10 Oct

New Zealand PM Jacinda Arden Sends Empowering Message To Muslim Women

OPINION: Our prime minister should be saluted for empowering Muslim women. 

In a piece published on Tuesday, by Iraqi-born architect and author Ali Shakir, Jacinda Ardern was criticised for wearing the hijab to an event in south Auckland.

He argued that beyond the initial gesture of sympathy after the mosque terror attacks, the prime minister should not wear the hijab, because it sends the wrong message to young Muslim girls by iconising the hijab as the only expression of their faith.

A further argument was that Ardern's gesture could play into the hands of those who want to force the hijab on Muslim women.  

The first thing that jumped out at me was how much the author seemed to underestimate the intelligence of Muslim women.

The piece makes no mention of the fact that the event the PM was attending in Māngere was the Islamic Women's Council of New Zealand annual conference, although this is mentioned in the caption to the accompanying picture. The young Muslim women who attend such events are intelligent, engaged, active and ambitious members of their communities.

At the same event, when Ardern asked how many aspired to leadership positions, "almost half the women in the hall shot their hand[s] up". 

And let's not forget who the spokesperson for the council is. Now a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, Anjum Rahman is a formidable, indefatigable hijab-wearing woman who supports inclusiveness for all, including members of the LGBTQ community. Would she stand for any women being forced into wearing the hijab? I doubt it.

Donna Miles-Mojab says Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is being unfairly criticised for wearing a hijab to the 29th Annual National Conference of the Islamic Women's Council of New Zealand in Mangere in August.

Unfortunately, the underlying assumption in many arguments pertaining to hijab is that veiled Muslim women are oppressed, impressionable and in need of rescuing.

I doubt very much that anyone of sound mind would think a prime minister who does not ordinarily wear a headscarf approves of anyone being coerced into wearing one - or that she thinks all Muslim women should wear a scarf or they are not Muslim enough. 

Yes, I strongly agree with Ali Shakir that there is little to no room for secular, non-hijab-wearing Muslims in the public imagination and in the representation of Muslims in the media. In fact, I am one of those secular Muslims. I define myself as a Muslim not through practice or knowledge, but through my heritage and my relationship with Islamic art, literature, rituals and tradition. Shakir is right to say Muslims are often reduced to hijab-wearing women and bearded men. 

The Muslim community is rich in its diversity. As well as the well-known Sunni and Shia types, we have gay Muslims, feminist Muslims, Marxist Muslims, secular Muslims and more. I don't think there is an identifiable majority type that could represent all Muslims.  

Anjum Rahman, made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to ethnic communities and women in the Queen's Birthday honours, is the Islamic Women's Council of New Zealand spokesperson and would not stand for young women being forced to wear hijab, Donna Miles-Mojab believes.

So, it is true that that the Muslim community is often misrepresented but I am not under any illusion as to who is responsible for this misrepresentation.  

Shakir mentioned the Iranian revolution as a pivotal moment for Muslims. I lived through the revolution. It wasn't Khomeini who made Iranian women invisible. It was the Western media.

When hijab became compulsory, we carried on wearing our lipsticks with our Audrey Hepburn-like headscarves, but all we saw in Western media were chadori women, covered in a black cloth from head to toe. Yes, these women existed but they were in the minority. Many of them were out on the street chasing and reprimanding us for flouting the new Islamic dress code, which had not existed before the revolution. The West seemed obsessed by these black-clad chadori women and so they appeared everywhere. Western Museum curators loved them too and before we knew it, the black cloth became the iconic symbol of Iran and a Muslim woman.

There is of course more to say about the iconisation of hijab and the role the West, especially the US, played in the politicisation of Islam and promotion of extremism, especially after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but I have limited space here and there is plenty of material available online.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern attends Islamic prayers in Hagley Park a week after the March 15 mosque shootings.

The most important point is that the loose donning of the hijab by our prime minister should be seen in its context. 

And the context is this: Muslim women in general, and hijabi women in particular, are often subjected to racism and attacks, especially when they run for positions of power. 

In Christchurch, where we suffered the terrible mosque attacks, a young hijabi Muslim woman running in the local elections has been abused online and had her election boards defaced. 

Regrettably, hijab is seen by many as the symbol of backwardness and extremism. It is this perception that the prime minister is challenging by showing solidarity with hijab-wearing women.

And if there is any message she is sending to Muslims, it is that not only do they have a place in our communities but they should also strive to have a place in leadership positions. For this reason, I think she should be saluted, not scorned.

Originally published on www.stuff.co.nz


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