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As a Muslim man, I am sick of our obsession with the hijab

We must start addressing the real issue that has long been glaring at us: attitudes towards women.

When it comes to the hijab, everybody seems to be obsessed with it. More than an article of modesty, it serves as a symbol of oppression to some and a symbol of liberation to others. But, more peculiarly, the hijab is often used as a benchmark by conservative Muslims to judge the morality of a Muslim woman and her “Muslimness”.

Indeed, judging by the Islamic discourse that concerns Muslim women, one would assume that the primary religious duty of Muslim women is wearing the hijab.

The restriction of religion from an ethical guide to appearances (dress-codes, rituals) is a curious phenomenon; a virus that seems to have seeped its way into mainstream Muslim consciousness. Partly due to the spread of Wahhabism, a deeply conservative sect of Islam, our religious priorities seem to have shifted from spiritual transformation to pedantic details about rituals and dress codes. Thus, the fixation with the hijab, I believe, reflects the very cursory manner in which we approach Islam.

From certain imams insisting that earthquakes are caused by women not wearing a hijab to muftis excommunicating Muslim women who do not consider wearing the hijab as a religious duty, the intellectual level of discourse that surrounds Muslim women is excruciating, and is more or less concerned only with notions of modesty.

This gives a gloomy insight – the obsession with the hijab is, in fact, a form of sexual objectification. Objectification, after all, involves the lowering of a person to the status of an object. By reducing Muslim women to their bodies and pretending that modesty is their primary religious duty, we strip them off their personhood and rob them off their agency as human beings.

Take, for example, the analogies that are employed to convince Muslim women of the benefits of the hijab. The lollipop analogy is particularly popular among conservative Muslims on social media. Two lollipops are shown: a bare lollipop with a swarm of flies on it and a wrapped lollipop with flies moving away from it. The caption reads: “You cannot avoid them, but you can protect yourself. Your Creator knows what is better for you.”

Apart from the blatant objectification, this analogy has at its core a very troubling assumption. It is that Muslim women who do not wear a hijab deserve cat-calling and sexual harassment, as some sort of retributive divine law, taking away all responsibility from men to behave morally and guard their gaze (as mentioned in the Quran). Such attitudes contribute to a culture of victim-blaming with devastating consequences for the victims involved.

Furthermore, the analogy assumes that Muslim women who wear the hijab are not going to be sexually harassed. This naïve assumption shatters to pieces when confronted with evidence. According to a study carried out in Egypt, 72.5 per cent of the women who reported being sexually harassed were, in fact, wearing the hijab. And let’s not pretend that sexual harassment does not occur in countries like Iran where wearing the hijab is required by law.

“Growing up in a Muslim country where the hijab is not mandatory, I have always been told: the hijab is there to protect women from men’s desire, because our body is awra (intimate parts of the body that should be covered) that can spread fitna (chaos) among men,” says Sahar, a 26-year-old non-Iranian who has been studying in Tehran for a year. “But then I came to Iran, where hijab is mandatory, and I am still harassed in the streets. Men aggressively stare at me, talk to me, call me names. I feel naked, and worthless.”

Today’s world is in a state of emergency. With gnawing problems such as superstition, bigotry, sectarianism, and patriarchy in Muslim-majority states, we simply cannot afford to divert all our attention to the hijab and pedantic details of how to worship God “correctly”. If we are at all serious about preventing the so-called fitna, we must start addressing the real issue that has long been glaring at us: attitudes towards women.

Education, as always, is the key here. Not the hijab. Let’s start getting offended by expressions like “men are going to be men” because men are not monolithic sexual beasts who have no autonomy over their desires. Let’s not tie down a woman’s morality to her decision to wear the hijab. And let’s stop objectifying women and seeing them primarily as avenues for sex.

You would be amazed how far that takes us.

Ro Waseem is a liberal Muslim. He runs a weekly blog on Patheos, and tweets @Quranalyzeit.

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After a year of chaos, MPs from all parties are trying to stop an extreme Brexit

The Greens are calling for a cross-party commission on Brexit.

One year ago today, I stood on Westminster Bridge as the sun rose over a changed country. By a narrow margin, on an unexpectedly high turnout, a majority of people in Britain had chosen to leave the EU. It wasn’t easy for those of us on the losing side – especially after such scaremongering from the leaders of the Leave campaign – but 23 June 2016 showed the power of a voting opportunity where every vote counted.

A year on from the vote, and the process is in chaos. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The Leave campaign deliberately never spelled out any detailed plan for Brexit, and senior figures fought internal battles over which model they preferred. One minute Britain would be like Norway, then we’d be like Canada – and then we’d be unique. After the vote Theresa May promised us a "Red, White and Blue Brexit" – and then her ministers kept threatening the EU with walking away with no deal at all which, in fairness, would be unique(ly) reckless. 

We now have our future being negotiated by a government who have just had their majority wiped out. More than half of voters opted for progressive parties at the last election – yet the people representing us in Brussels are the right-wing hardliners David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson.

Despite widespread opposition, the government has steadfastly refused to unilaterally guarantee EU citizens their rights. This week it has shown its disregard for the environment as it published a Queen’s Speech with no specific plans for environmental protection in the Brexit process either. 

Amid such chaos there is, however, a glimmer of hope. MPs from all parties are working together to stop an extreme Brexit. Labour’s position seems to be softening, and it looks likely that the Scottish Parliament will have a say on the final deal too. The Democratic Unionist Party is regressive in many ways, but there’s a good chance that the government relying on it will soften Brexit for Northern Ireland, at least because of the DUP's insistence on keeping the border with Ireland open. My amendments to the Queen’s speech to give full rights to EU nationals and create an Environmental Protection Act have cross-party support.

With such political instability here at home – and a growing sense among the public that people deserve a final say on any deal - it seems that everything is up for grabs. The government has no mandate for pushing ahead with an extreme Brexit. As the democratic reformers Unlock Democracy said in a recent report “The failure of any party to gain a majority in the recent election has made the need for an inclusive, consensus based working even more imperative.” The referendum should have been the start of a democratic process, not the end of one.

That’s why Greens are calling for a cross-party commission on Brexit, in order to ensure that voices from across the political spectrum are heard in the process. And it’s why we continue to push for a ratification referendum on the final deal negotiated by the government - we want the whole country to have the last word on this, not just the 650 MPs elected to the Parliament via an extremely unrepresentative electoral system.

No one predicted what would happen over the last year. From the referendum, to Theresa May’s disastrous leadership and a progressive majority at a general election. And no one knows exactly what will happen next. But what’s clear is that people across this country should be at the centre of the coming debate over our future – it can’t be stitched up behind closed doors by ministers without a mandate.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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