By Nadeem F. Paracha
18 December 2016
In the summer of 2014, I was at a marketing and media conference, in Dubai, organised by a British cultural organisation. Guests were invited from various Asian and African countries whereas the speakers were largely from Britain. The conference also offered media workshops.
At one such corporate branding workshop conducted by the marketing head of the British organisation, I sat beside a young Indonesian man.
Every time the British marketing head exhibited slides with images of employees working at the offices of the organisation in the UK, the Indonesian would shake his head and frown.
Finally, after about five such slides, the Indonesian raised his hand.
“Excuse me,” he said. The British guy stopped his presentation: “Yes.”
The Indonesian stood up and started to speak: “Why do you people have to continuously show Muslim women in hijabs in your pictures?”
The British man seemed surprised by the question. Raising an eyebrow, he said: “I am sorry but I don’t understand. What do you mean?” As he said this, he quickly but closely studied the Indonesian with a longish beard, wearing a white skull cap and kurta-Pajaama.
“Every time you people speak about diversity in your country, you show Muslim women in hijabs. Why is that?” he asked.
The British guy, still looking perplexed, just shrugged his shoulders and said: “Sorry, but I still don’t understand your question.”
Another hand went up. It was of a young Egyptian man with a trendy goatee. He was wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt. “May I?” he asked.
“Yes, please” the British guy replied, as if relieved by the intervention. The Egyptian lad stood up: “Is this the only way for you guys to show Muslim women?” he asked.
Are we defined by what we wear?
How else do you want us to show them?” the Briton replied, this time with a hint of annoyance in his voice. Before the Egyptian could answer, the Indonesian man, who was still standing, interrupted: “No, no, this was not what I meant!”
A young woman (in a Hijab) who was seated in front of us, nodded rather vigorously. “Yes, yes, he did not mean that,” she quietly said, as if to herself.
The Egyptian, while placing himself back on his seat, smiled: “I know, brother, this was not what you meant. But this is what I mean.”
The Briton suddenly raised his voice: “Gentlemen, we are getting distracted here. This has nothing to do with the subject of the workshop. Can we continue with what we are here for?”
And we did. But I was fascinated by this short, sharp exchange. So during the coffee break I quickly approached the Indonesian man.
After introducing myself, I asked him what was it that he was trying to point out in his question. He said: “These people (the Westerners) refuse to understand the meaning of our faith. They think it’s only about how we look.”
I slowly nodded my head and then politely added: “I think it cuts both ways. How well do we understand their faith?”
The Indonesian was quick to ask, “What faith?”
I shrugged my shoulders: “Well, for example, Christianity? Or the fact that some might have no faith at all. That too is a faith, no?”
The Indonesian smiled: “My question to him was that they needed to understand our faith a little more deeply.”
I again nodded my head: “Well, yes, it is a rather stereotypical way to show Muslims in beards and Hijabs.”
Hearing this, the Indonesian almost spilled his coffee: “No, no, friend, not stereotypical. That is the correct way of showing us Muslims. But they (the Westerners) need to look deeper still.”
I couldn’t help but ask (very politely): “So, this means, showing a Muslim with no beard or Hijab is not correct. But showing Muslims in beards or Hijab is, but needs to be looked at in a deeper manner?”
“Yes!” came the answer. ‘That is what I meant. You get it because you are Muslim. He (the Briton) won’t.”
“Actually I don’t,” I shot back, again very politely.
Then added: “Maybe I should look deeper still?” He went quiet for a bit, then striking a thoughtful pose, he nodded and softly proclaimed: “Indeed, indeed …” Saying this, he took his cup of coffee and left. Just like that.
Later that day, I bumped into the Egyptian guy in the smoking area. He said that he agreed with the Indonesian man’s question, but not with his intent.
Hearing this I shared with him my exchange with the Indonesian. He laughed: “You see, Westerners love to dress people up with identities. This makes them feel superior. And we (the Muslims) love to dress up for them.”
This was interesting. He continued: “Who gave us this look (of hijab and beard)? We now dress up exactly the way the West perceives us. We love to get their attention. Muslims like you and I will never be in those pictures, bro”, he laughed again.
The next evening the Egyptian, an Algerian, a Chinese, another Pakistani and I strolled into the bar of the HOTEL we all were staying in. The Briton was already there.
Though much of our conversation with him was about the workshop, the Egyptian did bring up the Hijab question again.
“Listen,” said the Briton, “when we have to exhibit diversity in a poster or a picture, we often show some Caucasians, some blacks, some Chinese and so on. So, when we have to exhibit religious diversity, we show people of different faiths together. Now tell me, how are we to tell that a man or a woman is Muslim? That’s why the Hijab and all.”
“Hmm. Makes sense,” said the Egyptian. “Good, now let’s drink up, already!” said the Briton, raising his glass.
But just as we were about to, the Egyptian interrupted: “But … if, in a picture, a Muslim woman has to be shown in a Hijab and a Muslim man in a beard to portray that they were Muslims, I was wondering how you guys would show a Christian? Do you dress him up like the Pope? How would we know he was Christian?”
Everyone at the table snickered, with the Chinese guy saying that at least the Chinese are not shown wearing a Mao Cap anymore to show that they were from China. The Briton cracked a resigned smile: “Okay, Mr Cairo, you made your point.”
Mr Cairo raised his glass: “Oh, I was just wondering that’s all. Cheers.”