Opinion: The Foreign Office, The Hijab, and Britain’s Culture Wars

Published February 12th, 2018 - 10:39 GMT
After the U.K.'s Foreign Office implemented its World Hijab Day event, controversy has sparked over whether this  governmental office is spreading a liberal agenda or simply promoting cultural understanding.  (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
After the U.K.'s Foreign Office implemented its World Hijab Day event, controversy has sparked over whether this governmental office is spreading a liberal agenda or simply promoting cultural understanding. (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)

by Eleanor Beevor 


  • On Feb. 1, the U.K. Foreign Office held an event for World Hijab Day 
  • The govt. office received backlash for promoting a liberal agenda
  • The Foreign Office stated there was no liberal ideology behind the move
  • This incident is reflective of the greater debate in Britain's culture wars


In the first week of February, the U.K.’s Foreign Office found itself immersed in what may or may not be a scandal, depending on who you asked.

Foreign Office staff were invited to participate in a World Hijab Day event, which invites non-Muslim women to put on a hijab and learn about why Muslim women wear it, with the view of fighting stereotypes and discrimination.

A few days later, the U.K. branch of the far-right media site Breitbart ran an article with the headline “REVEALED: British Government Promotes “Liberation” of Hijab at London Event”. The Daily Mail followed suit, writing that the Foreign Office faced “backlash” for “promoting the “oppression of women.”

What exactly, though, was being “REVEALED?” More centrist papers covered the event with no suggestion that there was anything to “reveal” other than the day’s stated aim to improve tolerance. Offices around the U.K. regularly hold diversity training events, and whilst the Foreign Office’s event was only publicized internally, World Hijab Day is a public event by nature, and nothing would have stopped staff sharing details of their participation.

As government secrets go, this isn’t exactly Watergate. And yet, according to Breitbart, the Foreign Office themselves refrained from commenting for several days, before issuing a statement saying that the purpose of the event was to train staff for cultural conditions that they may experience when working abroad.

In the Foreign Office’s explanation, there was no liberal ideology behind the move, but merely functional training, a far cry from the aims listed on World Hijab Day’s website.

Something strange has happened in British politics if the Foreign Office feels it must both promote liberal acceptance and multiculturalism, and then also deny doing so.

The World Hijab Day story, if it reveals anything, it is the astonishing split that has emerged in how a nation thinks not only about politics, but about itself. This is particularly striking given how, until very recently, there was a sense that Britain had escaped a politics based on “culture wars.”

Unlike in the United States, where questions over religion, abortion, firearms and so on had long forced different visions of what it meant to be American, partisan splits in British politics emerged largely around economic policy.

Immigration was a permanent feature of political debate, although concerns around immigration tended to be framed far more in terms of the pressure it might pose on public services.

When the liberal American satire program The Daily Show covered the 2015 U.K. general election, the joke was on America and its comparative fixation on matters of identity, such as guns, religion and gay marriage.

In the skit, the U.K. emerged as the sensible country that could keep political rhetoric focused on the technical rather than the identity matters of governance. Ironically, the sketch closes with a mocking look at a local candidate from the anti-immigration and anti-European U.K. Independence Party (UKIP).

The candidate’s incompetence and evident racism was framed as the reason he lost, and the sketch concluded that attempts to campaign on far-right identity politics would inevitably fail in the U.K.

How times have changed. What the skit failed to cover was that in that election campaign, the wheels of identity politics were already in motion. Conservative Party candidate David Cameron was fending off UKIP’s encroaching influence among Conservative voters by promising a referendum on membership of the European Union.

When the campaigning for the EU Referendum began, so did a dramatic shift in how immigration was talked about. UKIP and its then-leader Nigel Farage revelled in the use of shock-tactics. One of their campaign posters showed a long line of refugees travelling through Europe, with the caption “Breaking Point”. The poster was compared to Nazi propaganda, and even a number of fellow Leave campaigners distanced themselves from it.

It would be wrong and unfair to suggest that all Leave voters were motivated by racism. Yet it seems that matters of identity, even in their ugliest manifestations, became an extremely effective vehicle through which to channel other grievances, something that the Remain campaign did not know how to address.

Endless ink has been spilled explaining how the Brexit vote happened, but at the heart of it was a very real economic inequality, and Britain’s uncomfortable relationship with its enduring social class divisions. British social liberals, however much they are ideologically opposed to class differences, are now in the uncomfortable position of being seen to have turned their backs on the less privileged sections of society. This stems from the fact that the strongholds of liberal politics are also the country’s more affluent areas.

Liberal discourse is increasingly focused on the subtle ways that discrimination works in the passing of the everyday, and disadvantages certain people along lines of ethnicity, gender and sexuality. This is as much a problem in Britain as anywhere. Yet it is strikingly rare that these discussions overlap with discussions of class.

It is easy for liberals to decry obvious racism thrown up by the refugee crisis, and there is no question that we should do otherwise. But it is far harder to persuade people of the moral merits of taking refugees into Britain when a huge proportion of British citizens are struggling to keep their own homes. Unfortunately, it seems this is a gap that liberal discourse is still either unable, or unwilling to bridge.

This is not to deny that the U.K.’s ethnic minorities do face hurdles that white Britons do not, nor to suggest that racism played no real part in the Leave campaign. It would also be a serious error to assume that racism is bound by class lines. However, a combination of severe inequality, and a sense that affluent liberals are passing judgement on anyone who criticises immigration or fears of cultural difference, has led to a great proportion of Britons feeling that the national centres of power no longer represent them. A recent set of focus groups by the think-tank Demos brings this home.

People described their fury with a culture of “political correctness,” and a tendency in that culture to see any dissent as a form of racism. There is, in the eyes of many, a luxury in being able to demonstrate one’s multicultural tolerance. It signals morality to one’s peers, without having to ask more uncomfortable questions about what privileges they would have to lose in order for others to be able to win.

This sense of abandonment is what provoked Brexit, as well as a more aggressive embrace of a counter-identity, one that is unabashedly confident in being Christian, and being white.

It is in this mix that the Foreign Office’s schizophrenic response to World Hijab Day was born. The hijab has become a particular point of contention in Britain’s identity politics. The liberally minded have tended to emphasize (as World Hijab Day did) that many Muslim women who wear it do so out of personal choice, as a symbol of their religious identity, and, contrary to stereotypes, are not disempowered victims.

The riposte of more conservative factions is that many women are still forced to wear it, that it symbolises female oppression, and that liberal support for the hijab reveals their own hypocrisy around their support for feminism. Their response was heightened by the ongoing protests against compulsory wearing of the hijab in Iran, in which women were being arrested for taking theirs off.

The “scandal” (or not) taking place at the Foreign Office is not born from the same roots as “l’affaire des foulards” in France, where the hijab in public schools was seen as an unacceptable infringement on France’s closely guarded secularism. In Britain, the anger on the political right stems from a sense of “political correctness” overtaking the seats of national power.

It comes from a fear that the rights of ethnic minorities are overtaking those of white Britons, and a perceived hypocrisy among liberals who purport to champion women’s rights whilst simultaneously celebrating a garment with a controversial set of meanings around female empowerment. Among liberals, this is a sign of small-mindedness at best and outright racism at worst, since it reinforces a crude stereotype of Muslim women as disempowered victims.

The curious case of World Hijab Day is also a sad reflection of Britain’s difficulty to see Muslim women as more than a hijab. The liberal left, in their quest for visible representation, risk distilling Muslim women’s identity into a headscarf, (a criticism one might make of World Hijab Day itself).

The conservative right sees visible signs of Islam as contrary to British identity. Any celebration of the hijab in this light is unpatriotic, and as a hypocritical disservice to women’s rights. Muslim women’s voices are heard all to rarely in this debate, but more importantly, they are even more rarely given the public opportunities to talk about other things.

Perhaps if they were, the British public might start to wonder whether progress for Muslim women will be found in a debate that fixates entirely on what they wear.

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