Last week, a UAE national was wrestled to the ground in Ohio by police who had been informed by a hotel employee who overheard him talk on the phone in Arabic and assumed that he must be an Isis terrorist. Ahmed Al Menhali was actually in the US for a medical treatment following a stroke.
The incident came as a shock to many and the UAE government promptly issued an advisory to its citizens: do not wear the national dress in Western and European countries where there is a backlash against the Muslim identity. UAE foreign ministry spokesman Al Dhaheri urged citizens to exercise extreme caution during their visit to popular tourist destinations to avoid exposure to incidents of assault or theft.
I grew up in the UAE and I am a product of its "Muslimness", where religion was never taught or preached as a time capsule to the seventh century. The government's decision to inform its nationals to remove the traditional garb for a more integrated look is not much of a surprise. In an Islamic context, we are told to obey the law of the land where a person resides and we must try to be as patient as possible where there might be some clash with one's religious values. But the issue is more complicated than that.
The first question we are faced with is how to define The Veil. It appears that it is the face cover or the "niqaab" that is highly problematic compared to the hijab (dumbed down in the Western narrative as a headscarf) and a body cloak. The lack of a clear explanation is very confusing and it becomes an unclear rule for people on what they should tolerate, and for the Muslim, on what is tolerated.
The second complication is that of the personal choice and perspective towards veiling as a Muslim woman. There is a split between people who believe that the veil is a divine obligation and those who see it as optional. It becomes a difficult choice for women who believe in this as a divine obligation but it contradicts the law of the land. This is where the Islamic injunction of obeying the laws of the land becomes troublesome. Is it acceptable for the state to meddle in religious affairs of an individual?
Having said that, it is crucial to see the broader context of this discussion. Obeying the law of the land is a great and fair ideal but the problem is when it is rooted in Islamophobia. It is a disturbing commentary on our times when a dress or a few spoken words in a foreign language are enough to drive us to hate, isolation or erasure. In the UK, last year, the hate crime watchdog Tell MAMA reported a 70% increase in hate crimes against Muslims. Unsurprisingly, 60% of these attacks were targeted at women and particularly, those with an outward Muslim identity through the form of veiling.
I have been writing and speaking about the Muslim veil, its context and trying to bridge the gap in understanding it but as days pass, I only see this struggle getting harder. Recently, when I travelled without any form of veil (which I wear regularly, except the face cover), I was surprised at how invisible I felt. It was a welcome relief after years of "random profiling", having my perfume swabbed for explosives, touched and patted down, fingerprinted multiple times and questioned even more so.
Recently, when I travelled without any form of veil, I was surprised at how invisible I felt. It was a welcome relief after years of 'random profiling'
The irresponsibility of most media organisations, coupled with the scaremongering venom of the right wing worsens the situation. The voices that try to bridge and connect struggle against the racket created by the haters.
While the UAE government's step is seen as a progressive step, it simply cannot hide the stench of Islamophobia. As Muslims, we must be flexible and understanding of the resident country's laws but in a broader context, it is a global responsibility that we all take the initiative in understanding each other's choices.
There is nothing healthy or egalitarian about a society that panics on hearing a foreign language or a piece of clothing different to theirs. How far are we willing to go in demonising each other and our identities? Lazy stereotyping is never fruitful and in today's troubling times, we need to make every effort to find a shared humanity despite the different personal choices that we make.
Masarat Daud is girl's education campaigner, TED speaker, TEDx curator, and a recent SOAS MA graduate currently based in London