‘Modesty’ clothing and culture within British Muslim communities prevents Muslim women from fully participating in 21st century society.
Connotations of ‘modesty’ bring to mind the picture of a burqa-clad woman. Extremists’ claims that the gown ‘liberates’ a woman realistically only serve to make her vanish from 21st century public life. This is an unconscionable situation. In the debate surrounding the veil for Muslim women, defenders of modesty culture and dress argue in the name of religious freedom, women’s empowerment and a matter of choice. Conversely, critics consider it an encroachment on women’s rights to be free. However, these arguments do not shed sufficient light on what modesty means in terms of a dress code for Muslim women. This phenomenon – the erasure from the discussion of the veil’s intrinsic relationship to religious ideals of female modesty – only further highlights the extent to which patriarchal narratives, both pro and against veiling, continue to infringe the rights of women at the deepest levels.
Opponents of extremism consider banning the burqa, niqab or hijab essential to countering growing fundamentalism among Muslims. Banning these garments, it is argued, is also essential to assimilating Muslims to shared democratic values among all citizens. It is additionally considered important to identify an individual in public places.
The crucial point that is being neglected here is an analysis of the malevolent concept of modesty for women, which throws Muslim women into oppressive waters where shark-like clerics are the sole judge of how women are supposed to conduct themselves. I find it almost impossible to comprehend hardliners seeing women as objects whose presence can ignite moral deprivation and become the cause of exceeding divine limits. The extremist interpretation of modesty in terms of clothing, together with a women’s role in certain situations, dwarf the humane laws that give women an equal place in society.
The issue of faith schools
Thankfully, at last, the British Court of Appeal recently addressed the problem and ruled that segregation on the basis of gender is discriminatory and unlawful in Islamic faith schools. Since then, the move has been appreciated by many as well as criticised by a hardliner fringe that is invested in promoting discrimination on the basis of gender. No matter how positive the court decision may be, however, the real task of providing equal opportunities to Muslim women is yet to be accomplished.
The imposition of veiling and gender discrimination is prevalent in the Islamic faith schools as well as British primary schools and has remained unchecked for a long time. Moreover, we have yet to hear an apology from the concerned authorities for allowing the obnoxious act of parents putting veils on their baby girls and sending them to school. We await the reassurance that government will enforce firm guidelines requiring school administrations to curb this practice and to instruct parents about the detrimental effects of imposing archaic practices on their babies.
Materials discovered in an Islamist school’s library in Birmingham during an Ofsted inspection advocated wife-beating and wives never denying sex to their husbands. Such teachings are clearly repulsive, and encourage violence against women and allow men to treat their wives inhumanly. Similar ideas are also instilled in the minds of Muslim youths during the sermons of extremist imams both in mosques and so-called religious schools.
“Materials discovered in an Islamist school’s library in Birmingham during an Ofsted inspection advocated wife-beating and wives never denying sex to their husbands”
The main purpose of covering little girls since childhood is to introduce them to the ‘modest’ culture that confines women to an obedient and oppressive way of life. Modesty culture and attire is not just a piece of cloth but a commandment issued by the community to the girls from birth. This commandment warns them to be ashamed of their bodies and to hold their heads low before men throughout their lives.
It is that misogynistic mindset which allows absurdities like the killing of a British born Pakistani girl Shafilea Ahmed (17) by her parents in Warrington, Cheshire. Shafilea was killed merely for holding her head high and living how she chose, against the family’s religious and cultural beliefs. She was bright and intended to be a solicitor but that was not enough to earn her parents’ pride. They wanted their girl to live a submissive life and to marry an older man arranged by her parents.
This shows how ‘modesty culture’ demands the unconditional subservience of women. They must live up to the level of piousness and righteousness marked by the community. Failure to meet these expectations potentially causes irreparable damage to a woman. The growing influence of hardline Muslims is annulling human values. Their influence also pushes women into the abyss of being inferior to men through gender segregation and imposed veiling. I strongly support women’s freedom and choice in all matters. However, I cannot fathom the reasoning of people who sympathise with this singular concept of moral parameters that shift women into a lower category.
The political response to modesty culture
I distinctively remember Sadiq Khan, before becoming the Mayor of London, stating that a question should be asked about why British Muslim women choose to wear “jilbab or niqab”. He further said “What’s insidious is if people are starting to think it is appropriate to treat women differently or that it has been forced on them. What worries me is children being forced to adopt a lifestyle.”
While these are legitimate concerns, his response has been a little too late to start asking questions. As an influential leader within Labour, Khan should have started debate on issues that impact the welfare of both British Muslim women and minors.
Sadly, what we witnessed instead were scarved baby girls in London traffic ads and schools with free-wheeling power to mould girls to their increasingly pervasive extremist ideals.