The writer and campaigner Rabina Khan talks to Charlotte Kemp about her drive to dispel the myths and stereotypes about the hijab, and how her latest project, which documents the views of Muslim and non-Muslim women on the subject, is helping to promote a new understanding.
With her beautiful face framed by a dusky pink headscarf, Rabina Khan arrives at our rendezvous in east London a slight and seemingly shy figure who looks no more than 20 years old. But as if to prove her mission to challenge people's perceptions of each other, all is not quite as it seems. For in fact, not only is Khan 37, and married with two daughters, aged 15 and nine, she is far from shy, exuding a calm confidence which pervades her work as a novelist, editor, campaigner and general champion for Muslim women's rights both in Britain and around the world.
There are more surprises. Though she now thrives in the ethnic diversity of London's East End, she was born in Bangladesh but grew up in the predominantly white town of Rochester, Kent, in the south-east of England, less than 10 miles from my own childhood home. "I made the decision to wear the hijab when I moved to London in my early 20s," she tells me. "I felt the time was right. It was part of my faith - a gift. It enhances me but it doesn't change who I am, and that is the point. The only identity we should bear is our human identity."
Hence Khan's latest projects, an anthology of thought-provoking essays, poems and short stories written by Muslim and non-Muslim women which tackle the contentious issues now surrounding the wearing of the veil. Entitled Behind The Hijab, the book attempts to unravel the complex politics of the headscarf post-September 11, as well as broaching some uncomfortable questions. Is the veil a symbol of liberation or suppression? Does it free women from sexual harassment and objectification or denigrate them to second-class citizens?
The writers Khan has gathered (all through contacts and word of mouth) span the generations from teenager to grandmother. The youngest contributors, aged 14, were pupils at the Central Foundation Girls' School in Tower Hamlets, where Khan was writer in residence for two years. "I was interested to include the viewpoints of young Muslim girls," she says. "Some wear the hijab and some don't, but all of them understand that it's all about a woman's personal choice and the way she wants to express her faith.
"What struck me about other women was the honesty. Penny Wrout, for instance, a non-Muslim BBC journalist and feminist, admits that she assumed women who wear the burqa were brainwashed or oppressed until she went to Palestine and worked with Muslim schoolgirls in traditional dress who wanted to be teachers and doctors. That is the thought process others need to go through. To admit their prejudices and then question them.
"The burqa has been used as an instrument of power by some Muslim men to further their own gender, but you can find similar abuses of power in all cultures. "Today, there are more Muslim women at university than ever before and there are many more out there making a contribution to society. Post-September 11, wearing the hijab is about being proud of who we are and saying that the terrorists don't stand for our religion and values. So many women wanted to write about the subject, I am already planning a second edition of the book so that I can include even more entries."
Above all, though, Khan's intention is to break down barriers between Muslim and non-Muslim women to promote a new sense of understanding and acceptance. "Forget our religion, our faith and our race. As women we have actually gone through so much in our lives that should bind us together. Not just in terms of things like trying to get the vote and trying to be recognised for who we are, but for all those other shared experiences. We give birth, we care for relatives, we juggle work and family.
"But before we can celebrate our similarities, it is important to understand our differences and ensure there is respect for each other. When we get to that point, then we can achieve a great number of things. "I personally think that the majority of women just want to get on with each other and that's why Muslim women need to speak out to dispel the stereotypes about the hijab. The more understanding we all have, the better. The veil should not be a barrier between women.
''Years ago, when I was growing up in Kent, the prejudice wasn't about my faith. It was about the colour of my skin. Now it's the fact I am a British Bangladeshi Muslim woman. It's everything." Khan is fascinated by the dramatic shift in attitudes towards Muslims in recent years, in particular, the assumption that the veil is a symbol of extremism. "If ultra-orthodox Jews decide to dress in a certain way, they are called observant Jews. And yet when Muslim women wear the hijab, we are seen as extremist. That's why, if someone asks me why I wear the headscarf, I say it's because I am an observant Muslim. It is not because I have been forced to wear it or because I am being suppressed. Some Muslim men will have influence and power over women but that happens in all societies. That is something human.
"I don't condone any form of extremism. I was brought up by my parents to believe I should make a contribution to this country, to give something back. The fact is, right-wing extremism is now on the rise, as is shown by the European elections, but nobody talks about that. They only talk about Muslim extremism." Khan is the eldest of five siblings whose father worked as a machine operator at Chatham Dockyards in Kent. He returned to Bangladesh to marry, and Rabina was brought to England by her mother at the age of three.
She has vivid memories of her early days in a new country. "We came in the winter and it was so cold," she says. "I had never seen snow and I remember looking at it and thinking 'wow'. I also remember things like the books I read. In particular, there was a series called Janet And John about a brother and sister who were blond with blue eyes. Janet was always in the kitchen, while John was in the garden. But those roles didn't make sense to me because I was always out in the garden with my dad and my parents helped each other.
"Television programmes like It Ain't Half Hot, Mum, a comedy set in India, also really left an imprint on my life. I mean, one of the white actors was made up to look Asian. It made me aware that I was different." At school, Khan's teachers insisted she was Indian, despite her protestations. "It didn't matter how many times I explained that I was actually from Bangladesh," she recalls. "Thankfully, my sociology teacher was brilliant. I remember her telling the class that they should be privileged to have me as a classmate, and she told them it was their duty to find out about me and about my life because I wasn't from the same background as them. She was Welsh so she understood a little of what it felt like to be the outsider - that feeling of difference."
At home, meanwhile, Khan's parents were intent on making sure their firstborn was fully aware of her cultural heritage. "My parents taught me Bengali and paid for me to take exams in the subject. The Bengali language is the only language people fought to speak during the language movement and it was important to them that I was bilingual. When I was younger, I always felt that was a burden. It wasn't something I could share with my friends at school. It was only when I came to live in London that I realised being bilingual was a gift."
After studying for her A-levels, Khan left school and got married, moving to Tower Hamlets in east London to be with her husband Aminur, then a trainee teacher. "I entered another institution, rather than one of higher education," she says. "The institution of marriage. "I was only 19, but I felt the time was right. It was an arranged marriage, but I wanted that and I knew that Aminur, who was four years older, was the one for me."
Her younger sisters all went to university, but as Khan points out, they came from another generation and her parents were perhaps more lenient. She has no regrets about the choices she made. Indeed, she credits her marriage and contented family life for providing the foundations on which she has built her professional successes. Proof, perhaps, that feminism can be rooted in core values rather than reject them.
"My belief has always been that it's good to have that stability behind you. If your home life is running well, then you can achieve anything. That is very much my approach to life. The family is so important, as are those shared values that bond you. We now have my mother-in-law living with us, who is in her 80s, and I love it. She was a teacher in her day in Bangladesh, which was unusual for her generation, but she came from a highly educated family and I really value her advice and guidance.
"It's great for my daughters, too. They are so good at taking care of her, making sure she's had her tea or medicine and taking responsibility. That strong sense of family gives the nourishment and stability which is missing in so many young people's lives today." Khan's mother didn't work but believed passionately in the importance of education. "My dad, meanwhile, was always a very humble man," she says. "He just wanted us to be good people. He didn't even want us to be rich as long as we were happy. He always used to say that hard work is dignity and he believed we should make a contribution to this country, to give something back."
Her father has recently died, having suffered a severe and disabling stroke two years ago. "My mum now lives with my brother and his family nearby. I have three sisters, too, and we all try to make time for each other. We still live in an extended family. That is very important to us." It was not long after Khan moved to London that she made her decision to wear the hijab every day. "As a child, I never wore a headscarf, and my sisters still don't wear one all the time. But for me, the day just came when it felt right. I was only about 22 and working on the Isle of Dogs [in east London] for a regeneration project. I remember getting some very strange looks in McDonald's when I went back to Kent to visit."
She also faced ignorance in the workplace. "When I first starting working for Tower Hamlets council, one of my jobs was to secure work placements, and there was one particular meeting with a white, middle-class, good-looking manager of one of the big employers in the City. "It was a really hot day and I knew he was desperate to find out what I looked like. And he just kept saying, 'You can take your scarf off you know, there's no problem here.' Again and again. In the end, I put my pen down and replied, 'Well if it's that hot, you take your pants off and I will take my headscarf off.' He was very embarrassed."
She says that she feels there has been a change in the way that she is perceived since the attacks of September 11. "More recently, I've noticed people looking at me with suspicion. Assumptions are made about you because of a very personal choice you have made. But that's because, at this time, because of the war on terror, our community and our faith is going right through it and that same old racism is thrown in, too."
Khan first started writing about her experiences in 2004 after her youngest daughter, Nabila, started school. Her first book, Ayesha's Rainbow, was written for children and told the story of a seven-year-old Bangladeshi girl, growing up in London's East End, who befriends an elderly, white neighbour, and explored the racism, prejudice and stereotyping that young Muslims experience in Britain today.
"I was working for this regeneration project at a time when the British National Party was gaining support," she explains. "I remember two young Bangladeshi men who were beaten really badly - one was left with brain damage - and then straight after that, Stephen Lawrence was attacked." Stephen Lawrence was an 18-year-old black student who was stabbed to death at a bus stop in Eltham, south-east London, in 1993. It soon became clear that the murder was motivated by racism. Despite having five prime suspects, the police failed to bring about a successful prosecution. A public inquiry and subsequent report revealed the inadequacies of the police investigation, which was criticised as being marred by "institutional racism".
"I was a community safety officer, and living through those times had really left a big imprint on my life," says Khan. Ayesha's Rainbow is a compelling read, but Khan struggled to get her work published. "I sent the manuscript to several people and was politely told they had enough Asian writers on their books. So I decided to publish it myself and it wasn't long before we had sold 2,500 copies."
Khan had also inadvertently found a new mission; to help other writers from minority backgrounds to get their work published. The following year, she set up her own publishing house, Monsoon Press, with fellow frustrated author Rekha Waheed. The pair has since helped to publish a number of books, including the latest anthology, Behind The Hijab. Currently writing her second novel, entitled Nari - A Story Of A Woman, about the 1971 genocide in Bangladesh (due for publication in December), Khan is also involved in a television production company, Silsila Productions, and has written the screenplay for a short film entitled Shrouded, which explores the meaning, significance and politics of the veil on camera. In her spare time (hard though it is to believe that she has any), she's a school governor and heavily involved in her local Labour party.
So what about Khan's own daughters? Does she expect them to follow in her footsteps and wear the hjiab with pride? "My older daughter doesn't wear a veil," she replies. "In fact, both of them hate it when people come up and talk to me. They always say things like, 'No, please, don't attract any more attention. Shush.' They don't like it. "At the moment, the older one, Zakia, is really into the pop group Girls Aloud and she has got this amazing pair of false eyelashes from New Look as worn by Cheryl Cole, one of the singers in the band. I love pop music too. So this phase she is going through doesn't worry me.
"I know that her grounding is there and it's important that she experiences other people's faiths and cultures. She lives in Britain so she needs to get to know about the culture and experience it. "Appearances can be deceiving; it's what lies behind it that's important and that makes us who we really are. When the time comes for my daughter to marry, she will probably choose someone who is Muslim. I know my daughter and I know those values are important to her just as they are to me."
The hijab is a unifying, global symbol of faith.
Described as "an exploration of the truth behind the veil of misunderstanding", this new anthology published by Rabina Khan features contributions from women of all ages on the myths surrounding the headscarf.
When You Look At Me, by Nargis Rahman, a business studies graduate working for the Department for Work and Pensions in Sheffield. When you look at me What do you see? Someone restricted within her beliefs? Cannot think or gain freedom like everyone else? When you look at me, What do you see? Someone illiterate, backward and boring? Well, I beg to differ; That is not me.
Hijabi - A Monologue, by Zahrah Awaleh, a careers adviser from London When people look at me do they see a young Muslim woman and think, "Poor thing, it must be hot in that. Her husband must make her wear it." Perhaps they think that I'm another refugee that's come to the UK on "false pretences". Or do they live in mortal fear that I may have a grudge against Britain, because it allowed its government to invade and ruin Iraq? My hijab has always been my choice, not something my parents, relatives, husband or even friends pushed me into. It's part of my identity and a sign of my faith in God. Around the time that I put it on, I was a teenager doing all sorts of crazy chemical things to my hair. It was quite a relief to allow my hair to be natural from then on. Personally, I just don't want to be a slave to my hair or any other part of my body. I'm just not interested.
The Hijab And Feminists, by Penny Wrout, community editor for BBC London Feminists and hijabs don't mix easily; at least they didn't in the 1980s. I was definitely among those who saw that women were bold and strong, the equals of men in all intellectual and most physical fields. Yet I embraced the notion that women who chose to cover themselves for religious reasons were either physically oppressed or brainwashed by male-dominated institutions. Then, in the mid-1980s, I spent a summer working on the Palestinian West Bank. I was teaching English to teenage girls, most of whom wore traditional clothes and many covered their heads. The zest for life these teenagers manifested at the drop of a hat, matched my own youthful energy. Our hopes and dreams weren't dissimilar either - indeed, their ambitions extended rather further than mine. Most wanted to be teachers or doctors, to serve their families, their communities and God. I felt a little humbled, since they seemed to be granting their lives a higher purpose than I'd given mine. That was the point at which I started to see through the veil, to recognise that underneath every scarf is an individual. There are good and bad women who wear the hijab, just as there are clever and stupid ones, beautiful and ugly ones, oppressed and liberated ones.
Judge, by Ayesha Mazumder, a 15-year-old schoolgirl Don't judge, it hurts, Religious or pretty, Fat or ugly, Friendship first.
Jan Anderson, a mother of three, is a freelance writer and author of two books on fertility. The burka has received a bad press in the West because of the assumption that the person behind the veil does not want her identity known for more sinister reasons than simply conforming to religious beliefs. We judge people by their faces and their expressions and I must admit that there is something slightly unnerving about talking to someone whose face is hidden. I am very much a visual person and it is very difficult to monitor someone's true feelings when you cannot see their face. In support of the veil, there is something about covering part of one's face that elicits a feeling of greater security and confidence within oneself. I always feel more confident wearing sunglasses or a hat. I think it's terribly sad that a person's intentions should be judged by a piece of cloth on their head. We should judge others by their actions not by the clothes they choose to wear.
Taken from Behind The Hijab, by Rabina Khan. Available to order for £6.99 from www.monsoonpress.org. To enquire about post and packing charges to the UAE, please email email@example.com