I have a lot of sympathy for a young designer who has created a hijab with a poppy design to be launched on Remembrance Day. The design commemorates the centenary of Khudadad Khan, the first Muslim soldier awarded the prestigious Victoria Cross. Since anything associated with Muslim women is always a symbol we now have what is termed a “controversy” and the points of view are very interesting.
On the one hand, many people both Muslim and non-Muslim, are at long last calling for recognition of non Christians who died for Britain. They see a poppy hijab as a way to raise awareness and instill pride in place of ignorance. On the other hand, since the sacrifices took place at the time of the empire there are members of ethnic groups who find it odd or even offensive they should celebrate people who died for an empire that kept their ancestors in an inferior position. On the other hand, there are those who could care less about the empire aspect of the question but wish to present a visible symbol that Muslims in this country do identify as British. This is already borne out by surveys. In 2012 the Understanding Society survey from the Institute for Social and Economic Research and the Institute for Education revealed that more Britons of Pakistani, Indian and Middle Eastern origin said being British was “important” to them than the native white Britons surveyed. And so we have the last — on the other hand — with regard to the poppy hijab. Some Muslim women commentators are asking why they should be obliged to “prove they are patriotic?”
I see the merit of each of these points of view but I find the final point striking as British people have been telling me for the past 20 years how “unpatriotic” they are compared to Americans. It is not true of course. If patriotism is pride in country the British are in gold medal position along with the US and many other nationalities. The difference is that the American public enjoys numerous outlets for expressing national pride while British patriotism is confined to a small space guarded by British Reserve and only allowed out for royal weddings and yes — Remembrance Day when it bursts through the walls of the dam, overwhelming everything in sight. I would even say US 4th July barbecues are discreet in comparison. Americans invite our neighbors and friend to 4th of July parties held in backyards (whatever the size) whereas the royal wedding celebrations are in the street including on streets where the gardens are large enough for the neighbors and friends. In this way, not only is British patriotism very visible but it can be measured by the number of banners and streets closed off.
Some of the commenters against the hijab obviously felt they are under the same scrutiny as private citizens as those in the public eye who must be seen with a poppy in early November or be judged! From my point of view Muslims are indeed being asked to show they are patriotic in a country that keeps claiming they do not like displays of patriotism, however it is important to put it into perspective. The call is largely confined to organisations and the media. I doubt very much that the average white Briton notices who among minorities is “poppied” unless they are news presenters, reporters and politicians – and they are all wearing them. In any case, the Muslim population of the UK is just over 5% – not much to stress about then.
More important is the call by former army chiefs among others that children be taught about non white/non Christian war heroes. Having their brave actions acknowledged not by only their descendants but by everyone makes them contributors to historical events rather than a part of the “the white man’s burden.” Whether they fought for or against Britain, men from other parts of the empire helped to elevate the image of their countrymen which in turn helped pave the way to independence for many countries.
So I am more concerned about textbooks than what women are wearing but to finish off the hijab issue: Do Muslims (sorry Muslim women) need their own form of poppy? No, they don’t, since everyone can wear a pin but there are already many different forms of poppy decoration. What’s one more? I normally wear the Canadian poppy but in Scotland I like to wear the Scottish one also. In recent years there has been a small explosion in enamel and jeweled poppy pins for evening occasions. There are also many poppy scarves, some of which are already wide enough to serve as total head covering for women who wear the hijab. Launching a new one — and a very nice one it is — seems a small enough addition. Long story short, my main problem with the poppy hijab controversy is that a talented young designer has created a lovely scarf for my black suits and not a single newspaper had told me where it can be purchased. Perhaps if those of us who are not Muslims wore a scarf to honor non Christian veterans, we could be rid of some of the contention that seems to accompany every poppy season these days as the British examine what patriotism means here.