London, England — To some it is a symbol of faith and freedom, a celebration of multicultural Britain and even a fashion statement. But for others, it entrenches divisions and plays on the insecurities of an already marginalised community. A ‘poppy hijab’ designed to commemorate their co-religionists who fought for the country is splitting opinion among British Muslims.
Paper lapel poppies are traditionally worn by many people in the UK in the run up to November 11, the anniversary of the end of World War One, in memory of those who fought and died for Britain in both world wars and subsequent conflicts.
But a poppy-themed headscarf backed by the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB) and British Future, an integration think tank, is this year offering Muslim women an additional way to support the campaign.
The scarf is also intended to raise awareness about the 400,000 Muslims, most of them soldiers in the 1.2-million-strong Indian Army, who served alongside British forces in World War One.
Its launch was timed to coincide with the centenary of a soldier from modern-day Pakistan, Khudadad Khan, becoming the first Muslim to be awarded the Victoria Cross, the UK’s highest military honour, for holding up a German advance while outgunned and severely wounded.
“Thousands of British Muslims already wear a poppy. This is just another way for them to show they remember those who gave their lives for their country,” said Sughra Ahmed, president of the ISB.
“It’s also a way for ordinary Muslim citizens to take some attention away from extremists who seem to grab the headlines. This symbol of quiet remembrance is the face of everyday British Islam – not the angry minority who spout hatred and offend everyone.”
According to polls carried out by British Future, many people in the UK remain unaware of the scale of the Muslim contribution to the country’s World War One campaign. It believes public interest in the centenary of the conflict offers an opportunity to remind them of that story as a way of strengthening integration and a sense of shared history.
Yet, the message picked up by right-wing newspapers reporting the launch of the hijab was subtly different, with the Daily Mail stating that British Muslims were being “urged” to wear the scarf as “a challenge to extremist groups who ‘spout hatred’ about the armed forces”.
‘When did you last see a poppy on a burka?’
To some, coming from a newspaper which last year ran a comment piece with the headline “When did you last see a poppy on a burka?”, and weeks after the Sun newspaper used a front page picture of a woman in a Union Jack hijab to “urge Brits of all faiths to stand up to extremists”, the story appeared to be the latest salvo in a media campaign casting Muslims as outsiders and calling on them to prove where their loyalties lie.
“These re-appropriations of the hijab can be little more than proxies for anti-Muslim bigotry. They become a politically correct way of airing a suspicion that all Muslims are ‘basically terrorist sympathisers’. The wearing – or not wearing – of a patriotic hijab becomes a shrouded loyalty test,” wrote Chris Allen, a researcher on anti-Muslim hate crime at the University of Birmingham.
Faeeza Vaid, the executive director of the Muslim Women’s Network UK, told Al Jazeera that the idea behind the hijab was well intentioned, but that it risked deepening divisions between British communities.
“The fact that it is being promoted by the likes of the Daily Mail, part of the thinking is, ‘Okay, you are a little bit British but not British enough. We will accept you, but on our terms’,” said Vaid.
“The idea is to show that we all care about the same things, but why is the burden on Muslim women to prove that sense of shared identity? We wouldn’t expect Muslim men to wear poppy hats to the mosque, or Sikh men to wear poppyturbans. If you look at it like that it is just ludicrous.”
Vaid said she had worn a poppy in the past. But she said some people had concerns, especially in light of British involvement in more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, about promoting a symbol which the Royal British Legion, the charity behind the poppy appeal, says is worn “to commemorate the sacrifices of our armed forces and to show support to those still serving today”.
“We have to look at what the poppy symbolises. There have been so many more wars since the wars which it represents took place and I think we need a broader support for anti-war [efforts] or to highlight different approaches to war.”
‘Brunt end of Islamophobia’
For some women, there may be other reasons to feel uncomfortable about wearing a scarf decorated with a motif seen by many as an expression of patriotism.
Recent studies of anti-Muslim hate crime have shown that women wearing traditional Islamic dress are most at risk from abuse and street attacks. A report last year said this had led some to question their Britishness.
Fiyaz Mughal, the director of Tell MAMA, an organisation monitoring attacks on Muslims, told Al Jazeera that most women simply wanted to get on with their lives and did not want any symbolism attached to the clothing that they chose to wear beyond the expression of their faith.
“Women are at the brunt end of Islamophobia at street level. Now they are at the brunt end of being told they are the ones who need to prove their loyalty. And they are at the brunt end of people trying to manipulate the whole thing of how women should dress,” Mughal said.
Steve Ballinger of British Future, which is selling the scarf online, told Al Jazeera that the main aim of the hijab campaign had been to raise awareness about the numbers of Muslims who had fought for Britain during World War One and to “celebrate the things that people have in common”.
“It is not intended in any way as a loyalty test,” he said. “Some of the media reports have used the word ‘urged’ and that has understandably made some people rather concerned. It has always been a choice. Everyone chooses whether to wear a poppy to remember in November. Some Muslims do and some Muslims don’t. Some non-Muslims do and some don’t.”
Among Muslim students leaving a college in East London, most said they had no objection to the headscarf and hoped it would help to promote greater tolerance and awareness of Muslim communities.
“The perception that some people have of Muslim people is that they don’t get involved, that they are just here,” said Wahiida. “This is a way of respecting your religion and respecting the culture you are living in. There are some countries where they don’t allow you to wear a headscarf.”
Her friend Nafisat said she would also consider wearing the scarf, if she was given one for free. “I would wear this because it is a modern type of style. It makes it fashionable, and it is paying respect to the soldiers who fought for the country. And it is a multicultural symbol. When you think of Britain you don’t think of a race, you think of different people.”
But others said two of the models photographed posing in the hijab were dressed inappropriately because their necks and chests were visible, and said they considered their scarves an expression of their religious identities. “They should have designed a bracelet or something instead,” said a young woman wearing a niqab who did not give her name.
Only on one thing did all agree. At £22 ($35), compared to a typical poppy donation of a few pounds, donning a poppy hijab is an expensive statement to make. “Too pricey,” said one woman, shaking her head.
This article was originally published on Al Jazeera on 9 November, 2014.