MumsnetGuestBlogs (MNHQ) Wed 16-Oct-13 10:58:09

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?

Sahar Al-Faifi

Molecular geneticist and community activist

Posted on: Wed 16-Oct-13 10:58:09

(669 comments )

Lead photo

Women wearing the full-face veil, or niqab

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

Twitter: @SaharAlFaifi

Venushasrisen Wed 16-Oct-13 14:52:21

I feel you are saying 'look what a true Moslem I am' and thereby implying that those who don't choose the niqab are lesser mortals in a religious way.

I live in Birmingham, and more than 0.001% of the population appear to wear the niqab. If I walk down the street in central Birmingham on any weekday, I will see at least 100 women wearing full niqab.

You have obviously made your peace with the niqab, and come up with reasons why you wear it.

That does not negate the experience of other women within the United Kingdom, who are forced to wear the niqab by family, culture and oppression.

"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." Or maybe we are free to think for ourselves? I dislike the niqab because it says that a woman's (God given?) beauty should be hidden away. It also says that a man may think immodest thoughts if he sees a woman. So it insults both men and women.

I have long hair. When I wear it tied back I become invisible. When it is all glossy and bouncing like an extra in a hair conditioner advert, I get looked at. Covering of the hair makes a woman mostly invisible - as was known by early Christians and other religious sects.

The niqab makes women completely invisible. No argument that you can present will make me like it, or anything that it represents.

Tolerance goes both ways. Of course, within British law, you are free to wear the niqab. And under British law, I am free to consider it a revolting symbol of deep-rooted cultural misogyny.

QueenoftheSarf Wed 16-Oct-13 15:09:38

I really don't have any problem whatsoever with people wearing whatever they like, as long as they are not harming others though their choices. However, the fundamental problem I have with Islamic face coverings based on what Sahar Al-Faifi has said in her blog here is that if one of the three simple messages of Islam is "the imperative of modesty for both women and men – one part of which is the face-veil", why then do men not feel any obligation to cover their faces too?

ksrwr Wed 16-Oct-13 16:09:50

i think the real point is why should women wear veils, why not men? its the equality (or lack thereof) that i have an issue with rather than the veil itself.

MerryMarigold Wed 16-Oct-13 16:11:15

Men have to have beards. Women don't.

Rowlers Wed 16-Oct-13 16:35:19

beard ≠ niqab

GoshAnneGorilla Wed 16-Oct-13 17:07:02

Thank you Sahar for taking the time to post here.

Unfortunately, as many of the comments above show, your choices matter little to the self-appointed saviours of Mumsnet, who are so concerned for Muslim women that they start thread after thread slagging them off and talking down to any Muslim woman who dares to disagree with them.

Attacking women in the UK for wearing niqab will do precisely zero to help women in Saudi Arabia or Iran or Afghanistan. How can you claim to want to "help" Muslim women, when you think you know better then they do about their lives?

You are keen to point out that it's your choice to wear the veil, but what is entirely absent from your post is the actual reasons for doing it. You say it makes you feel closer to your god - why or how does it do this? Are men not close to god because they don't wear one? What is it about wearing the veil which makes it, in your opinion, a worthwhile thing to do? Because if it really is all about women having to show modesty, while men don't, then I fail to see how anyone these days can even begin to defend it.

Tinlegs Wed 16-Oct-13 18:02:35

Isn't the niquab designed to prevent men from getting carried away by their weaknesses and looking or touching someone else's property? Surely, it is the men, therefore, who have the problem? Anything,at all, that is for men / women only is putting women's freedom back years.

It is a symbol of oppression and, as such, has no place in a free society. It is not that you have the freedom to wear it, it is more that they men have the freedom not to wear it that I object to. I would also object if a religion or culture demanded women wear slave chains or have their feet bound - both are symbols of oppression and far more than just a clothing choice.

tethersend Wed 16-Oct-13 18:16:02

It is your choice to wear the niqab; the same way that it is a stripper's choice to take her clothes off. Something being a woman's choice does not therefore make it a feminist act, which you seem to be implying.

I do not agree with the wearing of the niqab, (or the concept of modesty) but I do not want to see it banned. I like living in a society where things I do not agree with are allowed.

passmetheprozac Wed 16-Oct-13 18:46:34

This sums it up for me, in a much more articulate way.

Catchhimatwhat Wed 16-Oct-13 18:49:59

My views on many things have changed since I was a teenager, but I felt sad when my friend decided to wear the niqab twelve years ago, and I still feel sad about it now.

GoshAnneGorilla Wed 16-Oct-13 19:01:05

"It's a symbol of oppression and as such has no place in a free society"

And you would enforce this how?

Doesn't sound very free to me.

Tinlegs Wed 16-Oct-13 19:11:40

I would not enforce it. Any more than I would enforce any other dress code. I was merely trying to make the point that sometimes clothes are not just clothes, they are symbols and so mean far more than just a personal choice.

Shallishanti Wed 16-Oct-13 19:18:59

Some interesting points made here, is the blogger going to come back and respond to them?

GoshAnneGorilla Wed 16-Oct-13 19:27:53

Tinlegs - but it seems that with niqab what the wearer actually thinks about it carries very little weight at all, instead the opinions and anecdotes of every Tom, Dick and Harriet are deemed to be far more important and valid.

I find that to be a very dubious power dynamic indeed.

Venushasrisen Wed 16-Oct-13 19:32:34

Attacking women in the UK for wearing niqab will do precisely zero to help women in Saudi Arabia or Iran or Afghanistan. How can you claim to want to "help" Muslim women, when you think you know better then they do about their lives

I wouldn't say most posters are wanting to help Muslim women, more confused that the religious laws apply to women and not men.

Perhaps by spreading the wearing of the niqab so it is normalized world wide the Saudi etc women have more difficulty arguing for more freedom. But the OP is happy with her choice regardless of Saudi or Afghani women's rights so that seems to be what matters to her, and you.

GoshAnneGorilla Wed 16-Oct-13 19:39:52

Venus - There are active women's rights groups in Saudi fighting against many things, driving and guardianship laws being two of the biggest issues.

The problem in Saudi is not that niqab is widely worn, it is that it is enforced. Sahar has said that her decision to wear the niqab is a choice, so how does that support women being forced to wear it? It's like arguing that love marriages support forced marriages, when the former is a free choice and the latter is a human rights violation.

Venushasrisen Wed 16-Oct-13 19:46:57

What I said, it could easily provide evidence to those enforcing the use of the niqab that they are being reasonable, and their concern is for the well being of their women, and there is nothing wrong with the enforcement as 'free' women are choosing to wear it.

edam Wed 16-Oct-13 20:09:20

I think the points raised about 'who are you to tell a Muslim woman she is oppressed by wearing the veil' raise an interesting point. But... while one woman's experience and choice is valid for her, that doesn't mean she speaks for all women, or even all women who wear the niqab. No more than I do.

And I don't think anyone here is attempting to 'tell' Muslim women what to do. We are listening, and we are asking questions, we are trying to have a conversation where different viewpoints can be discussed.

It's just a shame that the blogger doesn't seem to be coming back to discuss any of this.

It'd be great if any of the pro-niqab posters could respond to some of the points raised. About the battle for women's rights in Saudi Arabia, for instance (esp. pertinent as the chador and niqab are originally from that part of the world).

It is your choice to wear the niqab; the same way that it is a stripper's choice to take her clothes off. Something being a woman's choice does not therefore make it a feminist act, which you seem to be implying.

^^ this. And why aren't the men doing it if they are supposed to be 'modest' too?

I don't quite get the communication issue that's frequently brought up though. Personally I find it far easier to have a conversation with a woman in niqab than with someone wearing sunglasses but nobody else seems to have a problem with that.

Sahar, it would be great if you could come back and respond to points raised.

GoshAnneGorilla Wed 16-Oct-13 20:24:07

Edam - Forgive my cyncism, but I've been on many "niqab debates" around here.

I'm sure if she'd posted saying that niqab was terrible and indefensible you wouldn't be pulling the "she doesn't speak for all Muslim women" card. You'd all be happily agreeing and thrilled that you had a real, live Muslim woman to quote at any Muslim woman who disagreed with you.

As for her not responding to you, the post only went up this morning, she might not have had chance to respond. Stop clicking your fingers at her like she's a servant, it's making a mockery of your supposedly "anti-oppression" stance.

edam Wed 16-Oct-13 20:29:52

Gosh, there's a tecchie problem in that I can't see the most recent post - it's hidden by the blog. I can see you've posted and the first few words in 'threads I'm on' but not what you've posted.

Hopefully this post will move the thread down a bit so I can see yours!

edam Wed 16-Oct-13 20:33:21

Wish I hadn't bothered now.

What on earth are you on, claiming I'm clicking my fingers at the blogger like a servant? FFS. I said 'it's a shame the blogger hasn't been back to discuss this'. It's a perfectly polilte, reasonable thing to say.

Argue about the issue all you want, but derailing the debate and insulting anyone who disagrees with you does suggest you don't actually have much to say in favour of your viewpoint.

GoshAnneGorilla Wed 16-Oct-13 20:39:33

Edam - That's a tone argument and a poor one at that.

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