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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


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


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

NotinIslamsname Wed 01-Jan-14 13:05:31

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.

Trinette Wed 18-Mar-15 23:16:30

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.


Trinette Wed 18-Mar-15 23:35:54

^^ 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

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