October 4, 2013 7:30 pm

The Diary: Mishal Husain on Malala Yousafzai, the niqab debate and cycling in London

‘Sadly, one part of the Muslim world’s concept of Islamic dress may be unacceptable in another’
Illustration of women in niqabs©James Ferguson

Boarding a train to Birmingham the other day, I was stopped by a man at Euston station. A fellow Muslim, he complimented me on my work and then said, “But you’ll have to wear the hijab one day.” “I don’t think so,” I replied. It was an awkward exchange and yet a timely one, given the ongoing interest in the niqab, or full-face veil, in Britain, and it made me reflect on what amounts to “Islamic dress”.

Anyone who has travelled in Muslim countries will have seen the diversity of apparel from Indonesia to south Asia, Arabia and Africa, and Muslims in the west are developing their own norms. Sadly, one part of the Muslim world’s concept of Islamic dress may be unacceptable in another, even if rooted in centuries of tradition.

When I lived in Saudi Arabia as a child, my mother, despite being conservatively attired in her shalwar kameez and keeping her head covered, was required to wear an abaya, or black cloak, over the top.

Thankfully, there was no requirement for foreign women to cover their faces, so we could at least spot our mother easily if we wandered off in the supermarket. For Saudi children whose mothers were fully veiled, with even their eyes hidden, it was more tricky – they would peer at the feet of black-clad figures, trying to identify them by their shoes. My urologist father, meanwhile, had the odd experience of lecturing to halls full of veiled medical students, and the even odder experience of his female patients disrobing from the neck down when required but always keeping their niqabs on.

In the Koran, the subject of dress is touched upon only a handful of times, with the dominant requirement being modesty on the part of both sexes. One verse puts the emphasis on actions over appearances: “O children of Adam, we have provided you with garments to cover your bodies, as well as for luxury. But the best garment is the garment of righteousness.” (7:26)

. . .

The trip to Birmingham was for the project in which I have been engrossed for the past few weeks – a Panorama documentary about the Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, including her first interview since being shot by the Taliban in October 2012. She is an articulate, compelling young woman, with an infectious passion for education. One of the nurses who looked after her at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital told me she had never seen anyone want to do their homework the way Malala did.

We pieced together her story by filming in both the UK and Pakistan but the day we spent with her medical team in Birmingham was eye-opening. One of the doctors involved was consultant otologist Richard Irving, who was charged not just with restoring Malala’s badly damaged hearing but also the paralysis on the left side of her face.

He described to me the 10-hour operation that revealed the gunman’s bullet had severed her facial nerve, with the missing section making it impossible for the two ends to meet along its original route. He decided to expose and re-route the nerve so it would travel a shorter distance, allowing the ends to be brought together. I listened in awe.

There are only a handful of specialists in the UK with experience of this kind of surgery and it would not have been available to Malala had she remained in Pakistan. Although the doctors there saved her from death in the hours after the shooting, the team in Birmingham gave her back a full life. Without people such as Richard Irving and his team, she might never have had the confidence to speak again in public, as she did so memorably at the UN in July.

. . .

It’s been a great summer for street food in London with organisations such as Kerb showing fast food can also be good food. I first encountered Kerb’s group of travelling cooks and producers at the South Bank, and have enjoyed seeing them pop up at street parties and fairs elsewhere. One of my personal favourites is Cesar Roden of the Ice Kitchen, who makes “artisan ice lollies”, with flavours ranging from pink mojito to banana choco dip.

His challenge now will be to keep a seasonal business going through the winter. An observation from Moscow might be cause for hope – when I lived there during my gap year before university, I was struck by how many people would stop for an ice cream throughout the year, even on the coldest days. If Cesar can plant the same idea in Londoners’ minds, he’ll do fine.

. . .

It’s now almost a year since BBC News began moving into New Broadcasting House in central London, parting with our old studios at White City. For me, it has meant a shorter commute, and an incentive to fulfil my own post-Olympics pledge – to start cycling for the first time in nearly 10 years. As I gained in confidence, the experience became more enjoyable, despite one near-miss involving a white van and my personal version of road rage – that is, rage at the state of the roads.

There is one stretch of my route, a street in one of London’s wealthiest boroughs, where the surface of the cycle lane resembles open gravel, with patches of complete disintegration. Complaining, and even emailing photographs to the local authority, has had no effect.

I shall probably plague them no longer, as my new working hours on Radio 4’s Today programme have prompted a cycling rethink. Although the merits of coming into work on a bike at 4am have been recommended by one of my fellow presenters, I’m unconvinced.

Instead, I’m using the bike more for errands. When I cycled to the dry cleaner the other day, I was greeted with the words, “You’re brave.” I duly launched into tales of potholes and white vans, only for him to clarify that he meant my last breaking news assignment. “I meant Cairo. You were brave to go out there in all that trouble.” I wonder which risk is statistically greater?

Mishal Husain joins BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ on October 7. ‘Malala: Shot For Going to School’ airs on ‘Panorama’ on BBC One at 8.30pm on the same day

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