Tuesday, 16 February 2010
Don't brand Brick Lane: Plans to build arches in the shape of headscarves across a street in east London are wasteful and culturally insensitive
by Kia Abdullah
London's local councils have never been known for good sense or sagacity, and yet they continuously manage to surprise me with new levels of folly. Illustrating this point, Tower Hamlets council is planning to install two hijab-shaped arches at each end of Brick Lane – at a reported cost of £1.85m.
The proposed structures are planned as part of a cultural trail aimed at celebrating the area's rich cultural history. Also a vehicle for increasing tourism, the arches will be bankrolled by money paid to the council following the development of Bishops Square and Spitalfields market.
The proposal has understandably ruffled a few feathers, not only because of the associated cost, but because of the symbol chosen to represent the area. The hijab, highly symbolic of Islam, will brand the area with a single identity, casting aside the diversity that makes the area what it is. Muslims account for more than 30% of the local population, which is, of course, relatively high, but that is little justification. Would the council think to erect two massive crosses for the area's Christian population or two yarmulkes to represent its links with the Jewish community?
In an attempt to stem the outcry, a council spokesperson offered a Guardian reporter this unconvincing explanation: "Observant married Orthodox Jewish women are required to cover their hair, often employing scarves for the purpose, and Jewish men will use a kippah or yarmulke to cover their heads … Many men and women currently wear headscarves or bandanas as a fashion statement, and with Brick Lane being a cultural melting pot, this design reference seems appropriate and fitting."
It's a weak justification that has failed to enlist support from Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Personally, I cannot identify with the symbolism, even as a Muslim woman. For many, the hijab represents modesty and freedom of choice, but we cannot ignore that it is also one of the most contentious and divisive issues of modern times – within the Muslim community as well as outside it. Its proposed role as a symbol of integration and inclusiveness is counter-intuitive at best and unfathomable at worst.
For the council, catering to the Muslim community might sometimes feel like a case of "damned if you do and damned if you don't", but most people that I know in the area want to integrate. It may be true that the community itself is largely to blame for its insularity, but closing it off behind two veils is hardly the way to break down barriers.
This brings us to the question of a more appropriate symbol. What would accurately represent the history of the area? What could the council use instead? Well, how about nothing? In the current economic climate, plans to spend copious amounts of money on unnecessary branding exercises should simply be abandoned.
I agree with Tracey Emin, who is reported as saying that "rubbish collections, vermin control, education and improved policing are more important".
Tower Hamlets council hasn't always got it wrong with their ambitious schemes. The imposing Idea Stores across Whitechapel and Poplar are vibrant and alive with activity; an illustration of what good investment can do for an area. Why not use £1.85m to build another library, to improve education and literacy – things that will facilitate integration and help the economy far more than any "cultural trail" ever could?
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 16 February 2010 12.00 GMT