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

NotinIslamsname Mon 09-Dec-13 01:34:24

I very much agree with you and i have so much more to say. When women choose to wear the niqab its actually more worse then one that is being forced to do so. What i would like to ask outspoken niqabis is one thing? Did they know that the face cover originated with the Ancient Greece and is not an Islamic dress requirement? To cover the face not only implies to those that do not cover that they are committing sin. It also implicates that it is the best thing a Muslim women can do for Allah swt which is certainly not the case. If Allah swt never mandated a face veil how do niqabis reconcile their actions especially in western societies when it is has detrimental effects on the rest of us Muslim women? Islam came to stop the burden of sins upon Eve. The face vale undermine this fundamental premise of Islam so how so does it represent Islamic values?

GoshAnneGorilla Wed 30-Oct-13 02:50:50

Numpty - Can you use your mind-reading powers on anyone, or do they only work on niqab wearing women?

Have any niqab wearers told you that is why they wear niqab?

Or have you just made that up on the spot?

josie14 Tue 29-Oct-13 18:12:38

I would not want to associate with a woman who wears a niqab. I think it's very rude not to want to fully converse with the people you are in the company of. It is akin to insisting to talking to people with your back to them. I would not want either a personal or professional association with anyone who was not prepared to show their face.

NumptyNameChange Fri 25-Oct-13 17:25:52

it's a political statement and an aggressive rejection of british society and way of life which is very deliberately intended to shout 'stay the fuck away from dirty infidel!' in many cases sadly.

nicename Fri 25-Oct-13 15:09:08

I am curious as to why I now see more and more young women wearing face veils, and more UK/white converts. When I first came to London (20+ years ago) you would see a few elderly women with the gold masks and sometimes a flock of women swathed in black walking through Ken Gardens in the direction of Harrods.

I see local women in full scarves, and foreigners in veils daily, and occasionally local veiled women (I go by language and accent).

dotnet Fri 25-Oct-13 09:31:57

Looks as if 99% or more of the people reading this thread disapprove of the niqab, and so do I.

It is hideously ugly, and also alienating. Why deliberately make your surroundings uglier? Most people prefer to look at what's attractive. The niqab isn't even so-so, it's horrible.

That might sound shallow, but if Muhammad thought it OK for people to look nice, - then why look hideous?

'Oh children of Adam, we have bestowed upon you clothing to conceal your private parts and as adornment - but the clothing of righteousness, that is best.'

(peacefuloptimist citing the Quran, chapter 7, verse 26 on October 22 at 13.22:33.)

howrudeforme Thu 24-Oct-13 22:21:48

"Generally it is rude for your children to pass loud comment upon strangers (this has been hashed out many times on Mumsnet).

Who told you that Muslims look to Saudia Arabia for guidance? Muslims are very diverse and far from monolithic.Generally, the Saudi approach to Islam is viewed as A Bad Thing by most Muslims I've met.

Yes, niqab is a minority practice, that's what the OP said, that's what every Muslim on this thread has said."

My old bf lives in a muslim country where women traditionally didn't wear full face veils. She is a national, her young ds is a national and her ds says very loudly when he sees a person dressed head to toe in black that he's terrified. She supports his view. She's completely against it and it goes against her muslim culture and her country's culture. But it's her fellow country women who are taking it up. She finds it intimidated and that suggests to me that it's political and not in a way that she likes.

alemci Wed 23-Oct-13 13:37:47

sorry 'are' chapter 5

alemci Wed 23-Oct-13 13:33:18

yes

blessed is the pure in heart - Matthew's gospel, sermon on the mount.

Gauri Wed 23-Oct-13 11:35:19

shred grin

exactly. some posters below seem to think its more pious to be totally covered. mistaking outer garments with inner beauty (beauty of the heart)

I also think some of the issues we wre seeing in the media woth muslim men is due to the culture of their own women being out of reach etc...

ShreddedHoops Tue 22-Oct-13 20:05:07

lol at Gauri! grin

I feel like I own my beauty (what of it I have) that it is a gift from God, nature or whatever, and I can enjoy looking good, dressing my shape in different ways, experimenting with different fabrics and how they drape and flatter my body. I and most other females in the UK have played with how we look since teenage years and probably before. It's fun. It doesn't make me either vain or attention-seeking.

Which of these two 'sins' for want of a better word, is the main thing to be avoided in not showing off one's female shape? Is it vanity - being pre-occupied with how you look, making you introverted and less free; or is it attention-seeking, as in seeking attention from men?

If the point of niqab, the reason for it, is to prevent a woman from being vain, introverted and self obsessed, that's very different in my eyes to its purpose being to hide your body from the male gaze.

As I said, I've always enjoyed fashion, I was a girl who rolled up her pleated skirt at school and wore ridiculous platform heels (ok it was the 90s!) - now when I see teenage girls who are fake tanned up to the nines, makeup, short skirts or whatever, I always remember that they're just playing with how they look, experimenting. If boys / men act towards them as though that's an invitation for sexual behaviour, then they, the males, are wrong.

I had an ex boyfriend who didn't want me to wear a mini skirt and heels on a night out with my girlfriends as he said the only coceivable reason for me to wear it was for the purpose of attracting men. I was utterly baffled by this - it was absolutely not the reason! It was a fashionable and lovely skirt that made my legs look long and slim, and a chance to show off my new shoes with it.

Too many men think the way women dress is about and for men. It's a very dangerous train of thought.

If the reason for niqab and covering in general is to prevent vanity rather than to prevent 'flaunting' (an idea I hate, as I've said above) then I can see a positive in it. Although it seems very unfair to deprive women of something that is fun and the vast majority of the time, totally harmless. You can say oh well a woman can wear niqab and be a high functioning member of society (like OP) but you can also enjoy dressing up, wearing makeup and heels and be a successful high functioning person too. Teresa May wearing red heels was all over the media for weeks - was that about a weakness of hers? Or was it about our inability as a still largely patriarchal society to see beyond a woman's adornments?

I don't think Western society is necessarily perfect, but I think it's better than women thinking they are better people if they take no interest in their appearance / want other people to take no interest in their appearance.

Modern Islam seems to simultaneously accept as fact that women are tempted to adorn themselves, and that it is a bad thing to be suppressed. How can that be? Women are part of God's creation - why not be themselves?

Sorry for massive post blush

TheHeadlessLadyofCannock Tue 22-Oct-13 17:09:49

I don't mean you personally, fuzzywuzzy. I meant that it is an often-given reason for women being required to cover themselves up.

innoparticularorder Tue 22-Oct-13 17:05:52

'By making women cover from head to toe, you are sexually depriving men' shock

Did you actually mean to write that Gauri?

fuzzywuzzy Tue 22-Oct-13 16:59:24

I don't cover to not inflame men! Hijab has never stopped men tryng to chat me up or ask me out.

I observe hijab because it's my God given right to, it's an act of worship, and yes people cannot see parts of my body, well that's my right, I'm nobody's property or entertainment if I don't want to show my body to everyone I won't. It's my right as is the converse.

fuzzywuzzy Tue 22-Oct-13 16:48:37

I'm teaching my girls they are more than the current media generated concept of accepted aesthetic beauty.

TheHeadlessLadyofCannock Tue 22-Oct-13 16:47:47

I would have no objection to the niqab if it was something men wore too.

I agree with SweetSkull that the idea that a woman must cover herself up so as not to inflame men is nothing more than victim-blaming.

fuzzywuzzy Tue 22-Oct-13 16:43:49

By covering up I choose my focal point.

I don't really care or think that it's sexually depriving men (are you for real?), I'm not here to cater to peoples wants!

Gauri Tue 22-Oct-13 16:22:36

In front of god, we are all naked. If like the Hindus or the Buddhist you believe in reincarnation, your body is just another cloth to be discarded at death by the soul.

Your actions, your conduct, your karma determines your next life.

You are not judged on face coverings or how much make up or perfume you wear.

In fact, before the rise of Islam, women in Asian countries were freer in their lifestyles. By making women cover from head to toe, you are sexually depriving men. You are teaching your daughters that your body (a gift from god) is not beautiful enough to be shown. You are teaching men that women can be controlled in this way.

A show of an ankle, gets Muslim men titillated. No?!

Gauri Tue 22-Oct-13 16:22:36

In front of god, we are all naked. If like the Hindus or the Buddhist you believe in reincarnation, your body is just another cloth to be discarded at death by the soul.

Your actions, your conduct, your karma determines your next life.

You are not judged on face coverings or how much make up or perfume you wear.

In fact, before the rise of Islam, women in Asian countries were freer in their lifestyles. By making women cover from head to toe, you are sexually depriving men. You are teaching your daughters that your body (a gift from god) is not beautiful enough to be shown. You are teaching men that women can be controlled in this way.

A show of an ankle, gets Muslim men titillated. No?!

nicename Tue 22-Oct-13 14:30:44

Where we live there are a lot of SA visitors. The concept of modesty seems to differ - highly made up, bejewelled and fragranced young women in black scarves.

I think that its not really 'modesty' but 'decency' that is the goal.

crescentmoon Tue 22-Oct-13 14:17:12

yeah i read about that fuzzy, i think its something the guy spread about himself for publicity though!

heres a cartoon on the different faces of patriarchy:

www.ofartandfeminism.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/cartoon-commentary-on-bikinis-and.html?m=1

the Niqabitches in the video posted earlier made an interesting point, was the burka ban an objection against modesty or was it against the covering of the face? because they still were covering their faces,hair and shape of the upper half was indistinguishable. but by wearing hotpants they had appeased the patriarchy that seeks to sexually objectify women enough so that they could go about their business.

(added abit extra when i realised i hadnt ticked the convert links box)

peacefuloptimist Tue 22-Oct-13 14:17:07

Its interesting that some people are acting as if modesty is somehow a bad word or a negative quality. However in this society modesty is also seen as a virtue when you are modest about your achievements. For example most people would consider it crass to boast about your wealth, intellect or worldly possessions. But for some reason when it comes to how you look we are encouraged to instead 'flaunt it if you've got it'. I wonder why there is a difference in attitude to modesty in the way you conduct yourself and modesty in the way that you look. Historical hang ups maybe?

crescentmoon Tue 22-Oct-13 14:15:19

yeah i read about that fuzzy, i think its something the guy spread about himself for publicity though!

heres a cartoon on the different faces of patriarchy:

http://www.ofartandfeminism.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/cartoon-commentary-on-bikinis-and.html?m=1

the Niqabitches in the video posted earlier made an interesting point, was the burka ban an objection against modesty or was it against the covering of the face? by wearing hotpants they had appeased the patriarchy that seeks to sexually objectify women so that they could go about their business.

peacefuloptimist Tue 22-Oct-13 14:08:57

As for what is modesty and why is it good well the word used for modesty in Arabic is haya’. However, Haya’ is more complex and dynamic than just modesty and encompasses many shades of meaning, including humility, sensitivity, shyness, apprehensiveness, and shame.

www.40hadithnawawi.com/index.php/the-hadiths/hadith-20

The link above gives a more detailed explanation of the concept of modesty in Islam. Its not just about covering up but also about letting go of pride and also having self restraint. For me an immediate benefit of modesty is that it teaches people not to be obsessed with physical appearance. I think in this society where people spend thousands on plastic surgery and treatments to make them look younger that is something that would definitely do people some good.

crescentmoon Tue 22-Oct-13 13:53:39

"Don't confuse the average woman in the street with a stripper, and don't confuse a woman fully veiled with a saint."

in mentioning 'women who wear the veil are fined' in my post i was specifically talking about France, and how in their bid to get away from the patriarchy of religion they just exchanged one patriarchy for another. consider why these veiled women would not be given the fine...

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