MumsnetGuestBlogs (MNHQ) Wed 23-Oct-13 11:57:17

I'm a Muslim, but I won't wear the niqab

Over the last month the niqab, or full-face veil, has repeatedly hit the headlines. Last week, Sahar Al-Faifi blogged about why she chooses to cover up; here, Mumsnet blogger Aisha Ashraf, who's a convert to Islam and blogs at Expatlog, explains why she doesn't.

Read her post, and let us know what you think on the thread below.

Aisha Ashraf

Expatlog

Posted on: Wed 23-Oct-13 11:57:17

(100 comments )

Lead photo

A woman wearing a full-face veil, or niqab

Of all the things we get heated about where Islam’s concerned, it amazes me that a piece of cloth is the subject of such passion and debate.

Recently, British judges had to decide whether a woman giving evidence in court should be required to show her face; and a Birmingham college ignited controversy when it requested students remove all hoodies, hats, caps and veils while on the premises so they were easily identifiable. While David Cameron held that educational institutions should be able to "set and enforce their own school uniform policies", Nick Clegg claimed the bar had to be set "very high" to justify any prohibition on wearing a veil. Why is this piece of cloth so potent? Because it’s a religious requirement of course. But is it?

Veiling is a pre-Islamic cultural tradition that takes the form of hijab (covering the hair), burka, or niqab (covering the entire body and face). Used to differentiate between free and enslaved women, it was a socio-economic practice said to protect a woman’s modesty and safeguard the honour of her male relatives.

When I began researching Islam I was struck by its attempts to confer rights and protections on the vulnerable in a barbaric tribal society. Suddenly it wasn’t OK to bury your baby alive because she was a girl. Suddenly women had a voice; marriage was no longer about "status" but a "contract", in which the woman's consent was imperative. They gained rights to inheritance, education and security. Islam sought to solidify women’s financial independence and push back patriarchy. There’s no mention in the Qur’an of the need to keep hair covered and the idea is starkly at odds with the thrust of the above.

My research led to my subsequent conversion (more on that here), and while I was prepared to accept the obligation to cover, I didn’t find evidence to support it. Thinking I must have missed something obvious, I looked harder. Ten years on I’m still looking. 

The hijab, burka or niqab – let’s just call it covering – has become the poster-child for today’s Islam. An entire industry surrounds it. Buy into it and you get a special name, ‘hijabi’, and myriad style options to suit whatever look you rock, whether it’s ‘top-of-the-heap pious’ (plain and austere), ‘trendy’ (fuscia-tinted leopard skin) or ‘ethnic free-spirit’ (tie-dyed, beaded). For all those who claim it frees them from society’s shallow preoccupation with appearance, there are an awful lot of websites, magazines and boutiques devoted to it. And for those claiming it’s an expression of autonomy, there’s nothing independent or self-directed about following the crowd.

Instead of debating whether the niqab should be banned, which lends it a legitimacy it lacks and stokes the flames of righteous indignation, the question we should be asking is "why protect this practice?"


Still, no need to wrestle with slippery definitions and messy implications when you can slip into the straitjacket of a readymade identity (coincidentally held out for you by centuries of male superiority, enthusiastically endorsed by extremists everywhere) and reassure yourself you’re part of the sisterhood – muslimahs doing it for themselves!

But are they? Can covering really be empowering when it supports the patriarchal view of women as mere receptacles for male status and honour?

As a white, unveiled convert I’ve seen what’s on both sides of the veil: superiority from covered ‘sisters’ who stoop to personal insults when I try to further my understanding, and arrogance from those who assume from my skin-colour I’m kaffir (an unbeliever). I don’t think anyone’s taken in by the idea that headwear is a direct representation of your level of modesty.

The older generation can claim social conditioning, but the rest? In this information age they persist in propagating the lie that covering is a religious obligation, making claims unsubstantiated by Islam’s primary religious text. The result? An entire set of beliefs reduced to empty symbolism and political posturing.

The word hijab means curtain, partition or screen, and occurs eight times in the Qur’an. In none of those is it used in the sense conventionally understood among Muslims to refer to a piece of cloth covering the head. There are metaphorical references to a barrier dividing inhabitants of Paradise and Hell, or the way God communicates with mankind – through revelation or from behind a veil (think ‘burning bush’ in Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat) - but nothing about the shamefulness of female follicles.  

The verse cited as the revelation regarding covering (the hijab verse) is 33.53.

“O ye who believe! Enter not the dwellings of the Prophet for a meal without waiting for the proper time, unless permission be granted you. But if ye are invited, enter, and, when your meal is ended, then disperse. Linger not for conversation. Lo! that would cause annoyance to the Prophet, and he would be shy of (asking) you (to go); but Allah is not shy of the truth. And when ye ask of them (the wives of the Prophet) anything, ask it of them from behind a curtain. That is purer for your hearts and for their hearts.”

Depending on which translation you read (Assad, Pickthall and Ali are reliable but there are others, distributed extensively, often for free, whose wording is compromised by their aggressive Wahhabi bias - sadly, tweaking the Quran here and there to bolster an ideology is not a leap too far for some) it’s obvious the passage concerns specific people, in a specific situation, in a specific time. Quite simply, it asks visitors to the prophet’s home not to outstay their welcome and to respect the privacy of the inhabitants. No mention of women’s haberdashery. Just... none.

Two verses in the Qur’an refer to dress, (24:31 & 33:59) but their discussion of form is general and vague. What is clear is that the objective of modesty is incumbent upon everyone, not just women. By ignoring the requirement for both sexes to dress modestly, and to lower their gaze from the inappropriate, the hijabi brigade lays the burden of moral responsibility exclusively on women everywhere.

By supporting the patriarchal assertion that women are shameful and inadequate unless they conform to a cultural tradition totally absent from the Qur’an, they subject all women to male scrutiny; a direct inversion of what the Qur’an seeks to end. But hey, women everywhere have been subverting one another to secure male approval for like, EVER – it’s a girl thing, right?

We’ve ascertained covering is a restrictive, divisive practice with origins in murky misogyny, unsanctioned by Islam’s central text and irreconcilable to the essence of the faith.

Instead of debating whether it should be banned, which lends it a legitimacy it lacks and stokes the flames of righteous indignation, the question we should be asking is ‘why protect this practice?’

In a secular country where the separation of church and state is recognised as a bulwark of equality and social cohesion, what grounds are there for a small minority who validate their personal choice with a fallacy of religious obligation, insisting it earns them the right to special treatment?

If security checks, testifying in court or job requirements trump your personal views then ‘suck it up, Buttercup’. These structures exist to serve the needs of the wider community, which is exactly what Islam set out to protect. It’s time to expose the veil for what it is: a manifestation of misogyny, a symbol of status - NOT a religious requirement.

By Aisha Ashraf

Twitter: @aishaashraf1

IndigoTea Wed 23-Oct-13 18:54:58

Numpty, that's just nonsense! Of course the niqab is in the Quran and sunnah, to deny it is just ridiculous. All the four schools of the Sunni school believe in niqab, so that's the majority if Muslims. If you don't want to believe in it, that's fine, but if others want to, please let them do so in peace, and respect them for their own steadfastness to practice what their believe is correct.

IndigoTea Wed 23-Oct-13 18:57:47

Numpty, I haven't told anyone to go away. I am encouraging OP to have this discussion, but have the discussion in a forum with Muslim scholars because if they are convinced of her arguments, then it'll be a million times easier to convince the rest of the Muslim population.

SirChenjin Wed 23-Oct-13 18:59:21

Men have hijab too, they have their own dress code. They also cannot wear (like women) tight fitted clothes, see through garments, and trousers below the ankle etc.

Interesting. Do the men know this? Because there seems to be a general lack of awareness that they are supposed to adhere to the same rules as women when it comes to coverings.

NumptyNameChange Wed 23-Oct-13 19:01:47

you're ttelling her it's inappropriate to say what she's said here and she should say it somewhere else. clearly she feels differently as does mumsnet and it's bumptious to say the least to tell her she should discuss it elsewhere and be the judge of what's appropriate.

mumsnet gave voice to a pro veiling blogger the other day and now they are balancing it with the other view. seems perfectly fair to me.

below knee and elbow for man iirc.

ummunono Wed 23-Oct-13 19:09:52

Thank you Indigo! At the end of the day why are you people so concerned with what is mandatory or recommended for Muslim women? I don't personally care how people interpret the Qur'an, I choose to cover my hair, I would still do it if it was not a religious obligation because it makes me feel more confident and empowered, and I don't see why I (or any Muslim woman) would need to justify herself because she wants to keep her body private. Nobody told the OP to go away and her opinion is valued, I just wished she would have expressed herself in a more respectful way, and not relied on clichés like veiled women refusing to identify themselves, or getting a 'special treatment'. That's not helpful.

JacqueslePeacock Wed 23-Oct-13 19:17:20

I am not a Muslim and I object to the niqab on similar patriarchal grounds to those expressed in the OP (although I would defend any woman’s right to wear it if she wants).

HOWEVER - I also didn't like the tone of the post. It sounds very condescending towards most Muslims, both men and women, and I agree that the last few sentences could have come from the Daily Mail.

I'm surprised to find myself saying this as logically I agree with much of the argument against the niqab.

Any Muslims care to respond to the point I raised in my third paragraph?

Thanks everyone for contributing your thoughts, here are a few things that occurred as I read through:
Velvetstrider, little is known about Muhammad, he lived 1400 yrs ago in a tribal desert society whose curation of information took the form of oral transmissions committed to memory – that leaves scant evidence for historians to piece together, so any information that boasts certainties and specifics is highly questionable. A knowledgeable book that builds a picture through background, historical context and an objective understanding of Islam is Karen Armstrong’s ‘Muhammad – A Biography Of The Prophet’.
Obsessively copying a person to within an inch of their lives sounds like ‘shirk’ which means worshipping another besides God and is forbidden in Islam. While the Qur’an says it’s desirable for Muslims to mirror his admirable qualities of character, it’s my guess growing a beard or sleeping on a certain side aren’t the focus when it comes to developing our capacity for love and compassion.
Here’s a link to an interesting article about Muhammad and Aisha - www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2012/sep/17/muhammad-aisha-truth

Ummunono, you’re not telling me anything new, by all means continue to follow “the majority of Muslims who follow the four main schools of Islamic Law” (?) while simultaneously protesting about those who think you “not clever enough to make their own clothing choices” (your words, not mine). That’s your choice, but it’s one that the country as a whole has no duty to protect.
“I have never, ever heard of any woman who refuses to remove her veil in court or in airports or wherever identification is needed, apart from silly stories in right-wing newspapers.” If you expand your reading beyond British right-wing newspapers you’ll be better informed; (http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/04/24/after-years-and-a-sharply-divided-supreme-court-decision-judge-rules-woman-must-remove-niqab-to-testify/ & www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/16/muslim-woman-niqab-judge-ruling )

Realme, “bring your veil over your chest” means cover your boobs to me; unless you have a hairy chest I don’t see how you can make the leap to hair and head-covering.

TeaJunky, thankyou for the flowers!

Indigo Tea, I don’t wish to debate the legality of niqab. “Almost all Muslim scholars believe that it is recommended and a good thing for Muslim women to wear niqab” Not surprising – they’re MEN. And I particularly object to your inference that there are limits to who can discuss this matter and where. Are you an undercover male Islamic scholar?

NumptyNameChange, LOVE YOU! Why don’t they hear me when I say it?

And still, despite what I’ve read here, no one has been able to supply me with proof that hijab/niqab is a requirement, so if that’s the best you can come up with...

If you want to debate the legality of the niqab within the Muslim faith, then this really isn't the place to do it

IndigoTea, did you post complaining that this wasn't the place for the pro niqab thread?

ummunono Wed 23-Oct-13 19:37:49

Well again a condescending post, so much for Islamic sisterhood. Obviously nobody was trying to convince you that covering is a requirement or not, because as Indigo said it's not the place for it, and because frankly I'm not interested if you cover or not. Many Muslim women don't cover, it doesn't make them disrespectful towards others. I do feel the state should protect my right to cover my hair though, as it should protect women who don't. Maybe I'm too much of an idealist.

garlicvampire Wed 23-Oct-13 19:51:08

Declaring ignorance from the off - I thought the injunction to women to 'cover' themselves came not from the Quran (which I have read), but from another thing? Isn't there a text that comprises centuries' worth of judgements, discussions, prophecies & revelations by various esteemed scholars?

Needless to say, those would have been made by men and they would have been working within the conditions & culture of their time. An awful lot of the bible is similar: it tells us, for instance, that men may rape enemy women as long as they take them to 'wife' afterwards. I don't see many christians espousing that as a contemporary ideal. This, in fact, is where my main gripe with Islam lies, and I don't think I'm alone. Islam seems dead set on maintaining standards appropriate to the Middle East in the year 1200. (It actually seems set on a more restrictive interpretation than early islam, but let's not go there.)

The relevance of this to female coverings, and to your wives/curtain quote, Aisha, is that women in those days were traditionally separated from the men - particularly at meal times. This was true in most cultures back then. Jesus was considered pretty shocking because he allowed women to join in stuff. English wives in 1200 were kept indoors, generally locked up unless they were on business. The prophet's wives would literally have been behind a curtain at dinnertime. It would have been incredibly rude of a man to barge through.

Women may not have been wearing their concealment, but they were shrouded by physical barriers, such as the curtain in the prophet's home. It's not much of a stretch to argue that letting them out in public, as long as they wear the curtain, is rather liberal.

The real issue, then, is islam's frantic adherence to ancient mores: not the consequential issue of women's clothing.

realme Wed 23-Oct-13 20:08:58

Yes,covering your boobs with your veil...that women used to wear on their heads already anyway,just not over their chest/neck.oh,so following the sunna is now shirk!alright.don't even know why I still bother posting on this threads.oh well,we all will answer for our actions and intentions,that's all what I can say.
sirchenji I used those country as an example that the traditional muslim clothes for men are very similar to the women's in modesty eg:loose,long sleeves,in saudi they even have a cloth on their head!are they oppressed too?

Very good post opthanks!

You make some very valid points and i am totally in agreement.

Strumpetron Wed 23-Oct-13 20:52:20

Thankyou for sharing! thanks brilliant post.

SirChenjin Wed 23-Oct-13 21:14:01

I know you were using those countries as examples of traditional muslim clothes Realme - but as I said, we're specifically talking about the UK and the very obvious discrepancies between how UK Muslim women and men dress/are expected to dress. The countries to which you refer are hardly known for their equality laws though, are they?

SirChenjin Wed 23-Oct-13 21:16:54

What comes through all this for me is - if the religion orders we are familiar with were being established now what would we accept and embrace, and what would be challenge and reject as being misogynistic, having no place in 2013?

TheABC Wed 23-Oct-13 22:01:41

A genuine question to Muslim posters on this thread;

As I have been told, Muslims who undertake hajj wear a very specific costume around the holy places, consisting of white garments, leaving the hands and face uncovered. Is this correct? Is this choice of covering also based on choice and tradition? Do women who use the full veil feel comfortable showing their face in these circumstances? If it is correct, why would the modesty requirements for pilgrimage be less stringent than normal life?

Sorry, several questions. I look forward to the answers...

defuse Wed 23-Oct-13 22:53:55

I disagree with many points made in the article. To copy Muhammad in all aspects of his life does not equate to shirk. It is an incorrect statement to make wrt to muhammad (saw) That is a very strong statement to be making and certainly copying muhammad (pbuh) in all his actions could never amount to shirk or be even close to shirk. In fact, if you want to avoid shirk, then it is imperative that you stick very closely to the teachings and the way of Muhammad.

You demean the niqab and hijab - yet the wives of the prophet covered. Muslims consider the wives of the prophet on the same level as their mothers, yet Allah commanded that they still cover - as you quoted from quran.

The Quran by itself does not provide us all the answers - Allah made his prophet Muhammad vital in the transmission of the message and essence of quran. You must look to the sunnah too. For muslims, belief in Allah is not enough until you believe in muhammad too. And what that entails is his way of life, his mannerisms, his commands and his actions. Belittling the hijab, the niqab, the beard, the sleeping is not very helpful. If it is not so something that you chose to do, then that is your choice, but for the muslims who strive to do those things out of love and compassion and their devotion to their beloved prophet, who asked of the believers to do so, to mock them is not in the spirit of islam either.

Islam is all about submission to Allah. That envelopes a whole load of things, including, but certainly not limited to, the hijab, the beard, the covering, the prayers, the lowering of gaze - total submission to a compassionate Allah. We as humans have shortcomings, muslims know they must pray 5 times a day - without fail. We might not do it, for a whole load of reasons, but we do not deny its importance.

There is the hadith about the woman who worshipped lots, but showed no compassion to others. Muhammad stated that this woman would not enter paradise. This hadith does not make it ok for us to stop worshipping as long as we show compassion and love does it. Islam is total submission. It places an importance on worship and compassion, beard and hijab, mannerisms and piety. The best way to ensure that you are doing it right, is to emulate Muhammad and to obey his commands because he did not command anything that Allah did not.

It is your choice not to wear the hijab, i have no issue with that. Allah knows what is in your heart. But to declare that it is not a part of islam is not a correct view, very short sighted.

it is your opinion - a choice you have made. You are entitled to that. You holding that view does not legitimise not wearing the hijab. That command of Allah and his prophet still stands.

realme Wed 23-Oct-13 23:23:02

Defuse:masha'Allah,very well said.
TheABC hajj is a particular place,with particular rules.that's why mecca is call the haram,because many things that are otherwise allowed are not allowed when doing hajj.

dollius Thu 24-Oct-13 06:49:25

I live in the Middle East in a country which is a popular transit point for people undertaking the Hajj.

When I moved here, I honestly thought I would become more understanding towards the veil. In fact I have become less so.

I completely agree with everything in the OP. In this country - and every other middle eastern country I have been to - I see many women fully covered, while the men wear jeans, T-shirts and leather jackets. In fact, in the more conservative areas (read deprived), the contrast is even more pronounced.

I have really come to believe that the veil is little more than a patriarchal practice to denote ownership of women. In fact, the veil is little more than the flip side of Western porno culture - it is all about men's inherent sense of entitlement to the ownership of women's bodies. I feel sad when I see young girls wearing the hijab - as young as nine or 10 - because how can they be considered to have any sort of "sexuality" that should be covered up?

In all the posts here objecting (quite hysterically in some cases IMO) to the OP, not one has included an actual reference to the Q'ran where it states that a woman must cover her face or hair. "Draw your veil over your chest" does not count. It means cover your chest, with clothes. IE wear clothes. It does not say draw your veil over your head, or over your face.

NumptyNameChange Thu 24-Oct-13 07:02:25

defuse: "The Quran by itself does not provide us all the answers" <this i find stunning. it amazes me how people who see themselves as devout followers of 'religion' can so blatantly veer away from it in order to defend the cultural dogma of their group OVER the spirit and core of what they believe they've been told by god.

not just muslims.

'shirk' to me is when you worship religion and tribalism and dogma OVER allah.

The thing I find really confusing, in regard to both Christianity and Islam, is that if Jesus or Muhammed were REALLY speaking about an all-powerful God, why did that same God not tell them to write really, really clearly about what this God is supposed to have wanted people to do. Why doesn't the Bible actually say "In a few hundred years some of my followers are going to have a big fight with some followers of a (slightly maybe?) different God, called the Crusades. THIS WILL BE A BAD IDEA, DON'T DO IT. Or why did Muhammed not get told to write "Men, make sure you are nice to women? Female circumcision IS A REALLY BAD IDEA, DON'T DO IT. AND STOP WORRYING ABOUT IF YOUR WOMEN ARE PURE. DEFINITELY DON'T KILL YOUR DAUGHTERS JUST BECAUSE YOU THINK THEY HAVE BEHAVED BADLY".

Surely an all-knowing, all powerful God would have foreseen the problems that unclear writing causes?

I know someone will say it's just mans' interpretation of God's words, but then why didn't God put it so it could not be misinterpreted?

As a Pagan, I also cannot get my head around the whole idea of shunning the physical in order to get closer to the spiritual. If you truly believe that God made the Universe, then wouldn't getting closer to the thing God made actually bring you closer to God? When you see the Divine in everything (as I do) then there is no division between the physical and spiritual world, no need to shun one in favour of the other. (Sorry, gone slightly OT there.)

MasterOfTheYoniverse Thu 24-Oct-13 11:00:38

ni hao ma sirchejin with very much respect!
Since you are a self declared "white convert" may I venture that you have very little understanding of the socio economic reality of the very very vast humble majority of Muslim women for which this is not mere philosophical wanderings?
Your strident apology of the veil might be literally correct on a theological level but most people on this planet hope to think we are past that era and can just be counted as decent Muslims if we choose to to live a secular life and bring our children up into the age of reason?
Where "being humble" in Karachi or Tunis is just fine going to med school in jeans and a Tshirt without fearing an acid attack?
You are a fool.

CoteDAzur Thu 24-Oct-13 12:52:57

I have been telling MNers Muslims some of the stuff in the OP for years and still, OP managed to get even my back up with the contradictory & insensitive content shock

"Suck it up, Buttercup"??? hmm

hambo Thu 24-Oct-13 13:50:58

If you 'cover' yourself...can you cycle? Go swimming? Go for a jog, or climb a mountain? Can you rock climb, or ski?

It seems to me that being 'covered' stops people having full lives, and is going to stop children discovering their strengths, and the true joy of their bodies and just what they can do.

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