How can women’s rights advance if the mainstream idea of an authentic Muslim woman’s voice is strictly confined to the oppressed?
A few days ago I received a call from a producer at BBC World Service asking if I knew of a Muslim woman who would comment on a news story about the bikini being banned at the Miss World pageant in Indonesia. I promptly responded that I would and the producer asked me some questions which I answered (I think) quite intelligently; she said she was very impressed.
Then she asked, “Are you a Muslim? Your website photo doesn’t really show that you are.”
To say that I was flabbergasted would be an understatement. I fired back: “and how do you think I should look as a Muslim woman? Should there be a tattoo on my forehead, maybe I should have been in a niqab or a burka?”
The producer said she would call back. Half an hour later I received an email from her saying that while she is very taken by my comments, the editor has said they are not doing that particular story right now because of some breaking news that came up.
Was I surprised? No. This has happened before and as Islamism grows faster than grass in the West, so do the rules about what a Muslim should look like.
I suppose it’s not the producer’s fault. I imagine the conversation taking place behind doors at the BBC probably went something like this:
Editor: There’s a breaking news story about Muslim women in Indonesia. I need you to get a comment from a Muslim woman right away
Producer: I’m on it – actually I was just googling Muslim women activists and I came across this woman in Canada
Editor: Speak to her – we need this like yesterday
Producer: I just called her and she sounds really on the ball. She made some very interesting comments on the issue
Editor: Find out more about her
Producer: Well it says here she’s been an activist for women’s rights for more than half her life. She’s educated, eloquent, is accredited with the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva and has spoken about similar issues before. She sounds good.
Editor: Good work. What does she look like? What’s her website? Let me have a look.
Producer: Her website photos have her in short hair, very modern with make-up, and she’s wearing Western clothes
Editor: Let me see – Oh this won’t do – we have to have a Muslim woman who looks Muslim
Producer: Umm what exactly does that mean? What are we looking for? Aren’t Muslims extremely diverse in their ethnicities and way of dress?
Editor: Yes but you know the rules. We have to have an authentic Muslim voice so you have to find someone who wears the hijab or at least a burka, preferably no make-up, ethnic dress, intersperses her conversation with Inshallah and Mashallah, has an accent and should be well versed in the Koran.
Producer: But what does the Koran have to do with this story?
Editor: Doesn’t matter – quoting the Koran and Hadeeth just makes them sound so much more credible than someone who quotes from the UN declaration of Human Rights
Producer: So what they say is not as important as how they look?
Editor: Yes you got it so please get on it right away
Producer: In that case we don’t need to bother looking too far. We will find our authentic voice right here in Londonistan!
Raheel Raza is President of The Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow