This is a conversation I have had in two halves with a young Muslim woman. The first half was at a conference in front of an audience of youth workers. The second was on the phone last week. Like most of us I know few practising Muslims. Which is hardly surprising. After all they constitute only 3% of the population. She has profoundly opened my mind about her faith.
SF If we were on the radio and I said to the audience that you were wearing the hijab; they wouldn’t see in their minds who I see in front of me now. (This is because she is wearing a bright pink hijab, a white jacket, pink flowing skirt and jewelled slippers)
IJ I know. My friends and I call out selves the Hijabi-Barbies
SF That’s the first Muslim joke I have ever heard.
IJ Yes, it’s been a bit dull since the 16th century
SF And that’s the second
What does the hijab mean to you?
IJ I can’t remember a moment when I decided to wear it. I often say it grew over my head. As I got older, and I know this sounds stupid, I realised how much we are judged by how we look. I hear boys saying, “she’s a real minger” about some girl when I know she’s really sweet and “she’s fit” about some girl who is just horrible. If you believe in a merciful God then everybody is beautiful. To call someone ugly is condemning a creation of God. I know I am gorgeous, that I have a beautiful body. It’s the bit of me that is clever and caring that you can’t see. The hijab in a way makes you naked.
SF Do you have lots of different coloured hijabs?
IJ I think I have more hijabs than knickers. Sometimes I think that’s going against what I am saying. But I don’t claim to be a perfect Muslim. I rationalise that I am living in a western country, so do in Rome and all that. It’s my way of bridging the gap. If I am sitting on a train, I am far less threatening to someone sitting next to me than someone covered from head to toe.
SF You’re melding your traditions with Britain?
IJ This kind of melding has been going on for centuries with Muslims.
SF What is your relationship with the Muslims we so often see in the news, ‘Beeston’, if you like?
IJ I feel towards them the same as I feel towards the BNP. I recognise that we share some things. With them I recognise that we have our faith in common. With the BNP we live in the same country and watch the same TV programmes. But both groups are making my life really different.
IJ One group is making me into something I am not. When the radicals are aggressive about this country and the way of life I feel very difficult. I have made this my country and I would die for it. Their actions are limiting me.
SF I sense that you might find it difficult to criticise other Muslims in public?
IJ Lots of Muslims want to change Muslim behaviour. But part of me still feels extremely defensive. When these debates happen in public I feel pulled in two directions. There is a certain amount of friction in public which is damaging to Muslims when we are so misrepresented in the media. But I know that when I say this to you, you’re going to write it down. It is only 2% of my concerns but it always gets far more attention than it deserves. I wish more people would just say that there are millions of different Muslims. Because all of a sudden we became the same thing – associated with sects in Pakistan. I don’t know what a Madrassa is!
SF Do you find it difficult to criticise your leaders in public?
IJ What they have done is important. Getting Muslim organisations into the mainstream is a way of bridging the gap. At the same time do they represent me? They sure as hell don’t sound like they do.
SF Now you’ve graduated from SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) what do you want to do?
IJ I want to work for an NGO. I am starting looking for jobs now. But I went to a recruitment agency and they said that I should make some of the stuff on my CV, voluntary work etc, look less Muslim. So I’ve changed things like the International Forum for Islamic Dialogue to IFID. I don’t want to be unemployed for ever!
SF When I write this up how shall I refer to you?
IJ I think as Ms I Jawad. I have a funny thing about seeing my name written down. I’ll finally be Isra Jawad when I write “The Hijabi Barbies, the Muslim update of the Bridget Jones diaries”.