Women’s Islamic dress code has become one of the most contentious issues in the post-9/11 debate on Islam which, Muslims complain, has been conducted almost wholly on the assumption that women who wear “hijab” or “burqa” have been coerced into doing it and are victims of Muslim male oppression.
But how valid are these assumptions? Why is there such reluctance to acknowledge that these women may, indeed, be acting on their own free will, as they claim, and using “hijab” to make a political statement? Are we betraying our own ignorance and prejudices by falling for conspiracy theories? After all, there is a history of women’s protest movements using dress as a political symbol?
These are some of the questions that Atiha Sen Gupta, a young feminist British-born Asian playwright, explores in her debut play What Fatima Did about a feisty teenaged schoolgirl who suddenly starts wearing “hijab,” gives up partying, shuns her white boyfriend, and when in a fit of anger he rips off her “hijab” she reports him for racism.
To her schoolmates and family, Fatima is transformed into a stranger. She is no longer the fun-loving, pub-hopping Fatima they knew. They are puzzled. Why did Fatima do this? And it is not just her non-Muslim friends who are bewildered. Equally upset is Aisha, a fellow-Muslim classmate and a close friend, who sees the “hijab” as a “blood-stained” symbol of women’s oppression.
But even more angry is Fatima’s mother, Rukhsana, who rebelled against her own husband for her right to wear western dress. To her the “hijab” represents the betrayal of the values she fought for.
“She looks like a bloody fundamentalist postbox,” she says recalling how she fought against attempts to impose a dress code on her.
The only person who believes that it’s too much ado about nothing is her twin brother Mohammed. Initially, he simply defends her right to wear what she wants but, provoked by the attacks on his sister and the pressure to take a stand, he tells his mother that as someone who knows what it is like to be an Asian (let alone a Muslim) in post-9/11 and post7/7 Britain he understands why Fatima did what she did.
The dramatic conceit is that we never see Fatima onstage even as the action revolves around her. In a sense, Fatima comes to represent all young Muslim women who find themselves in a similar situation.
Twenty-one-year old Sen Gupta, who is of mixed Indian and Sri Lankan parentage, does not come from a Muslim background; and nor is she an advocate of “hijab” but she resents the judgmental way in which hijab-wearing women are viewed. She believes that there are assumptions about such women that need to be questioned.
“We need to be careful about assuming we know where Muslim girls are all coming from and what they want to say,” she says.
Having suffered racism herself she sees in some of the prevailing attitudes towards the “hijab” an element of racial prejudice whereby anyone who is different is regarded as an outsider. She was “inspired” to write the play by her own experience of anti-Asian hostility in the wake of 9/11 when she noticed a difference in the way people viewed her.
“I remember sitting on a bus on the way to a music lesson…when a middle-aged Irishman started shouting at me, something along the lines of ‘…terrorist…she knows where Bin Laden is,’ something like that. It didn’t even make sense. The irony was that ten, twenty years before, he as an Irishman would have been seen by an ignorant public as the symbol of terrorism. Individual moments like that reflect big shifts in the political landscape. Maybe the pungent racism has faded since then, but up to about two years after 9/11 I felt a real sense of being an Asian and sticking out, sitting on tube carriages and not being treated like I was two years before,” Ms Sen Gupta told one interviewer expressing concern that the whole debate on “hijab” had become very polarised.
What Fatima Did is an attempt to find a middle-ground.
Ms Sen Gupta also looks at the issue from a feminist perspective — namely a woman’s right to wear what she likes or use dress to make a political point. There are references to “bra-burning” of the 1960s and one character sarcastically says that Fatima is “pretending to be a revolutionary.”
Ms Sen Gupta says that as a feminist she “can’t pretend” that “hijab” is liberating but at the same time she doesn’t completely ignore its political significance.
“It’s a way of saying I’m proud to be a Muslim,” she says .
Besides, she is “suspicious” of those who condemn “hijab” as a symbol of oppression — often using it to attack Islam — but wink at violation of women’s rights in their own backyard.
What Fatima Did, staged by London’s progressive Hampstead Theatre and directed by Kelly Wilkinson who specialises in developing new work, has been praised for its “provocative exploration” of identity, individual freedom and multiculturalism in modern Britain. The day I went, it got a standing ovation from a predominantly white audience. But will it change perceptions?