Burqas and the British Police Farce

First published at Muslimah Media Watch

Oh, this is just hilarious.

Three female police officers were ordered to dress up as Muslim women for the day just to see what it felt like. They wore traditional burkhas as part of a scheme designed to help police interact better with the Islamic community.

It’s like going to a fancy dress party, because, you know, Muslim women dress up all funny and weird! But, boy, them Muslims are really nasty, too! That’s what the British police force is for. To catch them Muslim baddies while being undercover. Who knew police work can be so much fun?! Tee hee!

But seriously, have these people ever watched Police Academy and not see the irony? Do they think that, by dressing up for just one day, police officers can truly understand the complexity of the British Muslim population in the North of England, one of the largest in the country? And do they think that dishonesty (by pretending to be Muslims) is really the best policy to engage with Muslim communities? It’s like Undercover Mosque all over again.

You know you want more:

Two covered their faces with hijab headscarves and niqab veils, leaving only narrow slits to see through, and another wore Muslim dress and a headscarf showing her face. […]

The officers, Sergeant Deb Leonard, Sergeant Deb Pickering and Police Community Support Officer Helen Turner, all from Sheffield, were accompanied by four Muslim women to help them learn more about the Islamic faith on a tour of the city. In return, the Muslim women were shown around South Yorkshire Police’s custody suite and CCTV office and learned about the day-to-day duties of a police officer. A spokesman for the force said the exercise, called ‘In Your Shoes Day’, was designed to help officers interact better with the Muslim community across Sheffield.

Burqa, hijab, niqab – what’s the difference? What’s important is that these Muslim ladies know what it’s like if they find themselves on the wrong side of the law, particularly when Muslims are over-represented in British prisons.

The Sheffield police’s warped understanding of what interacting with the Muslim community means reeks of bad stereotypes and Islamophobia, among many other things. At the root of this farce is Britain’s flawed dream of social integration and the harmonious sharing of British values. But this approach to “secure strong relationships, celebrate diversity and encourage integration, working towards a safer, closer society” is glaringly lopsided. Social integration and a safer society in Britain really means more unwarranted surveillance and ethnic profiling of brown, Muslim people. A subtle hint at their Islam-only police jaunts speaks volumes of their bias:

[…] there were no plans to extend the scheme for officers to dress up as members of other minority communities.

Hmm, I wonder why. Maybe it’s because Islam and Muslims are believed to be high profile threats to the British way of life like no other religious beliefs and ethnicities. And besides, dressing up as Catholic or Buddhist nuns would be over-the-line-insensitive to their respective communities, right? But it appears that, for these policewomen and their superiors, trivializing what many Muslim women see as an important aspect of their identity is perfectly acceptable. Moreover, it’s acceptable because these women put themselves under public scrutiny and persecution anyway:

‘Two of the Muslim women anticipated that people may stare and possibly make comment, whilst the police officers entered this exercise with an open mind not knowing quite what to expect.’ Sergeant Leonard said the experience had given her a greater appreciation of how Muslim women feel when they walk out in public in ‘clothing appropriate to their beliefs’.

Oh, bless their innocent, open minds. Perhaps a day out with Muslim women was a good idea after all. Perhaps the Sheffield police unit might finally see that Muslims are really quite normal people with struggles like their own, and one day discover that unaccounted institutionalized racism in policing does nothing but push Muslim communities in North England further into alienation. Does it really help anybody that the police is singling out Muslim women in headscarves in their feeble efforts to engage with the ethnic minorities in Sheffield? Certainly not. What playing dress-up as shabby stereotypes does best is feeding into the undying Orientalist fantasies of unveiling (whether literally or symbolically) those oh-so-unattainable and mysterious Muslim women.

2 thoughts on “Burqas and the British Police Farce

  1. This farce makes me so angry. It shows that South Yorkshire Police are completely detached and objectify those whom they are supposed to serve. Of course, the real issue is that there are no Muslim women constables on hand, so non-Muslims feel the misguided need to ‘hijab up’ (kind of like ‘black up’, isn’t it?). What we need are Muslim women — both with and without hijab — in the police service. A number of UK constabularies have approved ‘uniform hijab’ for Muslim women officers (http://www.islamfortoday.com/police.htm), and I’m glad to see that our police in Oxford are among them. It’s interesting that Avon & Somerset Police suggest that non-Muslim women officers use the uniform scarf if needed to enter a mosque (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/crime/article6730192.ece), and the non-Muslim chief officer needed help from her Muslim community-support officer in putting it on! It’s not much, but it’s a start towards making British police services more representative and inclusive of the people they serve.

  2. There’s actually some word about the positive side to this community programme/police exercise, however misguided it appears on the surface. Namely raising the issue of street harassment of women in various kinds of hijab to the attention of the police as a good thing. But again, since policewomen make a significantly smaller portion of the police force (I’m speculating that it’s the case for the South Yorkshire police), only a few can truly empathise with Muslim women. Not that I’m suggesting that policemen dress up in hijab either, but there’s much more that can be done in an outreach programme. And besides, how much can anyone learn from being in the shoes of a Muslim woman in just one day? Sounds like a having a silly fancy dress picnic rather than tackling what’s considered a nationwide concern. Perhaps it’s my less-than-worldly ways, but I’ve heard of schools, recreational centres, and sporting organisations organising outreach programmes, but the police? Not exactly the warmest and friendliest place to get to your neighbour.

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