The little red flower donned by many on their lapel to commemorate Remembrance Day is generating controversy in the United Kingdom, where the so-called poppy hijab for Muslim women was recently launched.
The colourful head scarf was created by the Islamic Society of Britain and the think-tank British Future as another way to honour fallen soldiers.
“Thousands of British Muslims already wear a poppy . . . This is just another way for them to show they remember those who gave their lives for their country,” said society president Sughra Ahmed in a media statement.
“It’s also a way for ordinary Muslim citizens to take some attention away from extremists who seem to grab the headlines. This symbol of quiet remembrance is the face of everyday British Islam — not the angry minority who spout hatred and offend everyone.”
The hijab was launched Oct. 31 to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the first Muslim soldier — an Indian machine-gunner named Sepoy Khudadad Khan born in what is now Pakistan — awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery.
He was among 1.2 million Indian soldiers, and 400,000 Muslims, who fought for Britain in the First World War — a contribution that few in the U.K. are aware of, according to a study by British Future.
Designed by Tabinda-Kauser Ishaq, 24, a Muslim fashion student in London, the hijab was a pilot project, explained Steve Ballinger, spokesperson for British Future. The think-tank sold the head scarf online for £22, which is about $40. (All proceeds went to the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal.)
Response — both reaction and sales — was swift. The initial run, of 120 scarves, sold out in 36 hours.
“We received a handful of requests from Canada, but most of the interest has been here in the U.K.,” Ballinger told the Star, adding the goal is for the Royal British Legion to sell the hijab next year as one of its poppy products.
But the initiative has also garnered online criticism from some British Muslims, who feel like they’re being called on to prove their loyalty to the U.K.
In a widely circulated article posted on the website Media Diversified, writer and activist Sofia Ahmed notes “a symbol of my religion is being appropriated as a marketing tool for (the) empire.”
“My hijab is a visual sign of my religiosity and devotion to Allah and not a walking talking billboard on which to showcase my patriotism and undying loyalty to Britain,” writes Ahmed of Manchester. “No other religious group is pressured to prove their allegiance in the same way.”
In Canada, associate professor Jasmin Zine, who teaches sociology and Muslim studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, said she wouldn’t have been surprised if a similar initiative was launched here.
“Particularly since the Ottawa shootings, there is a sense of being forced to perform your loyalty to the nation,” she said, referring to the fatal shooting last month of a soldier at the National War Memorial by a radicalized gunman who then stormed Parliament Hill.
“Muslims are constantly being pushed to prove their loyalty and allegiance and to distance themselves from terrorism.”
The decision to don the so-called poppy hijab is “a personal and political” choice, says Zine.
Amira Elghawaby, human rights co-ordinator at the National Council of Canadian Muslims, says “clothing can be neutral or political and it’s up to the individual to express themselves as they want.”
Similarly, she notes, there was a Fleur-de-lis hijab created in 2013, during the Quebec government’s controversial proposal of the values charter, which would have banned public employees from wearing religious symbols, including the hijab. At the time, some Canadian Muslim women ordered a hijab with the Fleur-de-lis to symbolize how practising their faith was compatible with Quebec society.
Alia Hogben, executive director of the Canadian Council for Muslim Women, has mixed feelings about the poppy hijab, and wonders if it would be perceived by some as disrespecting the poppy.
Hogben questions why the initiative is just focusing on Muslim women.
“Is it all right for non-Muslim women to wear it as a scarf?”
Hogben doubts she would ever wear a poppy scarf — she doesn’t wear a hijab.
“I’ll wear the poppy on my lapel, or on my clothes” she says, adding “like everybody else does.”