A Saturday Afternoon in Dewsbury
First Published 2006-11-20, Last Updated 2006-11-20 09:58:05
A Saturday Afternoon in Dewsbury
Aishah Azmi, a 23-year-old classroom assistant at a junior school in the Yorkshire town of Dewsbury was suspended from her position for refusing to remove her niqab. Last month her claims of harrassment were dismissed. Recently, Wendy Kristianasen spent a Saturday afternoon in the town of Dewsbury.
Aishah Azmi, the teaching assistant who refused to remove her niqab, has put Dewsbury back in the news and it now dreads the media. A leading member of the community said, about a hostile article in The Times on 21 October: “The press is writing things that are plain wrong and very damaging. They’re still trying to link the Merkezi mosque to the 7/7 bombers and now they’re weaving a web of conspiracy because [bomber] Mohammed Siddique Khan’s wife happened to work at the same school as Aishah Azmi.”
What do Dewsbury people think of Azmi? The local Labour MP, Shahid Malik (who is a Muslim), said the industrial tribunal ruling in her case “was a victory for common sense,” and urged Azmi to drop her intended appeal against the decision.
Abdul Hai Munshi, a community leader from Savile Town, said: “The school was very reasonable. You can’t impose your views on others. And also she wasn’t wearing Islamic clothes when she went for her job interview. It’s simple: If you want to wear the niqab, either you don’t go out to work or you work somewhere where they agree to it. You have the choice. And that’s especially the case for Muslims because, in Islam, women aren’t responsible for bringing in the money. It’s their husbands who should be the breadwinners.”
Fatima, who calls herself a liberated Muslim woman and works closely with the local community, warned: “The Azmi case has had an impact. Some who wear niqabs have been harassed and all now feel they’re under public scrutiny.” She believes that “when it comes to educating kids, it’s the children’s needs that come first. There are plenty of Muslim women who teach but they do it at Muslim schools because they don’t want to create any sort of inconvenience. You need a religious scholar to pass judgment.” Just such a scholar, Maulana Ilyas Dallal, said: “Islamically, she’s within her rights to veil her face. But the truth is she should never have taken the job in the first place.”
The furore has made Dewsbury women more determined to cover up, in solidarity if not in defiance. Amina Bulbulia runs the youth and women’s centre at the Indian Muslim Welfare Association in nearby Batley, where there are classes in sewing and cookery and time out trips for carers. Women who come to the centre wear the hijab; 25% also wear the niqab (which they reposition when Amina’s mobile rings to warn of a male visitor). As they celebrated the end of Ramadan with an open day that drew 1,000 women and raised money for tsunami victims, Amina said: “The whole of Batley is backing Aishah Azmi. We don’t see anything wrong with her wanting to wear the niqab. If there are men, like the head teacher, who might come into her classroom, she needs to veil. She just wants to be a good citizen within her community and she’s not being allowed to do her job. We believe in equal rights and that’s the stated policy of Kirklees council too. So they’re going against their own policy.”
Dewsbury’s town centre was packed with shoppers on the holiday weekend. In a chic central cafe, with its state of the art computers and leather sofas, there was a comfortable mix of ethnicity. Two pretty teenagers in pastel hijabs coordinated with super-high heels sat next to English grannies. Three girls in head-to-toe black entered, and discreetly removed their niqabs to drink their lattes. A generation ago they might not have been wearing niqabs, but then they would not have been out enjoying themselves unaccompanied.
In the famous open market, people from everywhere were doing their shopping, eyeing only the merchandise. Opposite, in Kingsway Arcade, Bodanskis was doing a roaring trade in samosas, shamis, sheekis and chip butties. A girl all in black chatting on her mobile phone through her niqab walked arm in arm with a girl in western clothes and long red hair. A couple impressed with their confident stride and innovative style: He wore white Salafi-length shalwar kameez under a denim jacket, his partner a large fancy scarf with her niqab wrapped over the top.
Between the market and the cafe there were two church weddings (bridesmaids, photographers, a vintage Rolls) to loud peals from Dewsbury Minster. In the centre of town, a girl in a black hijab roared with laughter on the Crazy Wave ride, in front of a giant photographic backdrop of near naked men and women embracing. (Does anyone who worries about the niqab reflect on the offensive potential of this pervasive imagery?)
Was all this integration, separation, or just people having a good time in multiethnic, multicultural Britain? The problem was that these mingled people later returned to their very separate communities: the old Brits to the ex-mining areas eastwards in Chickenley and Thornhill, where the British National party holds sway; the Gujarati-speakers (who had migrated from either side of the India-Pakistan border) southwards to Muslim Savile Town; and a mixture of 50% Pakistanis with assorted others westwards to Ravensthorpe and Dewsbury Moor. (These two districts, with Chickenley, are ranked among the most deprived areas in Britain.) The problem of geographic isolation is not new. What is new is that the Muslims now know themselves to be under siege.
Wendy Kristianasen is a journalist in London and editorial director of the English edition of Le Monde diplomatique