David Cameron has further stigmatised the Muslim community - suggesting that those who do not learn English may have to leave the country - Rabina Khan responds
I choose to wear the headscarf, and am proud - as proud as I am to be a product of this multicultural nation. I will always defend multiculturalism - the fabric of different cultures woven together to make a fabric of shared experiences greater than the sum of its parts - because without it I would not be here. It is a shame that such a simple notion needs defending, not only from Britain First and the English Defence League, but from large sections of our press and sometimes our own government.
I was not born here. I came with my parents in the mid-1970s and grew up in the small town of Rochester in Kent. My father was a Docker and we were the only family of colour on our street. Back then it seemed we were less defined by our religion. What prejudice there was articulated directly to skin colour rather than cloaking itself behind a ‘critique of Islam.’ But things have changed. Nowadays, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, and indeed most of Asia and Middle East are thrown beneath the label of 'Muslim', even those who are not practicing Muslims.
When I was growing up there were no black or Asian dolls apart from the Golliwogs that some of my friends believed were realistic representations of black people. One of my teachers insisted that India and Bangladesh were the same place because my mother wore a sari. But another teacher told the class that they should be privileged to have me as a classmate, and it was their duty to learn about my life because I wasn't from the same background. She was Welsh, and understood a little of what it felt to be an outsider in England I stand by her words today. We all have a duty to learn about each other.
There were moments when we did. We attended a Church of England school, and at Christmas, I was thrilled to be cast as the Angel Gabriel in the Nativity play (my sister was less thrilled to be cast as the back end of a donkey.) We sung hymns, and recited the Lord’s Prayer before lunch. When Eid came, our school had an assembly all about the festival, and I remember my mother dressing up our white neighbour in one of her saris for Eid, and on another occasion for a wedding.
The harvest festival mirrored the giving of alms in my own faith, and my mother would prepare me a food basket to give to the elderly when our school visited the local home. When my mother lost her father, our neighbours came to our house with food. We were one community, and we shared respect, compassion and understanding.
I belonged to the only family of colour but we and our neighbours were drawn together by our common experiences of living and working. Like many others, our community was proud to be working class. Even as we’ve grown more ‘tolerant’, that sense of solidarity has been lost.
In short, it wasn’t ‘more’ or ‘less’ racist - history is far more complicated than that. But there has been, for me, one key change. The veil is now seen by so many as a symbol of oppression, social conservatism and at worst extremism. This is not a narrative that has been around forever Nor is it applied to Christian ascetics or even Orthodox Jews. Somehow the Hijab became synonymous with extremism or a lack of women’s agency.
The way I was brought up does not reflect that in the slightest. In fact, as a youngster I remember reading the Janet and John children’s books. I couldn’t relate to them, and not just because they both had blond hair and blue eyes. Janet was always in the kitchen with mother and John was with his father in the garden. Those roles didn't make much sense for me, because I was always out in the garden with dad and my parents helped each other with the chores.
One of the frequently recited ‘problems’ with Islam is marriage. Like most cultures, we marry. Like in many cultures, marriages can be arranged, like my parents’. Arrangement can get lost in translation. It is not the same as forced marriages that violate human rights and dignity, and should be unacceptable in any culture. Done properly, it is no more than a sophisticated dating system – sites like SingleMuslim.com or Muslimmatrimony.com are becoming increasingly popular.
Those who judge the position of women by the veil miss that nuance. And just as disturbingly, it builds the impression of incompatible cultures. Nigel Farage seems to believe that Islam is an organised fifth column out to infiltrate and destroy ‘British values’ – (rather than contribute to them.) Made less explicit, this is the undertone of much of the new discourse on ‘nonviolent extremism’ - doing things differently opens you up to extra scrutiny.
The veil is despised because it is an obvious sign of doing things differently. So it is feared, hated, or simply misunderstood. I remember when I first began working for Tower Hamlets, procuring placements for young people. It was a hot day, and a certain gentleman concerned for my welfare said he wouldn’t mind if I took off my headscarf in the heat. I told him that I would take off my headscarf if he took his trousers off!
My parents brought us up to respect ourselves and others, to be polite and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. We were taught to be honest, not to steal and to work hard in school and do our fair share in the home. Those are values you would find in most cultures – they are virtually universal. Recently 83% of Muslims agreed with the statement ‘I am proud to be a British citizen’, whereas only 79% of non-Muslims agreed. So it would seem Muslims are statistically more patriotic! That’s a contrast to France which strongly counter poses a national identity to a ‘community’ identity’. Less than half of Muslims there say they consider themselves French. Valuing the input of others strengthens collective national identity.
Of course there are plenty who would rather see us divided - a minority in the Muslim community who believe we should all be subject to stringent interpretations of Sharia law. There’s also 1 in 3 Londoners who ‘would not trust’ a Muslim mayor and a million British people who like Britain First on Facebook - who paraded outside the East London mosque in a military jeep.
Such parades might be the work of those on the fringes, but when the government blames Islamophobic attacks on the far-Right alone, they are missing the consequences of their own work. My home of Tower Hamlets - a proud borough that has been a refuge for generations fleeing persecution, from French Huguenots to German Jews to Bengali Muslims, and today a diverse community from the hipsters of Shoreditch to the Curry Mile to old pubs and pie and mash shops - has become a byword for extremism. This is no accident - we have been subject to a decade’s worth of headlines based on badly-evidenced smear stories. These stories are then held up by politicians to justify ever more backward and authoritarian approaches to the Islamic fifth column they believe stalks our corner of London, waiting to move in on theirs. They’ve stopped even bothering to cite anything resembling a source when they accuse us of being a borough of hatred, division and extremism.
In fact we’ve always stood up to extremism. With only the smallest of exceptions, we united to beat off the fascists in 1936 at Cable Street, and again in Aldgate against the EDL in 2011 and 2013, and we came together once more to reject the politics of hate offered by so-called Islamic State.
We have also come together to fight poverty, housing shortages and the host of problems visited upon us by uncaring governments. In May 2010 I won an election as a councillor in what had been identified as an “unwinnable” ward. In October 2010 I became the first Muslim woman to hold a council cabinet position for housing and regeneration which included sitting on a number of strategic boards. Under my cabinet leadership and in partnership with the community and stakeholders, the council delivered record numbers of affordable homes, blocked the bedroom tax and did more than any other council to tackle our endemic housing crisis. While we’re on British values, I cannot help but think the strand of decency and fair play running through English identity should not stand by and let a million people languish dependent on food banks, scapegoat migrant workers for hardship among citizen workers and demonise those on benefits in order to justify further defunding them in the name of so-called necessity.
If we come back to prejudice for a second, it was a little while into my tenure that I learned I had to work twice as hard to receive half of the plaudits given to my male colleagues. Local government is defiantly stale, male and pale and I have received far more patronising on part of my gender (and faith) there than anywhere else. Accusations of inexperience and incompetence were used to disguise racism and sexism. Comments I have received include: “I suppose you can’t really build because it is for a large Muslim community”, “It’s hard for a Muslim woman to understand housing situations, do you learn everything by heart?” and even “How’s the Taliban thing going?”
Fortunately it made me work all the harder to prevent my ideas being swept under the carpet. A basic and chronic problem like housing was too big to give in to those attempting to sideline different perspectives.
If we are to progress as a society we must embrace diversity and empower people, Without a wider breadth of experience on the table and capitalising on all of the strengths of each individual within the collective, we will be unable to meet the challenges of tomorrow.
And in place of simple identity politics, we need an awareness of how multifaceted we all are. No one is solely ‘a Muslim’ or ‘white’ - we occupy so many spaces - gender, age, race, faith, but also upbringing, worldview, interests, hopes and dreams. As our society grows more multicultural we borrow from each other, we find different ways of expressing our own beliefs and cultures and rather than becoming one great monocultural blob, diversity multiplies exponentially. My Islam is British and Bangladeshi at the same time. I am irrevocably a product of multiculturalism, which is why the Islamophobia I see every day is a threat to both my British identity and my Islamic faith, and every part of my being. That’s part of why I feel the need to defend the veil.
A long time ago, my father taught me that there is one identity that surpasses all others - the human identity. Both, in terms of us as individuals, and in terms of how we relate to one another as one people.
If there is to be any leading British value, it should be the freedom to express that identity in the way we choose.
Rabina Khan is a Bangladeshi-born British writer, politician, councillor for Shadwell in Tower Hamlets Council, community worker and author of Ayesha’s Rainbow. She stood in the recent Mayoral election in Tower Hamlets on a left of Labour, anti-austerity platform.