Citizen Khan’s Alia: How the hijab got sexy

BBC1’s Citizen Khan has received several complaints since its debut, but our writer believes the makers of this controversial show have got one thing right.

Related Topics

BBC1’s Citizen Khan has received complaints not least for suggesting that Pakistani households are headed by swindling, male chauvinists who keep women under their yoke. But the production team hit the nail on the head with personalities like Alia, played by Bhavna Limbachia.

As a practising South Asian Muslim, I  know many girls like her. The scenes which show Alia pretending to be engrossed in the Quran’s recital and covering her head with the hijab, just to keep up appearances in front of her father, are indeed true to the behaviour of some young Muslim women who scorn what they see as the hijab’s drab and frumpish look.

Student life at university opened my eyes to a number of Muslim girls, for whom a holy charade continued in fits and starts. The web of deceit woven by those who treated the hijab as a flimsy camouflage, shared much in common with Alia’s portrayal in Citizen Khan. It was common to find young Muslim women duping their fathers into believing they were veiled outside the home, when, in actual fact, they could be spotted with peek-a-boo fabric at beaches and party jams, soaking up the sun, sex and booze.

Even in my circles, there are girls who see the hijab as a bartering chip and win favour with their fathers through flattery, only to later fly in the face of tradition and jettison Islamic morals for a slightly more seductive gospel. Feigning obedience and working their way into daddy’s good books through a mixture of bluff and charm is a survival strategy for the Alias of this world. I’m certain director Adil Ray knows all too well those Muslim fathers, heaping praise on their daughters’ covenant with the Almighty but ultimately unsuspecting of their double shuffle.

Non-Muslims are likely to ask why some Muslim girls resort to such amateurish feats of make-believe, without confronting anxieties about their sexuality and identity head-on, as most responsible young adolescents are expected to do. What I can say as partly responsible – having worked and studied with a number of South Asian Muslim youths – is the unspeakable frustrations caused by the intense sexual repression in their homes. The agony which some Muslim women in particular find themselves in, hailing from conservative and teetotal families, which preach a very coy and shameful attitude towards sex, can generate confused notions of sexuality like Alia's.

But Alia’s character is also a revealing insight into a deeper mutation in the Muslim gender quake. Not every case is as discreet and cunning as hers. Simply, there are a considerable number of hijab-clad girls who are using fashion to express their own, slightly milder, version of today’s obsession with raunch.

To illustrate to non-Muslims the pragmatic stride towards risqué which some British Muslim women are taking, I would have to describe what a typical Eid occasion looks like in London’s Tower Hamlets, an area with one of the UK’s largest Muslim populations. It’s usually the equivalent of a Prêt-à-Porter Paris fashion week, where Muslim girls demand an equal share of the spoils enjoyed by those gracing the covers of Cosmopolitan and Elle.

Last Eid I remember the swarms of hijab-clad women, some adorned in salwar kameez while others sported plunging necklines, who were greeted by a chorus of catcalls outside East London Mosque. The sounds drowned out the calls to prayer usually heard bellowing from the minaret. Bursting with flesh to curry male approval, they were lapping up the gazes not only from ogling construction workers but also loutish Muslim youths, who whisked them into a fleet of pimped-up super cars. The more traditional  bystanders could manage only a few garbled phrases at this tour de force of carnality.

These girls were certainly not deterred by senior members of the community, who could easily, as is common in many South Asian cultures, admonish them and reveal their shenanigans to their parents. Perhaps these girls are just fed up of the morality police, where everything from behaviour to dress must adhere to dogmatic dos and don’ts? I can’t unpack their psychology, but I do recognise how they present the more puritan Muslims with a hard-hitting reality: that some Muslim girls are just as immersed in today’s superficial culture as anyone else.

For many of the devout Muslim men I have spoken to, “sisters” who take delight in being gawked and gaped at without fear of censure are beyond redemption. I think that’s unfair and smacks of bigotry, especially when these “sisters” often grow up in an environments where opportunities to discuss sexuality are closed. While their inability or unwillingness to wear the hijab as traditionalists would wish is ironice, it reveals a significant demographic of burlesque hijabis, enamoured by a kitsch sartorial line. In my view, basking in the romanticism that every hijab-clad girl deserves a standing ovation for being the pick of creation is unhealthy and immature. Many approach fashion in the spirit of playfulness and are simply seeking ways in which their hijab and predilection for sex appeal can co-exist. There’s very little Muslim men can do about that.

So Alia’s case is telling for many reasons. Although Citizen Khan provoked indignation for offending the British Muslim consensus on many fronts, sometimes it takes self-deprecating banter to blow the whistle on a culture’s idiosyncrasies. Credit must be given to Adil Ray for not sparing any sacred cows and shining light on the conundrum of some British Muslim women under the patriarchal cosh.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Children of a bygone era  

Kids these days aren't what they used to be — they're a lot better. So why the fuss?

Archie Bland
A suited man eyes up the moral calibre of a burlesque troupe  

Be they burlesque dancers or arms dealers, a bank has no business judging the morality of its clients

John Walsh
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star