Why I wear the niqab
As the debate over the niqab, or full-face veil, rumbles on, community activist Sahar Al-Faifi explains her decision to cover up.
Please do share your thoughts on the niqab on the thread below - is it a symbol of oppression, or an important religious freedom?
Molecular geneticist and community activist
Wed 16-Oct-13 10:58:09
The common impression that people have about women who wear the niqab is that they are forced to do so by their spouses or society, and are therefore oppressed. They are also believed to be uneducated, passive - kept behind closed doors, and not integrated within British society.
These negative prejudices are just that, though they are presented as facts - widely accepted, and promoted by cynical politicians every so often. Although I prefer not to be apologetic in my approach, I always find myself having to explain my choice to wear the niqab, in the hope that I can raise awareness, challenge misperceptions and help promote mutual respect.
To understand the niqab, it helps to understand the religion behind it. Islam has three simple messages – liberation from worshipping anything but the one God; following in the way of His Prophets including Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, peace be upon them; and servitude to the whole of humanity. Islam’s practical acts of liberation are many – from the duty of environmentalism (protecting ‘the Creation’ from the excesses of humankind) to the imperative of modesty for both women and men – one part of which is the face-veil.
In my view, the authentic reading of Scripture does not deem the niqab as compulsory, but rather as highly recommended: the wives of the prophet Muhammad used to wear it, and they are my role models.
Therefore the niqab is a religious symbol - and wearing it is considered by many Muslim women as an act of worship. Certainly the niqab is a spiritual journey that not many will take or understand, but those women who choose to wear it, such as myself, believe that it brings them closer to God, their Creator.
I also find the niqab liberating and dignifying; it gives me a sense of strength and empowers me. Deciding to wear it wasn’t easy - I had to go against my wishes of my parents, who discouraged me from wearing it because they feared I would face discrimination. But since I started wearing it, over 10 years ago, I have never changed my decision, nor have I ever found it a barrier. I continued my education to postgraduate level, and am now a professional molecular geneticist. Never once did I feel that the niqab prevented me from adding value to our British society – I’m involved in many community projects and events, and hold leadership positions in community organisations.
‘Public freedom is a cherished value in the UK... it allows individuals the right to practice and articulate their religious freedoms and rights – and offers awoman total freedom of choice to decide what she wears.Women who wear the niqab are simply articulating those religious and personal freedoms – and we cannot risk undermining themfor the sake of social imaginaries, deep-seated psychological fears, or ignorance.’
Some claim that women choose to wear the niqab do so due to social constraints and conditioning. This might be applicable to some extent in countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran, where individuals have to behave in a certain way for social approval (which can include wearing the face-veil). But in Britain, face-veiled women are minority within a minority – numbering perhaps just 0.001% of the total Muslim population in the UK (no statistics are available on this issue). Wearing the niqab is not so common within the British Muslim community that social conditioning could play any significant role: in Britain the majority of these women wear the niqab as a personal choice.
The norms of any society are the sum of its collective values, so rather than talking about the role of social conditioning in relation to face-veiled women, let’s talk about those norms. Public freedom is a cherished value in the UK, and is part of the fabric of our society. It allows individuals the right to practice and articulate their religious freedoms and rights – and offers a woman total freedom of choice to decide what she wears. Women who wear the niqab are simply articulating those religious and personal freedoms – and we cannot risk undermining them for the sake of social imaginaries, deep-seated psychological fears, or ignorance.
There are claims that the niqab is a 'security threat', but such claims are overblown. With regards to the issue of security, particularly the wearing of the niqab in court, let’s be clear that Muslim women are allowed to take off their veils, particularly in the pursuit of justice. But there’s no common approach and each case should be dealt with individually, in a manner that ensures the preservation of these women’s dignity and rights. These women are not committing any crime; they must be treated as human beings with full rights to participate equally in civil society, and to access education.
The reason, I believe, that the niqab debate has progressed this far is that there exists a wide range of far-right movements, politicians and intellectuals across the spectrum who seek to promote the hysteria that fuels anti-Muslim hatred. These people hope to make the face-veiled Muslim women emblematic of a sinister 'Other', a ‘problem’ impossible to solve or accept.
We have to overcome this authoritarian mentality which assumes a right to interfere in the lives, appearances and thoughts of other people. We all have so much to offer each other and we should extend our tolerance to respect, not merely for individuals, but for their beliefs as well. Otherwise, by all clamouring to enforce our own ideologies on the women we seek to “liberate”, we will be contributing to their collective oppression. Indeed, attempts to ban the niqab will marginalise face-veiled women from participating in public life.
It’s time to go beyond words, and to pursue peace, prosperity and freedom through social, political and interfaith harmony - seeking compassionate justice for everyone, and protecting freedom of the individual.
By Sahar Al-Faifi
Why don't men wear the niqab?
If they did, maybe there wouldn't be so much of an debate.
Thanks for your comment - v interesting view from behind the veil...
to misquote Voltaire, I disagree with what you wear, but will defend unto death your right to wear it.
My question is this - can you see any validity in the opposing view: that women have fought and died for freedom, and your decision to wear the niqab seems like a repudiation of that - unlike a man, you will not feel the sun on your face, the wind in your hair. Unlike a man, you cannot be seen - as if somehow you are either too dangerous or too unworthy to be allowed a public profile.
You say: "Women who wear the niqab are simply articulating those religious and personal freedoms"
Can you understand why to feminists it is utterly depressing that you choose to exercise your hard won personal freedom in the way that you do?
I'm Muslim, and appreciate an intelligent discussion on this topic rather than simplistic comparisons. However I don't support women wearing niqab in this country as the overall harm seems to outweigh the benefits - in terms of public perception, perpetuating myths about oppression, creating a physical barrier, etc. most people who argue in favour of niqab describe it as a personal decision, however it has consequences for other Muslims like myself who don't wear niqab.
Given that there is no mention of covering the face in the entire Quran and Mohammad is on record saying "A woman's face & hands should be visible", I don't know where you get the idea that the veil is part of being a Muslim.
It's silly but whatever floats your boat.
Thanks for this. I think something troubles me about the niqab as I have seen it worn around here (I live in a strongly Muslim area of East London). Do you think it is worn as a sign of 'rebellion' as opposed to being a truly religious commitment?
There are quite a lot of young (16+) girls adopting it, but almost as a badge/ statement/ attitude (like punks did their hair) rather than for genuine reasons about becoming closer to God. You can tell this partly from the ton of eye makeup they are wearing! It always slightly amuses me that they have the modest niqab on, but have made their eyes incredibly sexy and alluring and I don't understand it. They are also often quite mouthy (as a lot of teens are), but it doesn't match with the rest of the ethos of the niqab.
I hope that doesn't come across as anti Muslim. I was celebrating Eid yesterday with friends (they do cover hair but not niqab). This is just what I observed around this area and was wondering if you feel the 'niqab as a statement' is becoming a trend.
What Jack Aubrey said. I feel really uncomfortable when I see a woman in Niqab, as if she's saying that she rejects British values and culture and identifies with a medieval mindset.
I really appreciate your thought provoking article. To me just like women without veil is considered odd in Muslim society, similarly women with veil is considered odd in non muslim society. It means both societies have their own criteria to judge others. Better not to think wrong of women wearing veil as it is their religious duty.
Why not to say wrong about Nuns wearing veil or dedicating their lives for God and not marrying anyone. For us it is sacrifice and if some muslim women will cover herself we will call her extremist.
I don't know why we make such balances that are not weighing things equally.
Thanks for your insight. I have a few questions.
At what age would a woman start to wear the niqab? For example, if you had a daughter who was allowed to make her own decision about wearing a face veil, what age would this be appropriate in your view? Similarly, at what age is it acceptable to stop wearing the niqab? In other words when does a woman's face become/stop being immodest?
Does the risk of vitamin D deficiency concern you?
This is very hypothetical, but if you lived in a society where there were no men, would you still wear the niqab?
Sahar - can I ask you your view on how the niqab affects communication - particularly whether it acts as a barrier or deterrent, by making it harder to read the face of the wearer?
To me, it sometimes gives the impression that the wearer doesn't want to communicate or interact with me, and wishes to keep herself apart and separate from me, and I worry that this hinders understanding and amicability between us.
I think, having grown up in a society where women's faces are not routinely covered, I rely on reading people's facial expressions to aid and enhance my understanding of other people. If I am correct, women do not usually wear the niqab at home, or in all-female gatherings, but as a non-muslim woman, who does not have any muslim friends, I only ever encounter muslim women out and about in public, so would only ever be interacting with a woman who wears the niqab when she is out in public and would therefore be wearing it - and I would hesitate to do more than smile, or thank someone who had opened a door for me (or other small interactions) with a woman wearing a niqab - and maybe we both lose out because of this.
I also worry that it reinforces the 'otherness' of some muslim women, which can lead to intolerance in some people, and whilst the blame for this lies squarely with the intolerant bigot, I am not sure how society should tackle the problem. Communication, friendship and interaction are key, imo.
I really hope that this does not come across as bigotted or offensive - please be assured that this is NOT my intention - these are my genuine feelings - and I also genuinely wish for harmony and understanding between everyone. I would love to get to know the women behind the niqab.
I don't have a problem with women wearing the veil but I do object to my teenaged son not being allowed into shops with a hood up because he is 'obscuring his face' but women with headscarves are unchallenged. I have no wish for them to be challenged just for my son to be afforded the same courtesy.
I do find it disturbing that modesty for women is much more restrictive than for men. Whatever people say it makes them appear as inferior human beings.
I rarely post anymore but am keen to ask something.
One of the most depressing sights for me was a family at a shopping centre, woman and young girl walking just behind (presumably) dad and young son. Both males in shorts and t shirts, woman in niqab, girl dressed modestly. In your op you say modest dress for men and women but there isn't much evidence of the former?
Message withdrawn at poster's request.
Thanks for your blog post, very interesting.
I wish you could have said more on this:
"the imperative of modesty for both women and men – one part of which is the face-veil"
What does modesty for men look like then?
Load of rubbish
Wearing it does the opposite of empowering you - that is just brain washed doctrine
Always love how man manage to worship without these constraints ! Allah doesnt mind that then, no ?
Sigh .... We have a long way still to go whilst women pander to this crap
I was going to say what CoteDAzur has said. I understand that women may wear the niqab through their own choice and not because it has been forced on them by their husband. However, I believe it is patriarchal societies and their interpretations of religious texts that iniated the practice. That makes me feel uncomfortable with it. The practice, not with the covered individuals.
I haven't put that very eloquently but I'm also trying to do a jigsaw with my toddler and my multitasking skills are rubbish
Interesting piece. I have a couple of questions:
"the imperative of modesty for both women and men – one part of which is the face-veil" - but why is the face veil only ever worn or expected of women, not of men?
Also, presumably wearing the niqab means you can't eat or drink outside the house (visiting a cafe and ordering a coffee, say, would be impossible) - is this limiting or would you never eat or drink outside the house anyway?
Thanks for this very interesting article.
I believe in everyone's right to dress and practice religion in whatever way they choose, I was just wondering about the different interpretations of "modesty" and whether niqab really achieves this in certain contexts. Having live in SE Asia there were a lot of different ways that Muslim women chose to live this ideal. Some of the more practical (IMO, due to the climate) ways of covering one's hair included what looked like knitted caps which ladies then tucked their hair into, so that their necks were still showing (though these ladies rarely wore makeup). As a teenaged observer this seemed far more discreet to me than women in niqab. If most people in a society (be that Eastern or Western) don't dress in niqab, doesn't that ultimately draw more attention to those who do, and therefore have the opposite effect of modesty as you are effectively more "on show"?
That's just my opinion though, and I wouldn't dream of enforcing it on someone in the name of "liberating" them
How do you cope with the heat?
And why does the niqab has to be black?
"There are claims that the niqab is a 'security threat', but such claims are overblown."
and I'm sorry if I'm not eloquent enough, English isn't my mother tongue...
But doesn't the reasons to wear niqab ressembles 'victim blame'.?
I mean, if a man have impure thoughts towards an woman, sure this is his issue?
Even if some wear the niqab, some others don't, so men will still sin using their images, so it's the men who should be working on themselves?
Many of my questions have already been raised, but I did enjoy your article. My main question is the same as a couple of others have raised - why is it required to be a modest woman but not for men? For me that's what's so sexist about it. If both men and women wore the Niqab then I woulnd't consider it so sexist.
My other main 'concern' is that it should be just as expected of wearers of the Niqab to remove it in situations where a bavaclava or similar wouldn't be suitable - banks, airports, whilst teaching/nursing etc. What do you think of this? Is this bigoted of me? I'm not sure but equally don't want to be offensive.
When muslim men cover their faces as well your arguments will have some credence.
Thanks for the thought-provoking blog.
However, I think it's unfair to say all opposition to the veil is caused by anti-Muslim hatred. I'm concerned about:
- Discrimination against women - as many people have asked, why don't men wear it if it's so important as a religious duty? If you choose to wear it in Britain, a reasonably free society, what message are you sending to women in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan who are forced to wear it, and where it is a symbol of extreme discrimination?
- The fear that some people are forced to wear it by their husbands/fathers. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown wrote about an example of this. It can hide the signs of domestic violence and separate a women from society, so is a useful tool for oppressors. You may choose to wear it, some people do not.
- Difficulties in communication. Covering the face means other people can't read your facial expression so they have no idea whether you are friendly and want to talk or not, or how you are reacting to them if they do talk. Whole regions of the human brain are devoted to interpreting facial expressions. It seems perverse to go against this.
- Security. It's all very well to say it is overblown and women are allowed to remove the veil if required. But the woman in the recent court case was refusing to remove her veil in court, so clearly she disagrees with you. There have been cases where male criminals have used the chador and niqab to disguise themselves. A university or college in Birmingham had to backtrack on their policy of requiring women to remove the veil for security reasons recently.
Women (and some enlightened men) have fought for centuries to achieve female equality. We aren't there yet, but we have made progress. The niqab feels horribly like going backwards.
Ultimately, I choose women's right to decide what they want to wear over the rights of society to tell them (although society does reserve the right to make people take off crash helmets, or wear clothes - the poor naked rambler keeps getting arrested although he's not doing anyone any harm). But it doesn't mean I'm happy with women in Britain wearing the veil. I'm deeply uncomfortable.
We don't have "freedom of choice" to wear what we want in this country. If you think we do, try walking down the street naked and see what happens.
I don't like the niqab. It's not required by Islam, and it's a cultural practice, not a religious one. It hinders integration and it is one of the reasons why many non-Muslims in the UK are suspicious about Islam. I don't see why a headscarf and long sleeved clothing isn't sufficiently modest. Our culture relies on being able to see one another's faces to communicate. Why do you want to shut yourself away from others in this way?
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