Khadija says Channel 4 didn’t tell her she’d be in competition with the Queen

Muslim Khadija Ravat wants to pull out of Channel 4’s Christimas message because she fears she may nick viewers from the Queen. The Islamic studies teacher, 34, who wears a veil, claims she did not know the broadcasts would be screened at the same time. Last night she said: “I don’t want to be competing with the Queen. I’m sure she’s a lovely person. Her speech will be far more interesting than anything I have got to say. I didn’t mean to cause a fuss. I did not know how important the Queen’s speech is to many people.” Channel 4 said that they chose Khadija because the veil debate is topical.

Daily Star, 8 December 2006

Meanwhile, in yesterday’s Evening Standard, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has taken the opportunity to denounce the niqab as the symbol of “Muslim women suffering under the cloak of oppression”.

For Yusuf Smith’s comments, see Indigo Jo Blogs, 7 December 2006

Why I deplore this TV Christmas stunt

For Channel 4 , a presenter in full niqab is just another wacky idea. But the veil is a cloak of oppression and cruelty, says one Muslim writer

By Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Evening Standard, 7 December 2006

WE KNOW Channel 4 is paid to be a pain, to whip up furies and controversies. The channel’s iconoclastic spirit can generate exceptionally good programmes and also abysmally bad ideas. Hip bosses sometimes want to be audacious and provocative for the sheer fun of it. So now these Armani suits have picked a fully veiled Muslim woman to deliver their alternative Christmas message.

Delight will ripple through the corridors of the trendy HQ as a storm of outrage follows this mad, bad and dangerous decision. But why stop there? I know at least two Somali mothers who support their own genital mutilation and will subject their daughters to the “purification”. Perhaps next year.

Meanwhile some liberals, the Mayor and retrograde Muslim organisations will rejoice that the niqab has thus been honoured, as will those white female commentators who have come out for the full veil. I wonder if any of these niqab groupies would be as sanguine if their own daughters decided to disappear into black shrouds.

Choice alone cannot be the sole compass for personal or political action. In any case, how do these defenders of the veil know all such women and girls have made a free and fair choice? Or that six-year-olds in a hijab are independent little misses who decided to cover their hair?

The chosen one, Khadija Ravat, is a very nice lady. We met on a TV programme and she was warm and non-judgmental. I can see why she was selected, because she gives the niqab a good name. We have emailed each other and I am going to visit her home one day. But I cannot respect her shroud. She can look at the world yet denies us access to the features which make her unique and uniquely human.

The recent employment-case judgments against the niqab reflect what society in general believes – that there have to be dress code bans on full veils at work. Most workplaces disallow semi-nudity too.

The national conversation over the veil has been open and passionate – a very important development in our complex democracy. We didn’t shut up even when instructed to by Muslim ” leaders”. Channel 4 hosted some of the best debates on the issue. Now it has decided to glamorise and validate the veil, showing cool indifference to the meanings of the most violently contested symbols in the world today.

For what some claim as their preferred attire is a cruel prison for others. Lesley Abdela, the legendary gender-rights expert, has just returned from Iraq, where she advises Iraqi women fighting for political equality. She told me this story. A top university professor in Baghdad had a corpse of a young female delivered to him. She was the brightest of his cohort. She had been raped, tortured, then killed because she dared to walk without covering her face and hair. Acid is thrown at the faces of such women; many are beaten and raped all across the Arab countries, in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In this paper I described a veiled woman who followed me home after being subjected to the most horrifying domestic violence, all signs well covered up by the unholy sheet. Since then several others have contacted me to confirm this is happening all over the country. One of them, Saima, asked this: “All those women are speaking out on TV about how they are free to decide. How can women like me tell the public our truths? We are afraid for our lives. They are not. But they should remember us.”

Instead of expressing solidarity with these females, sanctimonious British niqabis (with beautifully made-up eyes) are siding with their foes.

There are practical issues too. Veiled women cannot swim in the sea, smile at their babies in parks, feel the sun on their skin. Millions of progressive Muslims watch with disbelief as young women, born free, seek subjugation. It breaks our hearts.

In the first century of Islam, there were Muslim feminists resisting seclusion and covers. The First Lady of Rebellion was Sakina, who got a pre-nup agreement from her husband. He was to be faithful and let her keep her will and liberty. When he went to a concubine she publicly humiliated him in court in Medina. An Arab historian described her fire: “She was a delicate beauty, never veiled. Poets gathered in her house. She was playful and refined.”

Ayesha, married to the son of a close associate of Prophet Mohammed, was a feisty resister too: “I will not veil. No one can force me to do anything.” The veil predates Islam and was common among the Assyrian royalty, Byzantine upperclass Christians and Bedouins – men and women – when sand storms blasted their faces. Women from the Prophet’s family covered themselves, it is said, to prevent harassment from petitioners. He proclaimed that “the true veil is in the eyes of men.”

The Koran does not ask women to cover their faces. The growing use of the niqab represents the terrifying march of Wahhabism, which aims to expunge the female Muslim presence from the public space. Exiles from religious authoritarian regimes who fled to the West now find the evil has followed them.

Veils affirm the pernicious idea of women as carriers of original sin. The brilliant Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi asks why powerful men “can’t look at our hair and appreciate a Muslim woman standing defiant, her shoulders back, her breast advanced, her eyes boldly scrutinising them? Why do they all dream of this fully veiled self-deprecating creature?”

And if I were one of millions of decent Muslim men, I would be incandescent at the assumptions made about Muslim male lust and self-control, which supposedly collapses at the sight of a lock of hair.

As long as it ensures genuine equal standards for all, a liberal nation has no obligation to extend its liberalism to condone the most illiberal practices. Europe still treats Muslims as undeserving inferiors. The media lurches drunkenly between pandering to Muslim separatists and maligning us all as the aliens within. It is hard to be a Muslim today. And it becomes harder still when some choose deliberately to act and dress as aliens.

To Luke Johnson, chairman of Channel 4, and to its director of programmes, Kevin Lygo, Ms Ravat is just one more off-the-wall, wacky Christmas messenger – joining Sharon Osbourne, Brigitte Bardot and Ali G, its bearers in previous years. But Muslim women suffocating under the cloak of oppression will not see the funny side. And as a Muslim feminist, I don’t either.