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Brick Lane versus 'hijab gates' plan

Tower Hamlets council has been accused of trying to force through a controversial sculpture against the wishes of locals

It is synonymous with curry and trendy bars, nightclubs and art venues. Now a plan to mark the entry points to London's cosmopolitan Brick Lane with giant arches in the shape of headscarves or hijabs has been condemned as offensive to Muslim women and a waste of £1.85m of public funds.

The proposed arches, part of a "cultural trail" through the street – immortalised in Monica Ali's novel Brick Lane – have been criticised as "misconceived" and "excluding". Locals have said they risk ghettoising a community that considers itself tolerant and diverse. Tracey Emin, who lives just off Brick Lane, is one of a number of residents in the east London area who claim that Tower Hamlets council risks inflaming racial tension by trying to force the "hijab gates" – as they have become known – through without proper consultation. After an outcry, the council has extended the deadline for complaints to 22 February.

One local Muslim woman has told the council that the stainless-steel, illuminated arches "create a stereotypical image of Islam, and endorse the practice of the veil that not all of us are happy with. It is a divisive image and one that in the present climate is highly inappropriate. Tower Hamlets should be seeking to bring communities together at this moment." Another, a hijab wearer, said that to call the gates anything other than a hijab was "just semantics". She said: "It is a huge waste of money. There has been enough conflict and tension since Brick Lane started developing after the yuppies moved in. This looks to me like a tool of aggravation and is taking a step backwards."

The Spitalfields Trust, which helped to save many of the historic Huguenot silk weavers' houses that abut Brick Lane, has urged the council to abandon its "misconceived" idea.

The cultural trail through the area is aimed at celebrating the various migrant communities – including Huguenots, Jews and now Bangladeshis – that have settled there across hundreds of years.

Using planning-gain funds paid to the council following the development of Bishops Square and Spitalfields market, the trail is intended to bring more tourism into the area and smarten it up. But locals complain that the focus has been too much on the Bangladeshi community, which makes up a third of the Tower Hamlets population.

At the centre of the trail is a 29 metre high minaret that has been attached to the Brick Lane mosque, a grade II listed building originally built in 1742 as a Huguenot church, then converted into a synagogue and now the Brick Lane jamme masjid [mosque]. Tower Hamlets council says the structure "is not a minaret" but a "large steel art sculpture".

Brick Lane and its side streets are also home to artists such as Emin, Gilbert and George, Jake Chapman, the actor Samantha Morton, as well as architects, designers, planners, poets, musicians and others. Many were shocked to learn only recently that the council planned to erect the veil-like structures. Some say that given the high concentration of artists in the area, the design should have been open to competition.

In a letter to the council, Emin wrote: "I sincerely object to these proposals … the proposed material has no relevance to the heritage of the area or its future. I understand that the Jewish East End Celebration Society does not approve the concept overall and neither do the Spitalfields Trust nor the Spitalfields Society, as stated in the review of the consultation. I am shocked to learn that the scheme is budgeted at £2m and I strongly feel that rubbish collections, vermin control, education and improved policing are more important to resolve."

Broadcaster John Nicolson, who lives off Brick Lane, said: "Throughout history numerous groups have passed through here and made it home. That's what makes Spitalfields so special. It belongs to all of us – atheists, Muslims and Christian, homosexuals and heterosexuals, men and women. The council's latest wheeze – metal arches in the shape of headscarves – is exclusive and excluding. They'd never dream of crucifix-inspired gates – nor should they – so why an arch that is both Islamic and representing a specifically conservative form of Islam?"

A spokeswoman for the council said the concept behind the arch was "loosely based on the sculptural form of a headscarf, reflecting the many cultural backgrounds that have occupied and sought refuge in and around Brick Lane over the centuries".

She said headscarves were worn for a variety of purposes, "such as for warmth, for sanitation, for fashion or social distinction; with religious significance, to hide baldness, out of modesty, or other forms of social convention", and not only by Muslims.

"Observant married Orthodox Jewish women, for example, 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 for religious purposes." She went on: "Many men and women currently wear headscarves or bandannas as a fashion statement, and with Brick Lane being a cultural melting pot both historically and now at the start of the 21st century, this design reference seems appropriate and fitting."

But Will Palin, secretary of Save Britain's Heritage, and a local resident, said: "The headscarf motif is undoubtedly faith-specific to Islam and therefore does not represent the breadth and richness of the borough's history."

At the Beigel Bake, a few metres from the site of one of the proposed arches, Sammy Minzly had been unaware of the proposals.

He said: "I have been here 50 years, and they haven't even told me about it. This used to be a Jewish area, and all my life I have been here. It is disgusting that they have not shown us the respect to ask us what we think." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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