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?

Lead photo
Sahar Al-Faifi

Molecular geneticist and community activist

Posted on

Wed 16-Oct-13 10:58:09

(669 comments)

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

Rowlers Wed 16-Oct-13 20:45:43

Gosh, why have you lumped all posters on here together?

MooncupGoddess Wed 16-Oct-13 20:49:48

'The problem in Saudi is not that niqab is widely worn, it is that it is enforced.'

But when the niqab is very widely worn, a woman who chooses not to wear it will stand out, and many women who dislike wearing the (let's remember, uncomfortable and physically limiting) niqab will nevertheless wear it because they hate standing out from everyone else.

ShreddedHoops Wed 16-Oct-13 20:55:03

You talk eloquently for paragraphs around how people feel about niqabs - however the only, sole, single reason you give for wearing one is that Muhammad's wives wore them. Why is that a reason? Why are they 'an inspiration' to you? As an independent woman gifted with intelligence and ability to use it, why are Muhammad's wives so inspirational to you?

I, like many other posters, struggle with the idea of 'modesty' - what does that actually mean? I must cover certain (all?) parts of my body to avoid being lusted after by men? Why is that then seen as me being a good woman? I don't understand. My behaviour is enough to judge whether I am a good woman or not, surely. A 'good woman' to you may be one who covers her body, but you have failed in your OP to explain why.

Women (and men) have argued for years that it makes no difference what a woman is wearing, how culpable she is if raped or sexually attacked. I can walk out of my house right now, at 9pm in the dark, and walk across town in my underwear if I so choose. If a man attacks me, it is his crime and his moral failing, not mine. Some sections of society would make it 'my fault' but legally, I would be entirely justified. I'd be interested in your views on this and how it relates to your views on 'modesty' - to me, the concept of modesty is just a way of putting the onus on women to be responsible for male sexual behaviour. This applies across cultural and religious divides. As many before have asked - what constitutes male modesty?

ShreddedHoops Wed 16-Oct-13 20:56:04

And the irony of your piece being titled 'why I wear the niqab' when you have only one reason - that Muhammad's wives wore it, and they are an inspiration to you - is not lost on me.

Rowlers Wed 16-Oct-13 20:58:41

I must admit, I know nothing about Mohammed's wives - why are they an inspiration?

GoshAnneGorilla Wed 16-Oct-13 21:09:03

Mooncup - but that hasn't happened anywhere which doesn't enforce niqab. It may rise and fall in popularity, but it remains a minority practice in nearly every Muslim population on earth.

Shredded - For me, if I read someone saying that they were inspired by so and so and I was curious about why this so and so was so inspirational, I'd go and Google a bit more about them. Maybe that's just me. However, in short Muhammad's wives are referred to as "The Mother s of the Believers" and are held in extremely high regard for their scholarship and their works, hence being viewed as inspirational.

As for modesty, in Islam everyone is held accountable for their own actions and modestym treating others with respect and avoiding lewdness is prescribed for men and women, regardless of what anyone is wearing.

I would say that niqab goes beyond modesty, it is viewed as an ascetic practice and a way of being less worldly, much like a monks robes. Generally the women who wear it, like Sahar will refer to it very much as a spiritual practice and a way if drawing closer to God, if focusing oneself, rather then as something for those around them.

GoshAnneGorilla - you seem determined to put the worst possible interpretations on anything said on this thread - for example, stigmatising edam's statement, "it's a shame the blogger hasn't been back to discuss this'" as her clicking her fingers at the blogger and treating her like a servant is a straw man argument par excellence - and I doubt that many other people would have made the same interpretation.

dreamingofsun Wed 16-Oct-13 21:32:26

I'm interested in the viability of doing certain jobs - you say women should have the right to choose what they wear, but what about certain working environments where communications important, for example teaching, a news presenter, a model? Is it feasible to drive safely in one or operate on a patient? Who's rights should take presedence?

GoshAnneGorilla Wed 16-Oct-13 21:33:31

SDTG - because women who wear niqab are always having to "explain themselves". Whatever she says, people will pick at and be dissatisfied with, but they'll still want her to explain herself again and again, just for their own pleasure in (trying to) tear her down and dismiss her words and they'll think they are somehow fighting women's oppression by doing so.

It is not at all pleasant to have your body to be forever up for public discussion and this what these endless niqab/hijab debates do to Muslim women who cover. The sense of entitlement such discourse creates is huge, you aren't free to just be, you have to forever be explaining and justifying yourself and that sense of entitlement people think they have to your body can spill into violence and aggression.

I've heard that fewer women are wearing niqab in the UK, because the violence and abuse they faced was too great. That seems to get far less airtime.

maninaskirt Wed 16-Oct-13 21:46:46

Well, GoshAnne, she started it! She is the OP. We didn't ask her about her niqab.

Op your article is very interesting. I'm unsure I learnt much generally but did about you specifically. It has given me good for thought certainly.

I would question your ascertains however. Much like I presently question Miley Cyrus's. Different ends of the spectrum but oddly familiar. You both claim to be empowered and in control and unexploited however your actions do not necessarily back that up. I wonder if you're admitting everything you actually feel or if maybe it's fake even to you. (I'm putting this potentially badly) ultimately I feel you will only truly discover how you feel too late, after some time, when you are older maybe. And you may well regret it perhaps too late.

SweetSkull Wed 16-Oct-13 21:47:40

I get it that the woman may feel closer to God by covering themselves in black and avoiding the world out there...
Does it mean that muslim men won't ever get as closer to god as a niqab wearer woman?

GoshAnne - that doesn't make it OK for you to be so agressive towards people who are asking polite questions and trying to gain more understanding.

Lack of understanding will only ever lead to intolerance and fear, and that is a bad thing.

GoshAnneGorilla Wed 16-Oct-13 22:03:28

Polite questions? I've also seen a fair bit of sneering and snarkiness, but I don't see you policing the tone of those posters.

If you had addressed your aggressive posts only at sneering or sarcastic posts, I wouldn't be so peeved, but you didn't - you basically accused us all of being the "self-appointed saviours of mumsnet" - a phrase I am sure you used in order to be as offensive as possible.

SweetSkull Wed 16-Oct-13 22:08:39

Hope it wasn't me who came across as sneering and aggressive.

KaseyM Wed 16-Oct-13 22:11:32

FGS GoshAnne let people have a debate. That is the whole point of this forum and no one has been disrespectful to the OP, and it was indeed the OP who brought up the subject, so just chill will you!

People are allowed to disagree. And it's hardly surprising that they have questions, seeing as it's a custom that has been introduced very recently and is not something that most posters are brought up with.

ICameOnTheJitney Wed 16-Oct-13 22:12:33

If wearing the veil is an "act of worship" for what reason is it considered that? What I mean is why is covering your face seen as an act of worship. For what purpose?

ICameOnTheJitney Wed 16-Oct-13 22:14:16

GoshAnne I don't think she needs you to fly to her defence. She's articulate enough and keen enough to share that I am certain she can do that herself.

tethersend Wed 16-Oct-13 22:15:49

I think it's as dangerous to assume that any disagreement with the wearing of the niqab is borne of ignorance as it is to assume that all wearers have been forced to wear it against their will.

The wearer choosing to wear one does not signal the end of the debate.

lazysleepymummy Wed 16-Oct-13 22:16:06

I enjoyed your post - it feels genuine and it's thought-provoking to see this issue from your perspective.

However I have to say, you can make the choice of wearing the niqab, but you can't deny the social effects it has on other people. I for one, wouldn't feel very comfortable to talk to someone covering their face, because I can't see their facial expressions so I can't read them as well. It has nothing to do with religion or prejudice. It's the same reason I don't like talking to people wearing sunglasses because I can't see their eyes. It puts a barrier between niqab-wearers and other people. It's a fact, not a judgement.

I'm also ethnic minority, and while I retain my identity I also feel it's my responsibility to fit in the culture I live in, not the other way around. I chose to live in this particular community, the community didn't choose me to be here. If I don't like it I move. There is individuality and personal freedom, but there is also social responsibility to create a harmonious society.

It's all a bit of a balance isn't it? You can't just put the responsibility of fully unconditional acceptance and tolerance on others, you've also got to take some responsibility of making it difficult.

damppatchnot Wed 16-Oct-13 22:16:29

OP
Jesus was not a prophet, he was Gods only son

ICameOnTheJitney Wed 16-Oct-13 22:17:00

tethers so well put.

KaseyM Wed 16-Oct-13 22:17:16

And YY to SDT. The whole idea that we are "self-appointed saviours" who see the niqab as something that muslim women are forced to wear, is SO last season...

We are well past that now. As a nation we've had this debate so many times that it is pretty much common knowledge that lots of muslim women actively chose to wear the niqab and that the situation is a lot more complicated than simple coercion.

ShreddedHoops Wed 16-Oct-13 22:20:50

GoshAnne

A) I intentionally ignored your inflammatory posts as this is a topic which greatly interests me and I cba with the usual bickering and derailing...

B) I have previously read about Muhammad's wives - I am interested in why OP sees them as inspirational. I see them as mostly dutiful wives and mothers, with little else to commend them. One of his wives was six when they married, and nine years old when they first had sex sad and he was in his 50s. I knew all this but didn't previously post about it as I'm interested in OP's defence of why they are particularly inspirational. My knowledge of Christianity shows me that women in religion are prized when they are faithful, virginal, and fertile. OP is well educated and in a good career - why does she find these women inspirational to the extent of copying how they dressed?

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