The London Assembly and Mayoral election will be held this Thursday, and a recent poll shows that Labour’s candidate Sadiq Khan is in with a very good chance of winning.
While we could discuss Khan’s approach to the housing crisis, or unemployment, there is one, slightly more controversial, topic that has emerged after Khan’s interview with the Evening Standard in April - what does he really think about the religious dress of Muslim women?
Khan has openly identified himself as a Muslim, proudly tweeting that his Tory opponent Zac Goldsmith didn’t need to keep repeating the fact, since he (Khan) had put it on his own leaflet. Last year I went to a congregational Eid prayer in Valentines’ Park, where Khan gave a sympathetic speech to the crowd of Muslim men, women and children, on how he was convinced we had a place in Britain. It’s no surprise many in the Muslim community in London felt Khan would be revolutionary – a coloured man, a Muslim, representing Britain’s capital city (he’s not quite Obama, but it would make a pretty good headline). However, in his interview with the Standard, Khan made statements on the hijab (literally translates to covering, but coined as a word for headscarf), the jilbab (loose gown) and niqab (face covering) that were more than a little disappointing.
In the interview Khan daydreams about the good old days, when Muslim women kept their hair uncovered and favoured trousers over ankle length dresses:
"When I was younger you didn’t see people in hijabs and niqab, not even in Pakistan when I visited my family. In London we got on. People dressed the same. What you see now are people born and raised here who are choosing to wear the jilbab or niqab.”
But it isn’t the 80s anymore, Sadiq. The Muslim population has almost doubled since then, and perhaps we’re no longer so uneasy about displaying our faith publically. As for women choosing their wardrobe, what would you have them do instead? While there’s no doubt some women and girls are forced into certain practices, and Khan is right to speak out on the issue, his hints at the need for suspicion and implied advocacy for the idea that “integration” and “imitation” are synonymous doesn’t help Muslims in London who want to be part of society and contribute to its development, but still express their faith through their appearance.
I understand Khan’s objection to forcing women and girls into a certain lifestyle, but couldn’t he have balanced this message (one that so many others have already given) with something not so often heard – the voices of girls and women who choose to wear Islamic dress, and are tired of being told they need saving? Khan is in the position to offer a different argument to this age-old debate, but he chose to go with the same, generalizing statements.
Yes, to be elected as mayor a candidate needs a majority under the instant runoff system, and yes, the Muslim population is far from a majority. However, whilst this might require Khan to express his opposition to terrorism and radicalisation in the media more frequently than his Conservative competition, does it really necessitate comments that drown out the voices of the many strong-minded Muslim women in London who proudly wear their religious dress, and want to be heard?
Khan has spoken often about the issue of Islamophobia, even praising the efforts of the Muslims who first entered Britain for “[lobbying] … for women to wear what they like”, and - in the Evening Standard interview - spoke highly of a city where his daughters could “wear what they like, think what they like” only to go on and express the same, patronising views we’ve heard countless times before. So, which argument are you really for, Sadiq? You can’t have it both ways.