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.
Posted on: Wed 23-Oct-13 11:57:17
(102 comments )
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
^^ This is addressed to OP! I deviated slightly from her opening topic, but I am so thrilled to find a Muslim woman who agrees that there are massive problems within the Islamic community.
I have read, studied and compared at least a dozen different translations of the Quran (English, French, German and Dutch versions -- unfortunately my Arabic is poor), and in every version I have ever read it says nothing about a requirement to cover the head. Most translations talk about a garment, a cloak, a shawl and all say that it must be drawn over the bosom saying nothing about the head. It is indeed a pre-Islamic Arab tribal custom with socio-economic roots. To those who stated that all clerics in the four major Sunni schools (Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Shafi'i) agree that veiling is a requirement: please consider that these interpretations, and that's exactly what they are no matter how much consensus there is were made by men in highly patriarchal societies and in the context of other social customs.
There are reports of early female Muslim scholars, but even they are products of their time and culture! To the best of my knowledge none address the need to veil.
In our current political climate, the headscarf has become a symbol of "otherness" at best and political Islam at worst (Is it really a coincidence that the headscarf became much more popular throughout the Middle East, Northern Africa and even farther afield after the Iranian revolution in 1979?!?), and it comes with an air of moral superiority, as stated by the OP. Furthermore, if the purpose of the headscarf is to blend in to avoid drawing attention (the quintessence of being modest, right?) and being molested, this purpose is not being served in Western societies where it does the exact opposite! To deny that there is a political component is naïve and/or dishonest.
This is a good research paper that tackles many of the issues I was only able to address briefly above: religiousstudies.cofc.edu/documents/Papers/06c-diffendal.pdf
Sorry for just writing to you out of the blue. I read some of your posts about Islam, and I am so thrilled to finally find somebody who agrees with me. I am not Muslim, never will be, but have studied the Middle East, its history, culture, religion(s) -- all of which are tied to Islam -- academically for many years (master's and PhD). I am so fed up with being called an Islamophobe, a racist (really nonsensical as there is only one human race), or whatever accusation the other side can throw at me, for bringing up issues that finally need to be discussed in the broader public sphere.
One of those is the pertinent question why Islam apparently produces so many violent radicals who embrace hatred and cruelty? All Abrahamaic religions have similar historical and cultural roots (yes, this includes misogynistic beliefs/practices and patriarchal structures), but as Judaism is not a missionary faith, and Western Christianity was tamed by Humanism and Enlightenment, none of these pose the same threat. It is a very valid question, and one long overdue for public examination and critical discussion.
Best wishes to you and thank you for being such an outspoken critic.
It is not in the Quran, nor sunnah this is a false misconception there is no face veil in Quran nor the sunnah. Its ridiculous to assert that their is. In fact the face vale originated from the Ancient Greeks and not from our Abrahamic ancestors.
I cannot for the life of me understand why any rational person would even contemplate converting to islam. It's a barbaric practice. If Islam was just a religion, there would be NO issue, but it isn't. It's a socio-political ideology that masquerades as a religion, and as such, comes complete with it's own barbaric laws. Execution for apostasy, adultery, blasphemy, and homosexuality. Bare in mind that being a victim of gang rape counts as adultery. Yet anybody who speaks out against such bigotry is instantly labelled a bigot. There is kind of an escape clause in the execution though. It is said that if a prisoner escapes, that is the end of the matter. Personally I think that's just a way to let the men get away unpunished. Allow me to elaborate. A man is buried up to his waist for stoning. A woman is buried up to her chest. Who has the better chance of escape?
Thanks, realm. That does explain a lot....
What garlic said. The hijab doesn't cut you off from the world, doesn't prevent you from having a cup of tea with other women, doesn't prevent you from interacting.
The niqab does all that. It silences women, it cuts them off and I cannot see how anyone can argue that is a good thing.
I have a tiny anecdote: One summer, I got a really bad psoriasis attack on my face. It was so disgusting, I took to wearing a scarf over my face. The hostility this provoked in others was educational. It ranged from reserve to avoidance, but was absolutely real and startling. Even my friends, who obviously know my face well, were uncomfortable with it and preferred talking to my rash than my scarf.
I can't believe anyone would ask women to subject themselves to widespread hostility/avoidance, if they cared about those women.
Well, yes, of course the rules about women not wearing trousers were misogynistic. Did you really ask that, or have I misunderstood? As to whether dresses are a symbol of oppression: you're on my turf here, and I could go on for weeks! Let's just say that some abusive/oppressive men do insist their women wear dresses - as I'm sure you know, so perhaps you're just being a bit goady? It is abusive to control what another adult wears in everyday life.
The hijab is a headscarf. When I were a lass, all the women wore headscarves or hats. They took them off when they were indoors in public. Headwear like this is little more than a fashion issue. I realise it means more to a woman in hijab but, then, so does a wig to women of certain jewish persuasions, as do the rail & wimple to a nun. Still, I wear a shawl around my head & neck in winter and that's a fashion choice.
Covering the face is a whole other matter. It has massive anthropological meaning. In terms of communication, it renders the onlooker blind. You hair doesn't tell how you feel, what you want to say, or how you're responding to others. Your face does. Without this information, I'm in the same position speaking to a covered woman as a blind woman speaking to me. We recognise blindness as a disability: why would this woman want to disable me?
I have no time for clerics who frown upon women but do not address men either.
On the flip side, a side that you do not see, is that many men are threatened by their daughters and wives adopting the hijab and niqab because they know that the hijab and niqab frees the women from the shackles of cultural norms and that the women can demand their rights that islam has granted them.
Where do you draw the line regarding misogynist connotations? I wear a hijab - tend to wear colourful ones, but yet some of my colleagues are adamant that i wear the hijab because a man has made me - referring to my husband. It is quite offensive really, especially when they know that my husband is quite a gentle passive kind of man and i am the loud one.
To my colleagues, the hijab has misogynistic connotations, to others, the niqab does. If you want to ban stuff with what you feel may have misogynistic connotations, then you are in effect rather simplifying matters and seeing it from just one angle.
Take for example, britain or france when women could only wear skirts or dresses - not trousers. Do skirts and dresses represent misogynistic connotations? Should we get rid of those because women battled long and hard for the right to wear trousers? Are the skirts and dresses a symbol of oppression?
Some are saying, niqab represents misogyny, therefore get rid. Others say hijab does. I am a law abiding citizen. I havent hurt anyone. Where is my right to wear what i want. Even wearing a hijab, i have to make extra effort to 'appear sociable'. I am a smiley person. Nobody strikes up a conversation with me unless i do first. I can relate to the difficulties faced by niqabis (excuse the pun) and i dont think that throwing so many statements at them - some vilifying them others victimising them, yet some saying they are victims but that they ask for it - it is not helpful at all nor does it achieve anything.
But why wear something that isolates you from your peers? That's what I don't understand. And actually it seems pretty rude. The arguments for it are all a bit teenage goth - everso slightly precious and self-absorbed. And you cannot wear it and be unaware of the misogynist connotations.
Thanks, defuse, and I don't know the answer to your questions! There are, though, many very public examples of clerics demanding that women cover themselves more* ... all about hijab, as far as I'm aware, but still an unacceptable (to me) expression of men's assumptions of rights over women's lives and bodies. A man who feels that entitled would probably see nothing wrong with excluding women from social support networks, based on his disapproval of their dress.
*outside of mosque - we all observe conventions in religious buildings
I hope the ladies wearing these don't drive, surely it impairs your peripheral vision.
incidentally i'm not even allowed to specify a female gynacologist for a treatment i have to have so the idea we'd have all these extra staff with time on their hands to be taking veiled women into private rooms for checks is a bit daft. imagine the extra bloody queues at the airport!
for me it's simple - it is not a religious requirement so if there was a ban it wouldn't be forcing anyone to not follow their religion and wouldn't represent a loss of religious freedom. it would also be ok to me if the state we are banning all face coverings be they muslim veils, balaclavas or motorbike helmets for security reasons.
it would not be like, for example, banning a sikh wearing a turban (a genuine religious requirement and one that represents no risk or sense of threat) or requiring muslims to eat bacon.
it could be banned without infringing on any real religious laws and without being 'targeted' at muslims but a general security rule for all. in which case people would have to obey or face the consequences.
i'm not saying it 'should' be banned but if it was it would be perfectly legal and non discriminatory and it would not cause anyone to disobey their religion despite all the 'highly recommended' red herrings that get thrown around.
Garlic, if a british niqab wearing woman was to come and say that she is pressured into wearing the niqab, then i would be just as vocal about her having the right to remove it.
We have stats on domestic violence. Can anybody bring forward any figures of niqab wearing women in britain who are in a niqab because they are forced? Has anybody actually met a niqab wearing woman in britain who has said that she is forced to wear it.
We all know that women in some countries are not given the choice to remove the hijab. We will be no different if we restrict a woman's choice by forcing her to remove her niqab.
This argument looks sound, but ignores the fact that niqab wearers are pressured to stay covered. They're under social, religious and family orders. I'm not at all convinced that it's wrong to apply reverse pressure from outside.
Obviously a piece of headwear isn't like domestic violence, but the argument is comparable. Until recently, beaten wives were not supported, or their men censured, because it was a 'private choice' - domestic. We now take it for granted that domestic arrangements do not override standards of common civility. We changed the law to reinforce that point.
I dunno. If you went into a cafe and everyone there was wearing a bag over their head, how comfortable would you feel? Humans (all primates) rely heavily on the face for social cues. Surely the niqab is intended to alienate others, keeping the wearer isolated in her personal shell? Its whole point is to send out a 'keep off' message, isn't it?
Numpty and Yoni, I didn't understand how that passage supported the niqab, either! It could easily have meant the whole head may be uncovered, too.
louise my point exactly. This is a matter of choice. I dont care whether someone wears the niqab, the hijab or doesnt cover. It should always be a choice. Why are we, in Britain trying to restrict a woman's choice? We all know that women in some countries are not given the choice to remove the hijab.
We will be no different if we restrict a woman's choice by forcing her to remove her niqab.
I think it's their choice to wear it or not. I really don't know why they're making so much fuss when a woman can easily take them in private to see their face when needed. People are different with different beliefs.
yes but the poster was assuming it meant the hair should be - though why i don't know as pointing to the head could include hair.
Ayshah reported that Asma' the daughter of Abu Bakr came to the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) while wearing thin clothing. He approached her and said: 'O Asma'! When a girl reaches the menstrual age, it is not properthat anything should remain exposed except this and this. He pointed to theface and hands."[Abu Dawud]
This says that the face does not need to be covered doesn't it?
I think it really does all come down to the covering of the face - covering any other bit of the body is accepted by most people as personal choice - eccentricity or whatever. For many people in the west covering the face is perceived to be threatening or offensive - often both.
I have travelled in the East and carefully worn clothes that would not offend. I would not choose to live in many of the countries I have visited because I would not choose to live with that level of restriction on my choice of clothing - even though I consider myself a modest dresser.
I think the question about nuns and their clothing is interesting as I can't think of a single religious order that required full facial covering - even in medieaval times - though full hiding of the hair was the norm. The only cultural references we have wrt full facial covering are negative ones, robbers, bandits - even knights in shining armour are threatening figures with the visor down.
I have an elderly aunt in the midlands who told me how threatened she'd been in the local market when suddenly surrounded at a stall by fully veiled women. She was talking about it because she didn't understand her own reaction. She had been a teacher in an area with a lot of Muslim pupils who wore scarves, she is Mrs multiculturalism personified, working in her retirement with a local refugee /asylum seekers group. But she was scared. She is intelligent and educated and reflective enough to be able to talk about that fear and look into its roots - and challenge it in herself.
The reality remains that in our culture, traditionally, only the bad guys have disguised their faces. If you come to live in this culture, at this moment in time, then that's a reality I think.
I personally don't find it scary but as a feminist I do find Niqab deeply offensive?
Should also have said thanks, for this informative blog on why I don't wear the niqab which balanced things.
Well, it is obvious that the niqab and what it represents produces very strong feelings of disapproval in many people used to a western lifestyle, so the 'why I wear a niqab' blog writer, claiming she is pious and only following her religion is putting on a show of innocence, when she knows full well what a red rag it is.
She believes the Islamic teachings say she should wear the niqab, the beheaders, whose videos are now available on youtube, believe they are following Islamic teachings. Neither are acceptable in my view.
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