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Last Updated: Friday, 10 December 2004, 12:15 GMT
Britons react to Musharraf veil views
By Alexis Akwagyiram
BBC News

Woman wearing a veil
Many British Muslim women choose to wear a veil

The sight of a Muslim woman wearing a veil elicits little interest in modern Britain. But during his visit to London, Pakistan's President Musharraf spoke against keeping women hidden. What should British Muslims make of his comments?

Standing on the steps of Number 10 earlier this week, President Musharraf's wife Begum Sehba posed happily with the Pakistani leader and the Blairs.

The snapshots show the first couple of one of the world's most populous Muslim nations as every bit as "contemporary" as their hosts. There was not a veil in sight.

Indeed, during the trip General Musharraf said: "My wife is travelling around. She is very religious but she is very moderate."

He added: "Some people think that the women should be confined to their houses and put veils on and all that and they should not move out - absolutely wrong."

Given that many British Muslim women chose to wear the veil, what should they make of the suggestion that they form part of a backward view of Islam?


A brief glance at Rajnaara Akhtar's clothes speaks volumes about her religious beliefs.

The Blairs and the Musharrafs at Downing Street
The Musharrafs happily posed with their hosts, the Blairs

The solicitor, from Leicester, usually wears a hijab - a Muslim headscarf - and believes it can profoundly affect the way people behave towards her.

"Since the 11 September attacks I always dread going to airports," says Mrs Akhtar 25. "I have even been body-searched on domestic flights within England.

"This is always humiliating and makes me feel victimised."

That traditional clothing can attract unwanted, sometimes racist attention, is beyond dispute as far as many Muslims are concerned.

It is all about choice - you can be a fantastic, practicing Muslim without wearing a headscarf
Humera Khan

A report from the Commission on British Muslims and Islamaphobia, a think-tank established by anti-racism organisation the Runnymede Trust, said there had been greater hostility towards Muslim since 11 September.

It said there had been more attacks, both against mosques and individuals.

Thorny issue

Some campaigners believe other barriers preventing Muslim women from being free to wear what they want are more institutional.

One of the thorniest issues in the past year has been whether the state has the power to intervene in how someone dresses.

This came to a head in France when the government banned religious symbols from schools - something opponents regarded as primarily targeted at Islamic dress.

Rajnaara Akhtar
Mrs Akhtar wears a hijab and sometimes opts for a jilbab gown

Supporters of the policy say that a modern secular society cannot allow religion to interfere in education, whatever anyone chooses to believe outside of the classroom.

The situation in the UK is quite different, where a multiculturalist approach says that faith can have a greater role in education.

But for some the French row still had echoes here when a Luton schoolgirl unsuccessfully challenged her school's ban of her Muslim dress.

Shabina Begum, 15, said the ban had breached her religious rights and meant she had missed almost two years of classes.

But the school argued that it already had an optional Islamic uniform, devised with the help of Muslim scholars, which the pupil had rejected.

The High Court supported the school saying teachers had taken proper account of Ms Begum's beliefs and said other Muslim girls could feel under pressure to conform if a stricter form of dress appeared in the classroom.

'Culturally specific'

Coming from inside the Muslim world, General Musharraf's comments could be seen as even more provocative.

But many Muslim women insist that what they wear remains an entirely personal choice - whoever makes the comments.

It is about differentiating between the private and public spheres of one's life
Humera Khan

Mrs Akhtar, vice co-ordinator of the Assembly for the Protection of Hijab, suggests the views expressed by the Pakistani president do not apply to British women anyway.

"His comments are culturally specific to rural Pakistan, where there seems to be a view of women being part of the home environment," she said.

"Most Muslim British women have jobs, are well educated and don't stay in the home. It is not an issue for us so much."

Mrs Akhtar, who is currently completing an MA in Human Rights Law at Nottingham University, said: "I wear a hijab because it is something specified in the Koran. It is a veil of modesty for me....something that I am proud of."

Pakistani problem?

The idea that it is up to individuals to choose how they practice their religion was echoed by Humera Khan, a consultant on Muslim affairs.

She also said politicians and the media tend to distort the role of religious clothing in the Islamic faith.

"The Islamic dress code is about more than just the hijab - it is about differentiating between the private and public spheres of one's life."

"It is all about choice - you can be a fantastic, practicing Muslim without wearing a headscarf. Not wearing one does not make you less of a Muslim."

Pakistani women 'must not hide'
07 Dec 04 |  Politics
Schoolgirl loses Muslim gown case
15 Jun 04 |  Education
Headscarves: Contentious cloths
11 Dec 03 |  Europe


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