Burqas and the British Police Farce

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!

The undercover policewomen. Image via The Daily Mail.

The undercover policewomen. Image via The Daily Mail.

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.

  • Broomstick

    I love how they called the shalwar kameez “a Muslim dress.” Oh shitttt! We better tell Indian Hindus, Sri Lankan Buddhists, Nepali Hindus, and any other non-Muslim South Asians that they’ve been wearing a Muslim dress this whole time!!!

  • http://getoutlines.wordpress.com Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    I think this was just ill advised rather then malicious. After all, The U.K police force is one of the few in the world to have designed a special hijab for those officers who want to wear it.

    The 7/7 and the fact that UK Muslims are sadly overrepresented in prison has led to a slew of outreach work and community projects, some more successful then others.

  • Sobia

    I agree with Safiya Outlines. This doesn’t seem malicious. Sure, a little odd and not the best way to go about outreach programs, but not malicious.

    I get that many of these outreach programs occur because the police see Muslim populations as problematic, which is problematic in itself. But I would like to think that there is also a trust building element to it. I heard the NYPD has started a cricket league for the same outreach reasons with New York’s Muslim/desi population. We’ll see what comes of it.

  • Luke

    “And besides, dressing up as Catholic or Buddhist nuns would be over-the-line-insensitive to their respective communities, right?”

    Yes, but in the same way that it would’ve been disrespectful if they had a policeman dress up as an Imam or other Muslim religious figure.

    The equivalent of dressing up as a regular Muslim woman would’ve been to dress up as a regular Catholic or Buddhist woman, not a nun.

    I agree with the rest of what you have written though.

  • http://rlayla.blogspot.com Rochelle

    “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?”

    uh…. yes?

    If you’re arguing that head-scarf wearers are singled out for violence, oppression, and racism (see most all earlier posts on Muslimahmediawatch), then you must address this community specifically.

    I’m not saying this is a great program, but I just don’t understand this post: are you saying that all culture-specific sensitivity programs are crap because they ‘single out’? The fact is, not all ethnic minorities in Northern England need special attention, or at the very least, some need more attention than others.

    This has been done before. Ever heard of “Black Like Me”?

  • Smeegle

    This is a rather glaring article, pointing out the various problems and ulterior motives of the Sheffield police force’s attempt to interact with the muslim community whle dressing up as visible muslim women. I truly believe that this was not in any way meant to be malicious, although perhaps a little musguided. We cannot dance around the reality that, although unfortunate, there are many muslims in the UK who may possibly be a threat to the country. We cannot dance around the fact that the UK had thousands of innocent citizens blown up by terrorist attacks, allegedly by muslims. This is a reality, and we should stop trying to edge around this fact. Although there are many white British criminal offenders as well, there are many muslim ones. This is a fact. The UK is actually a much more accepting and tolerant society than most European ones when it comes to trying to make lives easier for muslim citizens. Homes are built in predominately muslim areas with the toilets facing away from the Kabah, most muslim citizens are able to pray 5 times a day at work, there are visibly dressed muslims employed in all areas in the UK, including women wearing jilbabs and hijabs. I even saw a woman wearing a jilbab and niqab working at a retail store on Oxford Circus. I have never seen that anywhere else. Women in Scotland Yard are also able ot wear hijab and an abaya,if they wish, whileon the job. This is unparalleled in my opinion. It is a further sign of acceptance and faith-realted accomodation. To get back to the issue, all in all, the UK is a much more tolerant and friendly society to muslims than most. And I even think that this attempt by the Sheffield police should be regarded as a positive thing. The point of the exercise was to try to interact better with the muslim community. Comparing dressing as a Buddhist nun or monk is not the same thing at all. There is a very large muslim community in Sheffield, as well as in other parts of the UK. What would be the point of an interaction exercise with a tiny percentage of the commmunity such as Buddhists? Even one of the policewomen stated that she has a greater appreciation for the way muslim women feel when they dress as visible muslims. Along with the attempt to interact with the muslim community, that is another positive thing that came from this experience. This may be a misguided attempt at interaction with the muslim community in Sheffield, but at least they are trying, which is more than I can say for a lot of other societies.

  • http://getoutlines.wordpress.com Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    On further reflection, I would like to add that many people do not realise the hostility women wearing Muslim dress face, whether it’s verbal abuse, threatening glares, mockery, or other forms of intimidation.

    Many Muslim women have suffered or continue to suffer such treatment, but are unlikely to report it to the police, because they don’t want to make a fuss, or would prefer to forget about it.

    If such an exercise increases police awareness into this harassment, and their ability to deal with it, then it will be a very good thing.

  • http://cycads.wordpress.com cycads


    ““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?”

    uh…. yes?

    If you’re arguing that head-scarf wearers are singled out for violence, oppression, and racism (see most all earlier posts on Muslimahmediawatch), then you must address this community specifically.”

    I don’t really understand what you mean. You can’t address an entire community by picking and choosing individuals. Perhaps it would be more helpful if you elaborate on this?

    This police exercise actually reminds me of early 20th century expeditions to African villages conducted by wives of British anthropologists to explore the more ‘mysterious’ aspects of African life i.e. the womenfolk and domestic life. Women, I gathered, made better diplomats when engaging with the foreign Other.

  • http://cycads.wordpress.com cycads

    “The equivalent of dressing up as a regular Muslim woman would’ve been to dress up as a regular Catholic or Buddhist woman, not a nun.”

    And the equivalent of a Catholic or Buddhist nun is… a Muslim nun?


    I don’t think it’s possible that faith-related clothing can be that easy to compare as equals. In many Muslim communities, all women are expected to be as chaste as Catholic and Buddhist nuns and that is usually characterised by how these women are dressed. Regardless, the hijab should be just as respected as a nun’s robes.

  • http://love-ely.blogspot.com/ tikno

    very interesting post !

  • Al-Jazairi

    An unbalanced article, and possibly it was written under frustration. Good intention with the wrong approach. A genuine effort with a lack of patience and scrutiny. My thoughts, as a Muslim, are along the same lines as Smeegle and Rochelle. This means that I do not need to repeat the same points that they have both made.

    This kinds of article are becoming very unhealthy and damaging for the “resurrection” of the Muslim community.

    We want to shield the niqab, the Ab3aya, the beard and the skin color from racial profiling, and still forget that in most Muslim countries there is no such a thing as the protection of minority groups.

    The initiative of the Sheffield police seems to be more comprehensive than maliciously driven. Buddhists were not involved in the recent attacks in Britain, nor were Catholics or Hindus. These initiatives are the natural product of recent events, which undoubtedly involved Muslim youth. At this stage, the Muslim community is bound, some way or the other, to clean that vaccum.

    Wa Allah A3lam.( And only God know)

    Never write a letter while you are angry. ~Chinese Proverb

    Another unusual quote from a rather unusual person.

    We live in a society of victimization, where people are much more comfortable being victimized than actually standing up for themselves.

    Marilyn Manson

  • rosa

    “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.”

    Yeah, ofcourse, hindoes didn’t trow bombs and kill a score of people. So that’s not really surprising, isn’t it?

    Well, sympathetic, this police action to ‘try to understand minorities’, although a bit shallow. But if the article above represents the view of this minorities, it doesn’t come from two sides. Wasted time. :(

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    @ Rosa: Violence and terrorism are not limited to Muslims–making blanket statements about any group is against our moderation policy. Please keep this in mind.

  • http://rlayla.blogspot.com Rochelle

    The police are there to serve the community, including the Muslim community, in the best way possible. that’s why 20th centuries expeditions are not quite comparable, as we should try to hold the police force to better standards than imperialists…

    The police always have problems with minority communities, for sure. In chicago, where I used to live, the relationship between the Black community and the police force has always been strained. Similarly, the police force in many European societies have had less than perfect relationships with Muslim communities.

    There are a lot of misunderstandings going around. Cultural sensitivity and diversity trainings for police forces are not new — its been around for years in many parts of North America and Europe, and with many different kinds of communities (Blacks in America, Natives in Canada, Muslims in Europe, etc.) The goal is to have better understanding of these communities, their specific challenges and needs, in order to best serve them.

    Now we can surely have a debate on whether it works.

    But I don’t really think you were fair to the idea behind it.

    Hijabis face certain obstacles BECAUSE they are hijabi. Wouldn’t you want the police force to have better empathy for this by actually experiencing it themselves?

  • http://cycads.wordpress.com cycads


    “Hijabis face certain obstacles BECAUSE they are hijabi. Wouldn’t you want the police force to have better empathy for this by actually experiencing it themselves?”

    I cannot disagree with the fact that hijabis can face certain obstacles by virtue of their choice to wear the hijab. But I have deep reservations about non-Muslim policewomen (what about policemen?) taking up the hijab simply as a way to empathise with certain members of the Muslim community. Firstly, the Sheffield police to be begin with is unrepresentative of the city it serves by having not having any Muslim policewomen at all. Therefore, I speculate that it is unlikely to have many women too. Only a few non-Muslim police oficers finding out what it’s like in be “in Muslim womens shoes” for a day? and how much can the police learn in just one day? – I am suspicious about the way the whole idea was conceived, which is why I sound rather unfair and dismissive.

  • http://rlayla.blogspot.com Rochelle

    Well, I would agree with your reservations stated here. The whole thing seems like too-little, too-late. The motives come off as cool with me, but the execution could have been better.

  • http://www.liquescent.net/blog M. Landers

    These things always remind me of Courtney Cox (I think … I could be misremembering the actress in question) donning a fat suit for the purposes of learning what it’s like to be plus sized, and stating that it taught her that being overweight is very hot, temperature wise.

    More to the point, it also reminds me of Christiane Amanpour in the “God’s Warriors” series making a show of the difficulty of putting on hijab and saying something to the effect of “can you believe women have to do this every day?” The possibility that the experience of doing something once is irreconcilably different from doing something as a day-to-day norm just doesn’t factor in.

  • http://oksanaukraine.blogspot.com Oksana

    I usually love articles here, but this time it was a bit too harsh. I converted very recently, however, before that – before I even started thinking to convert, I tried one day to wear niqab. Even for one day, it gives you sensations that you won’t understand just by talking. And yes, one day is a little, but even a small fraction of true understanding is better than nothing.
    I agree with a reader above – muslims are under spotlight now. They need to speak up and this way is better than nothing. In particular, what I liked was that the ladies were not just wearing niqab, burqa, hijab by themselves, but were accompanied by Muslim women, who I suppose gave them a bigger introduction into the lives of their community.

  • http://rlayla.blogspot.com Rochelle

    That’s true. But, on a lighter note, I remember wearing a chador for awhile and it was definitely the most difficult article of clothing I’ve ever worn (not on a spiritual or politival level — just the acual act of keeping it on) and now I have a new found respect for women (like my grandma) who do wear it!

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  • http://rlayla.blogspot.com Rochelle

    You’re not understanding what Luke is saying.

    Any Muslim woman can wear hijab, but only learned Muslims (Muslim men specifically) can wear the frock. That’s why its disrespectful to dress up as a nun (or Priest or Imam or Rabbi other revered religious figure) if you do not have the qualifications to wear that attire.

    It’s disrespectful to dress up as a priest, for instance, because a priest had to be ordained and holds certain responsibilities to the community. I can look at someone wearing a collar and assume he has particular qualifications. Similarly, it is dishonest to dress up as a Rabbi or Imam if you do have the appropriate qualifications.

    But wearing hijab has no qualifications associated with it (or rather, those qualifications vary so much between cultures and communities that it becomes meaningless to assume a certain level of religious involvement based on the hijab.)

    Of course the hijab should be respected, but it’s a stretch to say it has the same holy connotations as a collar or habit.

  • http://rlayla.blogspot.com Rochelle

    Or think about it this way: There’s a reason why dressing up (or imposing) as a police officer is illegal. You dont want people thinking you’re a police officer when you’re not because of the responsibilites a police officer (or, again, Imam, Rabbi, nun…) has for the community.

  • Sobia

    I have to agree with Rochelle and Luke here. A Muslim woman’s hijab cannot be compared to the dress of a nun. They two very different things.

    Many nuns do not in fact wear the habit. However, they still hold the same responsibilities, duties, and role regardless.

    Christian nuns are not only expected to be chaste but also celibate. Muslim women who wear the hijab are not expected to be celibate.

    Finally, being a nun is TOTALLY different than being a regular Muslim woman. Being a nun is a profession of sorts in which one is expected to dedicate their lives to serving God and His people. Being a Muslim woman is not a profession and we are not expected to give up everything else to serve God and His people.

    I think it’s about time we Muslims put away this “Muslim woman is the same as a Christian nun” trope. I think it can actually be disrespectful to those women who become nuns.