Veiled references: Reuters feature doesn't get the hijab done

Veiled references: Reuters feature doesn't get the hijab done 

British Muslim women are increasingly wearing head veils, although the faith doesn't require it -- and despite growing attacks targeting them, says a new feature article from Reuters. But the story doesn't prove any of that.

This is the kind of reporting we get in the lengthy feature on the topic. Starting with 18-year-old Sumreen Farooq, we read:

"I'm going to stand out whatever I do, so I might as well wear the headscarf," said Farooq, a shop assistant who also volunteers at an Islamic youth centre in Leyton, east London.

While just under five percent of Britain's 63 million population are Muslim, there are no official numbers on how many women wear a headscarf or head veil, known as the hijab, or the full-face veil, the niqab, which covers all the face except the eyes. The niqab is usually worn with a head-to-toe robe or abaya.

But anecdotally it seems in recent years that more young women are choosing to wear a headscarf to assert a Muslim identity they feel is under attack and to publicly display their beliefs.

Reuters does a lot of homework here, with seven quoted sources, a think tank  and the London School of Economics. The research shows that for various reasons, some women in the U.K. are turning to the hijab, or head covering. But without hard numbers, it may be more a subculture than a real trend.

What probably drew Reuters' initial attention were public statements by some women that wearing the hijab was their decision, not because of men or religion. Several say they wanted to stand out, to identify with their faith and culture -- even to signal that "you don't want to go clubbing, drink, or have relations outside marriage," as one says.

Some even indicate that the veil is a pushback against rising bigotry. But Reuters has trouble substantiating that. Its main source is an advocacy group called Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks):

During its first year of monitoring, Tell MAMA recorded 584 anti-Muslim incidents between April 1 2012 and April 30 2013, with about 74 percent of these taking place online.

Of the physical incidents, six in 10, or 58 percent, were against Muslim women and 80 percent of women targeted were visually identifiable by wearing a hijab or niqab.

The number rose to 734 incidents over the 10 months from Mary 2013 to February 2014 with 54 percent of these against women and a total of 599 online.

If the numbers are accurate, antagonism has indeed risen, but more via online bashing than physical assaults -- in fact, a greater percentage in the second tally, 81 percent, was online. And the proportion of assaults on women fell, from 58 to 54 percent.

Reuters also quotes a think tanker who says "the rise in the numbers of attacks could be partly due to more awareness of the reporting process."

"But there is a slight bump in the occurrence of people wearing more visible dress and of victims being women rather than men," he adds, without explaining -- and apparently without Reuters asking.

Does that mean absolute numbers? That's true, if MAMA is right. But as we've seen, as a percentage of anti-Muslim incidents, women were actually targeted less over the study period. Outside pressure, then, doesn't do much to explain the trend of hijab wearing. If, of course, there is one.

And where do the women get the idea that Islam doesn't require them to wear a veil? We read it twice in this article.

"For some young women it is a way of showing they are different and they are Muslim although it is not a Muslim obligation," says Shaista Gohir, chairman of the Muslim Women's Network U.K.

"In Islam it doesn't say anywhere you have to wear a veil but it's a choice," says Yasmin Navsa, a 17-year-old student.

What do Islamic scholars say? Reuters doesn't ask, even though there are plenty of sites, like this one and  this one, to consult.

The key quranic passage is surah 24:30-31, which calls on women to "wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests and not expose their adornment." That implies, of course, that they're wearing head covers in the first place.

Most Sunni schools of thought take the passage to mean that women should be covered except for face and hands, according to Sheikh Ahmad Kutty of the Islamic Institute of Toronto. Some sites note that hijab means to cover; therefore, they argue, the term means a woman's whole garb, not just a headcloth.

Reuters also cites an international study that shows sizable differences among hijab wearers. In Muslim-majority nations, they "talked about convenience, fashion, and modesty as reasons for veiling." In Muslim-minority lands, "women's responses were more diverse, ranging from religious arguments to convenience and to opposition against stereotypes and discrimination."

It's all interesting, but I'd have liked to know if the women in the Muslim-majority countries would have chosen to leave off the veil if they could.

Finally, Reuters might have gotten some relevant info if it had asked its interviewees their level of religious belief and practice. The 17-year-old says she likes the new colors and styles of scarves. And a 20-year-old said she chose a veil herself because her husband "doesn't practice ritualistic religion." So are these true believers? Or cultural Muslims, rather like cultural Christians?

All told, this feature article spots a possible undercurrent in British Muslim society. But is the current rising or falling or staying steady? Like the hijab itself, the article conceals more than it reveals.

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