Monday 15 February 2010

The Hijaab: 20 Years On?

By Aisha Alvi

Over the last 10 years, the British Muslim community has endured and witnessed the toughest decade since the post-war period when mass migration of Muslims to Britain took place. Unlike our elders whose self-segregation from mainstream British society was a defensive reaction to racism, second and third generation Muslims have been under attack for their faith.

By God’s Grace, as far back as 1990, my sister Fatima Alvi and I won the right to wear the Islamic headscarf at Altrincham Grammar School for Girls in Cheshire. Prior to this, we were suspended from school after two long years of persuasion, and negotiations broke down. Finally, in December 1989, we made a completely independent decision to attend school and refused to remove the covering from our heads. What did we go armed with? Our faith in God and knowledge of our educational rights.

What was all the fuss about? This was not a battle of wills and we did not want to jeopardise our education. We were privileged and attended one of the best Grammar schools in the country, but we simply wanted to follow our religion as prescribed by the tenets of Islam. Discussions ensued between ourselves and the head of the school, and on one notable occasion, the Holy Quran was opened and the school insisted that there was no evidence to suggest that we needed to cover our heads. At the tender age of 14 and 15 respectively we were not only attempting to secure a basic right to practice our faith, but we were having to justify that donning, what was to us, an inconspicuous cloth on our heads was compulsory in Islam.

This was an out-of-court battle won by the media. Being the first such case of its kind in Britain, it hit the headlines, creating phenomenal national and international media interest. The tabloid front-pages relished it. The school’s attitude was to find an alternative school, the public’s was, ‘if you don’t like our way of life, then you should go back to your own country.’ Everyone had an opinion and we were the centre of discussion everywhere.

Britain was being tested on its levels of tolerance, something novel for the Muslim community at the time. The school was in the limelight for the wrong reasons – not for their usual academic recognition, but for being intolerant of Islam. We gained unexpected support from the Commission for Racial Equality, National Union of Teachers, Jewish Gazette, Manchester Council of Mosques; the list was growing and swinging the pendulum back in our direction. So the head and Governing Body were being forced to back down.

My love for wearing hijaab is purely, this: it is a commandment by Allah, my Creator, in the Quran. My scarf is my pride, honour and dignity and it has shaped the person who I am today. It may bring hardships and difficulties but it is with pride that I deal with these. At the time, anti-Islamic sentiments were not widespread. Our conclusion from the school’s attitude and the piles of hate mail was simply that ignorance prevailed in Britain, but we never considered that these were deeply-rooted prejudices. How naïve we were.

20 years on? I am not so sure.

We are witnessing in Britain, like many in Europe, an unashamed national reaction to the new visibility of Muslims. Our memories are short but need we be reminded of the genocide of Bosnian Muslims in 1992, long before 9/11 and 7/7. They did not practice Islam assiduously, they inter-married with fellow citizens, and were certainly not visibly Muslim. Nevertheless, this did not prevent a mass victimisation of Muslims through an ethnic cleansing.

In the Summer of 2009, Marwa Al-Sherbini died the ‘headscarf martyr’. Marwa was a 31-year-old veiled Egyptian pharmacist who was brutally stabbed eighteen times in a German courtroom as her 3-year-old son watched. Her attacker was a German man who was being prosecuted for calling her a “terrorist” and, in one incident, tried to rip off her headscarf. Marwa’s tragic death took place just days after Nicolas Sarkozy gave a major policy speech denouncing the burka and the resurgence of far-right groups in the latest European elections.

We can now ask ourselves this question: does the law afford us any protection in our varying forms of Islamic dress? The answer in short is ‘No’. The same battles rage on in a climate where prejudices towards Islam and Muslims have intensified beyond comprehension in my lifetime. The right to wear the hijaab in schools has brought the same arguments back to the drawing board, the arguments which we once faced by our head, whose sentiments echoed “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”. Globalisation has changed multicultural Britain overnight. New citizens, skins colours, traditions, cultures, religions and open ostentatious symbols means English society has dug its heels in hard and regurgitated the same old clichés of “our way of life” and “our values”. We cannot all be deported back to our motherlands, so we are being told the best Muslim is the one we cannot visibly see.

My vision for the next ten years is this. We need to enlighten people so they know that the hijab, niqab and jilbaab are part of our religious freedom. If you don’t want religious freedom in this country, ban the religion, but don’t ban parts of a religion that don’t fit in with British sensibilities. Islam is totalitarian and let us not be apologetic for that. It is one and whole and not to be de-fragmented to divide Muslims with the introduction of various classifying notions, such as Radicals, Moderates and Islamists. There is no difference between forcing hijaab off or forcing it on.

Real practical progression over the next decade will only be seen when Muslims are truly accepted in wider British society and Muslims genuinely feel free to practice their faith. My vision is a Britain that allows Muslims and all other faiths to practice their faiths openly and freely without the fear of England’s green and pleasant land being taken over by people who are not white enough, or not atheist, secular or Christian enough.

The future is bright, the future is an Islam which is part and parcel of British life. The solution lies in the hands of each and every single Muslim living in the UK and all Muslim organisations. We need to take ownership of our community before others do.

I dedicate this short piece to my late father, Dr. Abdur Rab Alvi, 1929 -2006 (may Allah forgive him). The dedicated support and guidance through our long drawn out hijaab fiasco was exemplary of what a Muslim should be; he displayed humility, tolerance and gentility. He was a Consultant Ophthalmologist by profession and a graduate of King Edward Medical College Lahore. As one of the pioneers of the Muslim community in Manchester, he established the first purpose built mosque – Victoria Park Mosque and worked on many other community projects throughout his lifetime. He leaves behind a wife and seven children.
Aisha Alvi, Barrister at Law, LLM (Islamic Law) University of London, aims to use the privilege of her training not for personal gain, but to show the wisdom of the Shariah. Recently, her expertise in Islamic law and the English legal system has led her to be involved as a key advisor in several anti-terror prosecutions. Her expertise in the Islamic law of transactions has also allowed her to become a pioneer in the development and promotion of Islamic wills.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I would like to apologise in advance if any of my arguments below seem to challenge some of the convictions that have been so profoundly inculcated in the subconscience of a majority of the Muslims including almost all my family - my mother wore a burqa all her life. I’m no expert in Islamic law and my knowledge is only superficial. Generally I agree to the point that Aisha has raised, however, I’m not comfortable with one point that I would like to highlight here.

    Historically, the term Islamic Law has not been as crystal clear as we might like to think it is. Generally Muslim scholars of later centuries have considered that there are 3 sources of Islamic Law, in the following order of precedence:

    1. Qur’an
    2. Sayings and traditions of the prophet (Hadith); and
    3. Codification of Islamic Law as evolved from the works of jurisconsults (Fiqh)

    Starting with the first source, the Qur’an is essentially a book of theology. Its main objective is to establish beyond any doubt the oneness of God; He alone is sustainer of this universe and from time to time He has sent his messengers to guide human beings of whom Muhammad (saw) is the last one. However, it has given some clear injunctions regarding personal law, e.g. marriage, divorce etc.

    Without going into any further details, I will come to the issue of hijab. The Quran refers to the issue of hijab at three places: 33:53, 33:59 and 24:31. These are often referred to as ayat al hijab. The first of these is generally regarded as exclusively concerned with the household of the Prophet (saw):

    “And whenever you ask them (i.e. his wives) for anything, ask them from behind a curtain (hijab) ...” (33:53)

    In Medina, when the Prophet became a head of the state, it was deemed necessary to protect his household from direct and easy access by everyone. It is not regarded as a clear ruling to make hijab mandatory for Muslim women.

    The second verse is:

    “O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters as well as all believing women that they should draw over themselves some of their outer garments (min jalabibihinna); this will help to assure that they will be recognised and not be annoyed.” (33:59)

    It is significant that this regulation does not require that the women should first wear a headscarf and then pull it down to cover her body. They should wear an article of clothing that should cover their bosoms. In olden times, this article of clothing would generally consist of a large head covering that could be used for this purpose.

    The last of the ayat al hijab discusses the reason and is often cited as conclusive evidence:

    “And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts and not to display their charms (zinatahunna) beyond what may (decently) be apparent thereof (illa ma zahara minha). So let them draw their head coverings (khumar) over their bosoms.” (24:31)

    A casual reading would inform us that the focus is on covering the bosoms and hiding those parts which one may class as having physical charms. The Qur'an does not clearly define what these physical charms precisely consist of. It is very sensible regulation because it takes into account that from period to period and culture to culture what constitutes physical charms varies greatly. A teacher of mine in Pakistan used to say that if a red shawl is wrapped around a thorny bush, the college students will circumambulate it indefinitely. On the other hand a women's face and hair might not be as seductive in certain cultures.

    A clear injunction is not available and the interpreters have never failed to play their favourite game. Saudi version favours imposing far more stringent measures than some other interpretations.


  3. (Contd. from above)

    (Contd. from above)

    Sahih Bukhari describes in some detail the historic occasion of ayat al hijab (hadith 6315). A tradition related by Aisha (ra) in Sunan Abu Dawud is often cited by pro-hijab scholars but some others have not considered it sufficient enough evidence. Seeking to follow or emulate the wives of the Prophet (saw) is of course good practice but I have issues accepting it as an obligation. Some scholars think that the rationale of the clothing regulations can be served without covering the hair.

    A vast amount of what is considered Islamic Law comes from Fiqh. Scholars when they did not find clear rules in either the Qur'an or the Hadith literature, set out to compile Fiqh using Usool Fiqh (jurisprudence). Now it is very important to consider that Usool Fiqh varied considerably and hence there are different schools of thought in Fiqh.

    A few elements of Usool Fiqh were 'ilm al qayas (deductive reasoning), ijma' (consensus) and ijtihad (analogy). The scope and acceptability of these principles varied greatly, e.g. Hanafi School was relatively liberal. It allowed the scholar to use 'ilm al qayas but the Maliki and Shaf’i schools were very strict. They allowed ijtehad in a restrictive framework. So did Hanbali school. Shi'ia scholars believed in the concept of imamate and no consensus is acceptable unless it is endorsed by the imam. Some of the sayings of imam were given the weight equivalent to that of Hadith. Mind you imam is infallible interpreter of Islam in Shi'ism. Due to the differences in Usool fqh, the codification carried out by the different schools had considerable differences. The issue of hijab is not an exception.

    The problem if that an ordinary Muslim faces a large body of Fiqh and considers it as infallible interpretation of Islam.

    With this detailed background, I come straight to the issue that caused me discomfort - to say that hijab is indispensible for a Muslim woman is actually imposing the opinion of one group (albeit a large one) upon all Muslims. It would be more accurate to say that ‘according to the interpretation of a large number of Muslim scholars, hijab is an essential part of a Muslim women’s dress but many scholars have differed with this from the beginning’.


  4. (Contd. from above)

    This approach does not consider Mu’tazila view point at all. There was only one human being whose understanding of the Qur’an was infallible. Unfortunately he died in 632 A.D. and now there is no way to decide which interpretation is correct or otherwise. There may be different shades of truth. Of course those interpretations that violate the clear injunctions of the Qur'an and Hadith are easier to make judgements on but unfortunately we face a situation where things are rather complicated.

    Having said that if you believe that hijab is mandatory for Muslim women, you have the right to maintain that and should be allowed to wear one. For me, it is not an essential part of a Muslim woman's dress code but everyone should be free to choose what they want to wear. I do respect those women who wear hijab for the simple reason that they are going an extra step to remain compatible with Islam. I will fight for their right to wear hijab but would not be able to accept that this is mandatory.

    Actually Islam does not conform to the zeitgeist. That’s fine Islam is not a fashion, it can wait, as stated by Dr Murad Hofmann. Why all this to Islam? Europe’s first encounter to Islam was one of enemy and that has not completely disappeared from the collective memory of Europeans. A few good readings on the topic are Albert Hourani’s Islam in European Thought; Professor Edward Said’s Orientalism; and Covering Islam. Even those publications that first appeared in the early part of the 20th century or before and highlighted favourably the Muslims’ literary contributions have been gradually replaced with those which look down upon Muslims as barbarians. Jack Goody’s The Theft of History is another good read.

    It is ironical that women showing their body are only exercising the personal freedom that the great civilisation has conferred upon them but those who want to cover their hair violate the very value. Why does personal freedom is cherished in one case and frowned upon in the other?

  5. >>, but we simply wanted to follow our religion as prescribed by the tenets of Islam.

    The writer ascribes to a saudi interpretation of islamic law. One that is focused heavily upon the outward.
    This interpretation has become dominant in the last 100 years and unfortunately the Pakistani community is losing its sunni roots. The writer is a typical example of what is happening to the next generation of asian muslims who have no islamic grounding from their parents. Many asians are impressed by native arabs who push this Wahabi/Salafi outward prescriptive interpretation. As with anything that is only 100 years old, the interpretation is overly simplistic and childish at best. Asians like Aisha should not be quick to jetison her Sunni heritage. The analogy is akin to the story of Aladdin's where Aladdins mother exchanges the old lamp for the new shiny lamp. As the adage goes all that glitters is not gold, and alas we have individuals like this removing ones rich tradition, steeped in wisdom for a 2 dimensional interpretation of Islam