When Muslims make headlines, it’s invariably for the wrong reasons. The fuss over Boris Johnson’s burka joke is a case in point: he was making an argument in defence of Muslims, but was instead condemned for attacking us. Why the confusion? Because of how little our faith is understood.
Let’s start with the burka. Islam makes various demands of its followers, but — despite what you might think from the headlines — covering our faces isn’t one of them. Based on the media’s fascination with these strange and oppressive garments, you might wonder why any modern woman would ever choose Islam. So here’s my answer.
I’m a London-born doctor, raised in a Muslim family and now working in America. While Islam always played a role in my youth, it was never something which defined me: rather a list of ‘dos’, ‘don’ts’ and cultural traditions which governed various aspects of home life. It was during an assignment in Riyadh — where I was working as a doctor — that everything changed.
Of course when you’re living in Saudi Arabia, Islam is never far away — but at first its omnipresence only served to remind me of my failings as a Muslim. To the Saudis, I knew so little about my religion I was assumed to be a convert. Thanks to Saudi law (which mandates covering of the hair — something my parents never enforced), I might have looked more Muslim — but I certainly didn’t feel it. Take the Hajj, for example — the holy pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are expected to undertake once in their lifetime, if their health and their means allow. Although many of my colleagues had jumped at the opportunity to do it, it wasn’t something I had considered.