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Hijab - Behind the Muslim Veil

By Jacqui Morley


IT'S a busy weekend in Blackpool and mine is the only veiled face in the swirling sea of seaside life around me. Veil or no veil? It's a free country or was the last time I looked.

But my outlook has widened, as minds have narrowed against me, thanks to a 16-inch square of cloth with an eight inch slit for eyes.
A niqab. Veil. You can't miss them on the News. Yet you'll see few, if any, locally, until Eid celebrations marking the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting and prayer, bring Lancashire's inland town visitors to Blackpool this weekend.
Most local and Lancashire Muslim women go bare of head and face. A few wear the hijab, headscarf, in Blackpool, and very few the niqab.

Up to five per cent of Britain's 1.8 million Muslim women wear the veil. Most can be seen in Blackburn rather than Preston or Bolton.
Headlines such as "4,000 Veils in Blackburn, Lancashire" (The Tablet and the tabloids) don't ring true statistically.
I count five to about every 50 in the Whalley Range retail and residential district of Blackburn. I'm one of the few white faces there and attract some curiosity when I arrive at the Hijab Centre ("beautiful hijabs for beautiful people") on Friday afternoon.


I still attract curiosity when I emerge clad in jhoba (dress), niqab (veil) and burkha (hijab or headscarf).
The veil debate goes on in Muslim ranks. Some may think the veil pious, or extreme or intimidating.
"Are you a convert?" I'm asked next day outside the surgery of local MP and former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who sparked the debate by suggesting Muslim women could remove the veil in his presence.
I see his point. It's hard to interact when we can't see faces, expressions, read body language.
But can you take what a politician says at face value either?
Labour's leadership battle looms and the British National Party is gaining ground in Lancashire, even bringing its conference to Blackpool next month.
Some say Straw's agenda is barely veiled.
Such a fuss over such a small piece of fabric. Yet we barely bat an eyelid at lewd stag and hen party wear, union flags purloined by racists, pubescent youngsters wearing micro skirts.

I mingle with them later, on the Golden Mile,to be spat upon by a stereotype, a shaven headed man, in his 20s.
I am groped by two "stags". Another, a good humoured drunk, tries to untie my veil, double knotted on the advice of helpful girls at the Hijab Centre.
It spares my blushes. He swings his arm around my shoulders, tries to squeeze a breast, and takes a photo on his mobile phone.
An elderly woman in the queue at SeaLife comes to my aid. "Leave the lass alone."
She makes to take my arm, then draws back
unsure. I thank her. Her youngest
grandchild asks "is it for Halloween?"
You'd seldom find a fully veiled Muslim woman alone on the Golden Mile any night, let alone during the holy month.
But I stand by her right to do so, unmolested, or sexually taunted, or racially abused or mooned at from the back seats of a coach.
I'm all right, Jack Straw, because I can remove it, vanish, stop feeling like an outsider.
For others it's down to faith, statement of identity, interpretation of the prophet's law misinterpretation according to some Muslims.
I wear the burkha (niqab and hijab) from Friday afternoon to Monday afternoon in public.
I go about my usual business, shop, walk, work.
I do so with the blessing and backing of Blackpool Muslim community leaders.
I honour the fast between sunrise and sunset for fear of causing offence.
I'm under cover literally to lift the wraps on the issue dividing our secular, if nominally Christian, society.
I'm at the eye of the storm, there for the MP's surgery on Saturday, initially outnumbered by other journalists.
I'm near the Stop the War Coalitionist and a veiled woman who eyes me closely.
She's a former law student, now a mother of two, in her 20s, who sees the veil as a symbol of faith, statement of individuality, reaffirmation of Islam."Terror has made us scapegoats, demonised us."
Her family were horrified when she took the veil. "The niqab is not about oppression, it means freedom, of faith, of self, of state. I am oppressed by this MP, by schools available to my children, housing available for my family, jobs available for us locally, and a country for this is MY country which kills other Muslims."
Is the veil so very different to the wimples worn by nuns until orders and attitudes liberalised in the late 1960s-70s?
But my face is covered. Completely. I see the world with new eyes. I call on friends, see two visibly recoil, another shuts me out with silence until he eventually recognises my voice.
All's not lost. At Stanley Park Cafe I cause a stir but waitress Lorna smiles, makes eye contact, asks for my order. I'm fasting, I tell her, but hand over Gazette tourism surveys.
As I leave, I catch the eye of Chris Royds, 11, of Accrington. "I can see your eyes have crinkled so I THINK you're smiling but I can't see you smile are you?" he asks. "It's scary."
His mother Lynne agrees: "It's intimidating."
"It's our ignorance," says husband James. "How does it feel?"
It's a sunny day and the hijab feels hot and itchy. The fabric enfolds your head, face and shoulders. The veil ties at the back. The dress is comfy and airy. It's cost 33 from top to toe.
Now most react by avoiding eye contact, out of politeness or indifference or even fear?
Some veer out of my path on the Prom, in shops, on streets.
One woman almost screams when she bumps into me and turns to apologise.
Some stare. Children are tugged away by parents.
"Would you like me to explain the veil?" I asked parents of a child transfixed at Tesco.
"We're not interested in your sort," the father responds.
I feel slapped.
I'm racially abused, several times in person, twice from cars.
I'm sexually taunted by two stag parties on the Golden Mile, mobbed by one, jostled by another.
Two attempts are made to remove my veil.
One's just a tug two kids running off laughing.
I'm spat at twice. At Chapel Street car park, near the police station, on Saturday night, and Sunday morning, Central Drive, between the Mosque and the old Mecca.
I was once spat at there before, when patting my headscarf into place, before entering the mosque for its official opening.
Central Drive: spit city.
The best response comes at Our Lady Star of the Sea RC Church social hall, St Annes, where I test whether exhibitors and visitors are paying lip service to a multi-faith event, Under One Sky, to celebrate One World Week.
Canon Aidan Turner extends a warm welcome. He's a fervent ecumenist. He's dismayed more faiths and cultures aren't present.
I'd like more parishioners present. The event's been well publicised in the diocese and our own Gazette.
Two hours pass, I'm veiled for much of it - while different faith groups mingle, Bahai's, Hindus, Muslims, Christians.
Reverend Glyn Eatock, of Churches Together, is quick to greet me. The Baha'i representative Joy Sabour tells me she once taught veiled Muslims and found it hard to "read the clues".
She welcomes the debate.
Of the few present, I recognise three Muslim medics, organiser John Turner, a Catholic and former Blackpool Council official, and two Hindus, Pratibha and husband Kadaba Vasudev. I'm on good terms with them all.
Only "Vas", recently retired pathologist, sees through my disguise. I have to introduce myself to The Gazette photographer with whom I've worked for years.
None are offended, least of all the Muslims perplexed by the scale of essentially an in-faith issue: theological tension or individual identity?
But one elderly lady, with her priest for a walk in the park next day, reprimands me for showing "disrespect to Muslims".
It's a fair point, although no offence was intended. But then the Pope slipped up, too.
So the last words go to Ifty Khan, hospital consultant, of the Blackpool Islamic Mosque committee: "We're not at all offended, just surprised. I have lived in this country most of my life and seldom see people dressed like that. It is a curiosity, to us, too, but Jack Straw's motives are political. He has done us no favours in this demonisation of Islam. We should live and let live."
And Dr Arshad Javed, part of the international Pakistan earthquake relief team: "Absolutely no problem. We were glad to see you honour the fast although your instruction lacked a little. It is tradition, if people want to wear the niqab, let them. None of our women do and that's their choice. I don't think Jack Straw realised what he was starting. I'm inclined to take his comments at face value."

17 October 2006


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