Heard the one about the Mickey Mouse hijab?

Behind the jokes on 'The Islamic Hour' is a serious aim; to combat media bias against Muslims. Ciar Byrne reports
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The Independent Online

The sisters are the hosts of The Islamic Hour, broadcast by the Manchester community radio station ALL FM, which aims to make the religion more accessible to young Muslims and non-Muslims.

Their conversation is pleasantly mundane, girls nattering over tea. They chat about their day jobs as a health worker and a teacher, and invite listeners to join in their conversation by telephone and text.

The show was born out of 29-year-old Faiza's frustration that the only people with whom she could discuss Islam were community leaders who often did not have English as a first language. She tries to show the everyday face of Islam, talking from personal experience and speaking to guests who illuminate rather than preach.

Some stricter Muslims objected at first, but the girls' giggling approach to religious matters has generally been well received. Now, a year on, they have been headhunted by a couple of commercial radio stations.

Faiza explains: "We cover Islam from a young person's perspective. I felt there was nowhere I could access information about my religion that was user-friendly."

She believes the media has a responsibility to show the positive side of Islam. "The media has got a big role to play in the perceptions people have about Muslims. It's really easy to give a negative image of the Muslim, which sells papers. They need to combat that by giving positive responses. The Muslim community do feel let down by the media. You'd think they'd want to stand up and have their say."

Faiza was trained to present her show by ALL FM (it stands for Ardwick, Longsight and Levenshulme, multicultural areas of Manchester). "It's not something I would have gone into, but ALL FM has equipped me with the skills to open my wings. I just thought the media was really negative," she says.

A favourite topic on the show is the hijab, which the sisters both recently adopted, although they were not brought up wearing it. They give listeners updates on the difference wearing the headscarf has made to their lives. They have even set up a "hijab self-help group" for women who wish to follow suit.

Between bursts of laughter, they compare types of hijab: the yo-yo hijab, favoured by Benazir Bhutto, which keeps falling down; the Mickey Mouse hijab, tucked behind the ears, making them stick out; and the communal hijab, when three or four women share the same head-dress.

But there is a more serious side. A month after she started wearing the headscarf, Faiza told listeners: "People start treating you a little bit differently. I got pulled over by a policeman and he spoke to me like I was dumb. He was talking to me like I was three years old. I felt like saying, 'Just because I'm wearing the hijab doesn't make me stupid.'" After the London bombings on 7 July, she said she felt "really vulnerable" wearing the hijab.

After the attacks, the sisters made a two-hour special on terrorism, ranging from seemingly flippant comments - "There's always a bad apple; that doesn't mean you never eat apples again" - to a serious debate about Dr Zaki Badawi's advice that Muslim women should feel free to take off their scarf if they felt threatened.

Some of the most enthusiastic feedback to The Islamic Hour has come from non-Muslims. ALL FM caters for a range of communities, from Somali to Irish. "We've had some really positive responses because we've made it so straightforward that people can understand what our religion is all about," Faiza says.

The experience of straddling Islam and the mainstream media is familiar to Anila Baig, 35, The Sun's first hijab-wearing columnist who was hired last year after winning Columnist of the Year 2004 in the Regional Press Awards for her work in the Yorkshire Post.

Baig says: "I just try to write from the heart and not aim for any particular audience. I just write what comes naturally. The point is that although I'm Muslim and can write about Muslim issues, I'm also a woman and a single parent and a daughter, and a lot of people can relate to that."

She writes on a wide range of issues for The Sun, from her religion to what to watch on television. "Sometimes it's an uphill battle, especially when there is so much bad news out there, but you just want to show that we're all human at the end of the day. Muslims at the moment seem to be in some sub-weird category of humans."

The feedback she has received from the public at large has been good and the Muslim community has also been supportive, although she believes they "tend to be mistrustful of the press in general".

But for attitudes to change, Baig believes the mainstream UK media must stop ghettoising the hijab. "Whenever you see women in hijab on the news, it's because of some tragedy in a Muslim country. We don't see Muslim women in headscarves on EastEnders or The Bill. I think we should."

Faiza, whose show has inspired ALL FM to apply for funding to set up Muslim discussion groups, agrees. "It's about challenging stereotypes. I can go on air and talk about anything and people don't know whether I'm wearing a headscarf or what colour I am."

The Community FM radio conference is in Manchester on 21 and 22 October