Posted by: Lister | April 20, 2007

Manal Omar

As soon as I arrived in Baghdad in those fear-free days of 2003 to open the Iraq office of Women for Women International, people from all over the world began calling and writing to ask me what it was like. I used to send out an e-mail journal in response. But over the past year, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to record what is going on. Even before my brother-in-law’s death, I felt stymied. My last journal entry was on April 19, 2005, three days after peace activist Marla Ruzicka was killed by a roadside bomb. At that moment, I realized that the loss of friends and colleagues had become overwhelming. I was losing hope.

The above article is by Manal Omar, an aid worker and woman’s rights activist. She tells of the murder of her brother in law, a Shia, in the Sunni district of Tarmiyah, where he had worked for years. Read that article and then imagine that its hard working and very laudable author has to defend her choice of swimwear in the Guardian. It’s a mad world.

Manal Omar had used her five-piece ‘Islamic-style’ swimsuit for years – in Rio, Washington and Kuala Lumpur – and it had never brought her more than a curious glance. Then she went for a dip in Oxford…

She was at a swimming pool in Oxford when a man pointed her out to the manager for wearing a “burkini”. When she tried to enter the conversation, the man told her: “This has nothing to do with you.”

“But you have just singled me out in front of everyone, and in a voice loud enough for me to hear. How can this have nothing to do with me?”

At this point he referred to me as a “silly little girl”, which I found amusing, considering that I am a 32-year-old, 5ft 10in, professional senior manager for an international NGO. This man was clearly a closed-minded bigot and a sexist to boot, and there wasn’t much I could do to change that.

Now, I realise that my swimsuit stands out a bit. […] Some people might think it’s overkill. But it’s my choice. […] Previously, there had always been a sort of unspoken agreement between me and my fellow swimmers that my swimsuit didn’t really matter – we were all there to swim and relax. I was not forcing my swimsuit on them, and they were not forcing their choice on me.

[…] Yet that’s not how the journalist at the local newspaper in Oxford, the Oxford Mail, decided to approach the issue. Her article was titled “Row over fully dressed woman in sauna”. The main interview in the article was with Ian Caldwell, the man who verbally attacked me in the lobby. There was no attempt to find out the full story. A so-called “Muslim community leader” called Taj Hargey called it “political correctness gone crazy”.

At no point had the journalist contacted me. She seemed to have decided to take a similar approach to the man in the swimming pool – talking about me, not to me. As did David Lloyd’s, which had backed up his story without consulting me. At no point did they bother to inform me, a paying member, that such an article was being written. I contacted the Oxford Mail, offering them my side of the story. I never heard back.

Looking back, what disturbed me the most about the debate was that my very identity was reduced to a cluster of cliches about Muslim women. I was painted in broad strokes as an oppressed, unstable Muslim woman. I was made invisible, an object of ridicule and debate, with no opinion or independent thoughts. The fact that I had dedicated the past 10 years to working on women’s issues on a global level, led a delegation of American women into Afghanistan in 2003, and put my life on the line in Iraq struggling for women’s constitutional rights were clearly beyond anyone’s imagination. The part of my life where I had the opportunity of meeting leading women from Queen Rania of Jordan to Hillary Clinton was erased.

When I chose to wear the headscarf nearly 15 years ago, I promised myself it would never hold me back from my two passions: travel and sport. Neither my mother nor my sister had worn the headscarf, and my family raised us with the gift of freedom of choice. To this day my sister and I enjoy the outdoors, each never giving a second thought to our choice of dress – her bikini or my “burkini”. It strongly disturbs me that I was disregarded as an individual, and demeaned to a one-dimensional stereotype. For many of those involved in the debate, the fact that I covered my head and my body seemed to make them forget that I had a brain.



  1. manal may be interested in my artwork. if she looks on and follows the Sweet Dreems link I am hoping she will agree it is art which will “allow Muslim women to make a middle ground of interaction’. Not entirely of course but perhaps my art helps in a small way.

    /regards Christine

    ps Manal is also more than welcome to be part of my exhibition Sweet Dreams. She no longer appears to be wearing a niqab but I am also making a video of “every woman” ie woman from many culture/faith backgrounds to acompany the main body of photographs of women who wear the niqab. A sort of Sisterhood/solidarity video.

    Please Manal if you ever see this comment and you are interested please get in touch.

  2. WMML is a good idea. I’m sure it helps to widen people’s ideas about Muslims.

    I can’t read the text to the side of the pictures on the web-site, though. I’m sure I would have found many humourous topics in common. That would be the real bridge-building.

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