Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 27 May 2019

In the West, the hijab debate kicks up a storm

The debate over a reporter wearing a hijab while reporting on the attack in Nice raises a wide range of issues, writes HA Hellyer.
What relevance does a reporter's hijab have to her ability to report incidents like the attack in Nice? Andreas Gebert / EPA
What relevance does a reporter's hijab have to her ability to report incidents like the attack in Nice? Andreas Gebert / EPA

Earlier this week, Kelvin MacKenzie wrote a column in The Sun newspaper in the UK decrying the choice by a British broadcaster to place Fatima Manji as the presenter covering the Nice attacks. It seems it was too much for him to have a Muslim woman, wearing the hijab, on national British television, covering a terrorist atrocity. There are two problems with that: she’s a journalist, so it’s her job to cover the news. And secondly, her hijab is irrelevant – much like MacKenzie’s opinion. But the abuse Manji received in his column raises a very particular issue and one that is not limited to her or to the UK.

Manji is a Muslim and a British journalist. She has made a conscious decision to wear the hijab, in order to fulfil a religious observance.

There are many Muslim women who wear the scarf in journalism and in other professions in the West – and they suffer penalties, day in and day out, as a result. That is particularly the case in journalism. A journalist’s name, their face and their image, are often seen by huge numbers of people they may never have actually met. I’m not a journalist, but I know how even a modicum of exposure to public life means you are scrutinised in so many ways – and journalists get it as well, if not more. Hijab-wearing female journalists get that many times over.

Manji’s employers recognised the situation and in response to MacKenzie’s appalling article issued a statement of full support for her. That is something to be applauded, because very often it isn’t the case that an employer will back the employee’s right to dress as she chooses. That is true not only in the West, in countries like the UK where Muslims are a minority, but also in some Muslim majority countries as well.

Many years ago, I taught law at the American University in Cairo and I came across a graduate student who was a practising lawyer at the time. She told me that her employer had bluntly told her that if she ever thought of wearing the headscarf she would be fired. This was a Muslim telling another Muslim in a Muslim country that fulfilling an accepted religious practice would lead to her expulsion from work.

There are penalties Muslim women face all the time, around the world. There is a stigma attached to wearing the hijab in many Muslim societies – it will often be associated with a lower socio-economic class, for example, and thus women who choose to wear it will face pressure from their peers. The “hijab penalty” is a hefty one indeed.

All too often, the West does not accept that women who wear the hijab actually want to wear it of their own volition. There is a feeling that somehow they are being coerced, and, as such, their decision shouldn’t be respected. But that is in itself an assumption – and an unproven one.

No doubt there are women who wear the hijab, and indeed other types of clothing, due to pressure from friends, family or the society in which they live, but that doesn’t negate the reality that many Muslim women wear the hijab voluntarily. When cases like Manji’s come up, all too often criticism of the abuse is diluted by drawing attention to cases where women have been forced to wear the headscarf.

We should always start from the assumption that anyone wearing the headscarf does so of their own free choice – unless proven otherwise.

Manji wearing the headscarf on national British television achieves something very poignant, even though, as a religious observance, that’s probably not her point. It sends a message to young British Muslim women that if they decide to don the headscarf that they have as much of an opportunity to make it in journalism as anyone else. As for The Sun’s columnist, it seems rather desperate on his part to criticise the personal choice of a woman to dress as she chooses. Indeed, one could argue his column was bigoted in terms of both gender and religion.

But one hopes that the focus on the column will not cause us to ignore a serious reality in many different societies. That is that Muslim women who wear the headscarf in different contexts often have to struggle against the objections of their families, the prejudice of their co-workers and the realities of their socio-economic class. They have the right to wear the hijab – and for those of us who do not, particularly men of all faiths or none, one hopes we respect their decision to do so, as opposed to adding needlessly to the pressure these women already face in the West and elsewhere.

Dr HA Hellyer is a non-resident senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s Centre for the Middle East in Washington, DC and at the Royal United Services Institute in London

On Twitter: @hahellyer

Updated: July 21, 2016 04:00 AM