By: Shahla Khan
It is hard to believe that in the year 2020 there are still laws dictating what women can and cannot wear.
But, believe it or not, in June, the Belgian constitutional court ruled that women should be banned from wearing headscarves in university—a ruling that severely impacts Muslim women’s right to access education. Such a controversial, and discriminatory ruling should have extensive media coverage though, correct?
Again, a simple Google search will show a deafening silence about the ban in the UK media—while German, Dutch and Belgian websites have all covered the ban along with some blogs like the Global Citizen based in New York, there is no coverage in the UK media, making it that much more difficult for the news to reach a UK audience.
It made me wonder about the coverage of other stories surrounding Muslim women’s clothing in the UK media—which notoriously amplifies people like then-Telegraph columnist, now Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s comments that Muslim women wearing the niqab resemble “bandits” and “letter boxes,” causing hate crimes to spike. With very little coverage of how bans like the Belgium ban actually affect Muslim women, these toxic narratives skyrocket—and don’t let Muslim women speak for themselves.
Taking a step back and examining the larger picture of the UK/European media’s representation of Muslim women’s clothing is meek at best, horrendous at worst. While a handful of feminist organisations and minority groups stand up Muslim women’s freedom of choice when it comes to their clothing, most frame it as an issue of religious freedom, rather than a symptom of violence against women. More often, the article of clothing becomes the focus of the story—a hijabi football player whose headscarf slips during a football match in Jordan, or amplifying a diversity campaign that uses a hijabi model as a token.
How does this weak representation affect the lives of Muslim women? It makes us feel invisible.
When we talk about ‘representation’ in the mainstream media, we don’t mean these rarely occurring moments of celebration. We want the hijab to be normalised in such a way that viewers can see Muslim women reporting for BBC, being the face of news outlets, commonly studying, running, living their life—for them to be as ‘normal’ as any other woman wearing a skirt or jeans. Because that’s the whole point about clothing: it is a piece of covering that the person chooses to wear. Muslim women don’t want people to celebrate them for wearing hijab because as much as it may seem like a well-intentioned piece of media, it harms them in the long run, allowing corporations, brands and governments to do the bare minimum for namesake diversity, but ignore the larger issues. Who wants to talk about Muslim women’s access to education or them being spat on, kicked or run over by angry right wing bigots, right?
Many of these pieces also define a woman based on her hijab in a way that its equivalent would define a Caucasian woman based on her UGG boots—it is ridiculous to define someone based on their clothing alone. It becomes something that weaponizes the hijab, creating a stigma within the Muslim community as well. When you celebrate a hijabi woman just for her choice of clothing, the focus of the fundamentalists is not on the amazing things that a Muslim woman is capable of doing but only on the hijab. It makes conservatives dislike the Muslim women who opt not to wear the hijab, claiming that they are giving up their religious values in exchange for success.
None of this is helpful for Muslim women—instead, we need journalism that actually speaks out about our issues, and helps us advocate for our rights. Minority communities are already behind in terms of education and decent employment, and bans like the one in Belgium directly limit our access to higher education. While the UK media had a chance to stand up for Muslim women, they didn’t take it—instead ignoring the Muslim women protesting the ban with the hashtag #HijabisFightBack instead of listening to their needs.
Islamophobia and bigotry are straightforward: you have to pick your religious belief or your higher education. But you can’t pick both.