I recall in the ‘70s and ‘80s through the women’s movement, that there seemed to be just one accepted way of thinking about your body and how to dress your body and there was a sense of women’s freedom about how to dress. But I think that those were one of the things that didn’t easily transfer across cultures. So one of the issues that was behind the emerging different needs of black and minority ethnic community based women was how we dress, what we wear, and the whole thing about covering your body – not covering your head at this point for Muslim women - but just how we covered or didn’t cover our bodies. And the surface issue was wearing skirts or trousers. In some ways the women’s movement was quite liberating, expecting women to wear exactly what they wanted. But what we didn’t always look at was what was appropriate for which context. And there were some feminists who were travelling to Iran at that time when women in Iran were beginning to have to cover their heads, and there was some discussion about women shouldn’t cover their heads, but then the discussion in Iran was, at this time, to enable women to have more political freedom, to be more active, to be everywhere, women in Iran had to cover their heads and conform to some dress codes that they might not have wanted to. But if they didn’t, it meant that they were then totally cut out. So we were becoming aware of the political context of what we wore, what we didn’t wear and where we wore it. And I think that was one of the main contentious issues within the women’s movement and which separated us in terms of race and ethnicity. But I think there were some parts of the women’s movement who felt that not wearing totally Western clothes – at that time I suppose it was just post-miniskirts and post-dresses, etc – it was a loss of freedom. And we had a lot of discussions then about, you know, freedom and the different contexts of those freedom to wear and what not to wear.
What was emerging through that was the issues around what separated us as women and also what brought us together. So although we were all committed to the sisterhood, there were different types of sisterhoods within that, and thoughts around whether having one form of sisterhood and expecting women to comply to that was just as oppressive as other male gender oppressions. My view, what it still is, is that choice is fine if it’s real genuine choice. And the thought about the veil or just the hijab – I suppose there are two things. One, the hijab, which is just covering the head with a scarf, and the other is the niqab, which is like the veil that covers the face as well. Now both of them have cultural as well as religious connotations. The cultural connotation is that regardless of your religion, across the world many, many women just cover their heads for lots of different reasons and the niqab is certainly not an Islamic religious thing to wear, but lots of women do. But I think the covering of the head moved from being something that some religious groups, men in religious groups, expected women to do in terms of a deferential position, to now what I see more and more in our student body is that it’s a form of cultural dress and a personal statement and a way of being noticed. So I think everybody who wears the veil or the hijab wears it for very, very different reasons and we can’t assume that it’s all for one reason. Coming in in the morning on a busy student day in the women’s toilets here, you’ll find about ten or fifteen girls who are just adjusting their headscarves and putting on false eyelashes, putting on their makeup. The whole way of wearing the hijab has changed radically now from it being quite a tight black cloth or a scarf around the head to something that’s quite floaty and colourful, with a false hairpiece underneath and with plenty of makeup. And it tends to be the younger girls who wear the headscarves in that way. So it’s all linked up into fashion now as well. But I think some of my colleagues who aren’t that familiar with the way sort of young girls are sort of thinking, young women are thinking and organising themselves, think it’s purely a religious dress. So it’s all quite challenging now because what you see is not always what’s really going on.