irrespective of religion or culture â€” I hated my ugly uniform at my boarding school, Tudor Hall. But schools have rules, letâ€™s not confuse those with the bigger issues.
My daughter Soraya wears clothes typical of most British teenagers: she has a bare midriff and her navel is pierced, which might horrify the more traditional members of the Islamic community. But, more importantly, I teach my daughter that what is important in life is respect and understanding.
When she was eight I arranged special lessons with one of Londonâ€™s leading Muslim clerics. After three lessons, Soraya was coming home in tears because the cleric was insisting she cover herself from head to toe â€” at eight! I had a huge row with this man, and told him: â€œI want you to teach my daughter the principles of love and compassion, which are the basic tenets of Islam, not about clothes.â€ Not long afterwards, this revered cleric left his wife and ran off with a Moroccan dancer. There is much hypocrisy on the subject of Islamic dress, which is often about controlling women.
I am not anti-Islam. I am not anti what Shabina or others want to wear. But donâ€™t go imposing it, donâ€™t play into the hands of freedom-hating extremists. What matters, I think, is to wear something appropriate to your surroundings, a lesson I learnt early on, when aged seven I was taken to the desert wearing a tiny pair of shorts and a T-shirt. An old bedouin brought me a towel to cover my legs. I wasnâ€™t told off: he demonstrated that what I was wearing wasnâ€™t acceptable. Ever since, I have tried to show my respect for whatever culture I am visiting or living in by what I wear.
Now I live in London and I more or less wear what I want, as do most women in Londonâ€™s sophisticated Arab community. I love fashion and wearing designer clothes â€” a very short skirt, maybe, or a strapless bustier or dÃ©colettÃ© cocktail dress â€” and I donâ€™t feel disrespectful in any way to my religion. I want it to stay that way.