Interview with Aishah Zahoor on Gender, Geopolitics and Geographical Imaginaries

Interview with Aishah Zahoor (pictured left) who was awarded third place in the latest RACE UG Dissertation Prize.  

Aishah studied at Kings College London and wrote a dissertation on “Gender, Geopolitics and Geographical Imaginaries: Uncovering the Contradictions of the Niqab Debate in Times of COVID-19’s Face Mask Normality’’.  

Hi Aishah, thanks for taking the time to share some reflections and insights on your dissertation. Perhaps you could start by telling us how you decided to research this topic? 

It’s my pleasure! So, I began thinking about my dissertation topic during the second year of my degree, which happened to be in the midst of the chaos of COVID-19. The news was constantly flooded with new reports, statistics, changing guidelines and rules, and the commentary of the public’s response to it all. We all had to adapt to a temporary new lifestyle of working from home, remote learning, wearing face masks in public spaces and maintaining our distance from others. But whilst all this was happening, another ongoing issue was exacerbating – the gendered Islamophobia and its specific attack on the religious garments Muslim women wear. 

In May 2021, along with their existing restrictions on religious face coverings, France proposed a ban on the hijab (the head scarf worn by many Muslim women, including myself). This triggered the #HandsOffMyHijab movement, where many Muslim women and activists spoke against this discriminatory violation of their religious freedoms and identity. Additionally, earlier in March, Switzerland had joined the list of European countries that legally impose a ban on face coverings in public spaces. These laws implicitly single out the niqab, which is the face covering that excludes the eyes, worn by a minority of Muslim women for various reasons.  

When hearing this news my dad had made a passing comment saying how it was ridiculous that a Muslim woman could be penalised and fined for covering her face with a niqab but also fined if she didn’t cover her face with a mask. This paradox became the focal point of my investigation. By re-evaluating the gender and faith geopolitics of the niqab in times of COVID-19’s face mask normality, I decided my dissertation would examine whether an irony exists between the two contrasting forms of face coverings. 

Growing up, I have repeatedly witnessed the ways governments, institutions, and (predominately) men try to regulate and police Muslim women’s bodily choices and expression. Discrimination and Islamophobia are masked with legislation on the grounds of maintaining security and societal integration and this has profound impacts on the daily and working lives of visibly Muslim women.  

It’s exhausting and frustrating seeing veiled Muslim women continually being depicted as oppressed victims with no free will or voice, needing to be rescued by the western male saviour, when the reality for many women who choose to veil is that they find comfort, confidence and a sense of bodily control that is empowering to them. There is an extensive amount of academic literature published on the justifications and critiques of banning religious face coverings. However, in a time when wearing face coverings in public spaces became the norm in response to COVID-19, the arguments and central discourse on religious face coverings deserved a re-evaluation. 

How did you find doing a dissertation in the context of Covid-19? 

The biggest challenge was probably deciding what methodology to use. My cohort was told that due to the nature of the pandemic, some of the research methods commonly used for dissertations would be impracticable, such as conducting interviews or visiting sites. Therefore, when I was trying to come up with a topic, I also had to bear this mind and think of different creative ways research can be conducted.  

I opted to take a comparative critical discourse analysis approach as deep qualitative studies into the use of language would help me deconstruct the narratives around face coverings and therefore examine the similarities and contradictions. Language in politics not only holds so much power in shaping our perceptions and imaginations, but it also produces and alters geographical and ideological truths. This method was both ideal for my research and relevant during this uncertain time and space. But I will say, since my research was so heavily focused on readings, literature and language, it felt overwhelming at times, and I think this is something most students often experience.  

Do you have any tips for undergraduate students planning or doing their dissertations? 

Dissertations are extensive research projects and the longest piece of academic work you will produce, so it can become very easy to lose track of your readings and research. So perhaps the most useful tip I could give to current undergrads is to organise and categorise your readings! Extract key information to summarise each article and group them in separate folders according to themes as this will help you recall and locate the information you need when it comes to writing up. You will thank yourself later. 

Another essential piece of advice that I was given at the very beginning of when I was planning my dissertation was to pick a topic that interested me. Every student probably gets told this by their supervisors but that’s because it’s true. Choosing a topic that is of genuine interest to you is the best way to stay motivated and achieve a good grade. Dissertations may seem daunting but it’s a chance for you to make a unique contribution to an issue you feel strongly about, so do some soul-searching, select a topic, accumulate as much knowledge from a range of different sources, and try to enjoy the process. Good luck! 

Perhaps we could end with you sharing a highlight from your time as an undergraduate geography student? 

Reflecting on my time studying Geography at King’s, I would say the highlight would be the field trips, where I made lifelong memories and friendships. In the first year, we went to Andalusia, Spain and it was an exciting way to apply our studies of historical and cultural geographies locally and to the reality of the lives of the people living there. But we also gained a valuable understanding of the experiences of labour migrants who tend to the fields in Almería, which supply the majority of the fruits and vegetables to our supermarkets in the UK. We visited the greenhouses, also known as Mar de plástico (sea of plastic), the shantytowns where migrants lived, and some local NGOs.  

After witnessing their precarious living and working conditions, having conversations and hearing their stories of where they had come from and their plans and dreams for the future, I gained a hard-hitting consciousness of the varying impacts and experiences that exist simultaneously within the geographies of food production and migrant agricultural labour. This particular truth is not something that can be easily taught or understood in the classroom and so I am incredibly grateful to King’s and the experiential learning they provide through field trips. Now having graduated, I feel confident in my ability to critically explore the pressing issues and challenges we face, such as the complex inequalities within development policy and practice, and eager to become a part of the solutions. 


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