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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

SirChenjin Wed 23-Oct-13 13:15:28

Excellent post - I agree with everything you've written. As a non-Muslim I've struggled to convey my opposition to coverings, but you have summed up perfectly what they represent in a measured, intelligent way. Thank you.

worldgonecrazy Wed 23-Oct-13 13:18:25

Thank you for sharing.

The whole debate about the niqab seems to centre around women's rights and how women are viewed.

There doesn't seem to be any dialogue about why, in the UK, many people are uncomfortable with the niqab, simply because, like hoodies and balaclavas, it covers the face. Hoodies and balaclavas also get a bad press, so I don't think it really is about pro/anti Islamic views. It's about the British culture of a covered face belonging to someone who is (probably) up to no good.

Add in the misogynistic origins of the garment and it's perfect Daily Mail fodder. Regardless of what we think of the Daily Mail, it remains the most widely read newspaper in the UK.

VelvetStrider Wed 23-Oct-13 13:29:44

Agreed. The Qur'an's teachings and 'tradition' seem to have become blurred when it comes to religious clothing.

Aisha, if you're reading this thread, I would be interested in hearing your views on Muhammed's life. The thing that struck me most (as a non-Muslim who knows very little about Islam) about the pro-niqab blog and the discussions on the thread that followed were aspects of Muhammed's life - the multiple wives, the concubines, the slaves, divorce requests when a wife became old and plain, but most of all his marriage to a 6 year old apparently consummated when she was around 9. As a Muslim woman very aware and passionate about equality and women's rights, how do you equate this with presumably holding Muhammed and all he stands for in high esteem (worshiping?)? Do you struggle with this issue or put it down to society at the time he lived?

Redtartanshoes Wed 23-Oct-13 13:57:27

Very interesting and well written. I have certainly learnt something!

eurochick Wed 23-Oct-13 13:58:36

I think from a culturally christian point of view, many people probably struggle to understand covering as it is visually similar to a traditional nun's habit, which does speak of a level of withdrawal from society. So hearing women who cover protest that this is not what they are doing is at a discord with the visual cue.

MasterOfTheYoniverse Wed 23-Oct-13 14:33:23

Most of us from The western tip of the maghreb to eastern ouigur provinces of china do NOT wear it or ever contemplate to do so. Lets not forget that essential reality.

SirChenjin Wed 23-Oct-13 15:04:29

Please forgive my complete ignorance here MasterOfTheYoniverse....why do you not wear/contemplate wearing it?

TeaJunky Wed 23-Oct-13 15:08:16

Op, I think I love you thanks

ummunono Wed 23-Oct-13 15:08:35

Actually I find your post very demeaning and reductive towards Muslim women who do consider hijab to be a religious requirement, I object to hijab, niqab and burka all being thrown in the same bag, and I don't see much difference between your article and others written by non-Muslims who also conclude that covering women are not clever enough to make their own clothing choices and reject the veil as 'a manifestation of misogyny". You don't want to cover- fine, that's your call, who am I to tell you otherwise. You think covering is not an obligation for practicing Muslim women- again, fine, I have met some women who share those views. However, it is also my right to consider hijab and modest covering a religious obligation (note: not niqab, as most Muslims only consider it to be 'recommended' in some circumstances). I am also a white, educated convert, I have also spent time researching this specific matter, and as the overwhelming majority of Muslims who follow the four main schools of Islamic Law, I believe it is a requirement. It doesn't mean I will go around telling women to cover, but it is my personal call, my choice over how I cover MY body. I feel insulted by your dismissal of the veil as a fashion choice; I see it as a reflection of my faith, but I am also free to express my identity by wearing different styles of dress or different coloured hijabs if I feel like. Not that it makes me better than a woman who doesn't cover: again, it's my personal view, my personal interpretation of the Quranic verses and other literature.
Regarding your final sentences, they are re-hashing daily mail stuff about niqabi women being a security threat: 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. It is actually a requirement in Islam to identify yourself in those situations, and I'm sure niqabi women (who are not all illiterate products of patriarchal domination, you know) are well aware of this. The choice to dress modestly and to wear a veil is as respectable as the choice not to, for whatever reasons.

SirChenjin Wed 23-Oct-13 15:13:07

So given that it's not specifically mentioned in the Qur'an - why do (some) Muslims see it as a religious requirement?

tethersend Wed 23-Oct-13 15:26:29

Excellent blog.

Something being a woman's choice does not stop it from being misogynistic by virtue of it being chosen.

realme Wed 23-Oct-13 16:38:35

totally agree with ummunono . in the Qur'an it says "bring your veil over your chest". how does that translate to "no need to cover at all?"
also agree that just because someone decides not to cover ,that doesnt mean those that do cover didnt research the matter but just followed talked about hijabis that feel superior for covering....well ,from your post it seems like the opposite its true.
and to presume that a white,non-hijabi is not a muslim is not arrogance,would you not assume a woman in hijab is muslim?there you go then.

SirChenjin Wed 23-Oct-13 16:49:50

How does "bring your veil over your chest" translate to "women, cover your hair/faces/whole bodies, but men, meh, wear what you want"? The Qur'an and other holy books say lots of things (Velvet's earlier post is interesting.....) but there seems to be a lot of picking and choosing going on - especially when it comes to what women should and shouldn't do. Interesting....

realme Wed 23-Oct-13 17:14:39

erm...who says men wear what you like?what do men wear in pakistan?saudi?north africa?balls-skipping shorts and a bare chest?don't think so.modesty is mentioned for men and women alike.where do you see picking and choosing?i would like to know where did you get all this knowledge.some people try and follow at their best,other dont.some people have different understanding of the same verse/chapter.
i dont believe the face veil is obligatory,but i think the hijab and loose clothes are.just because people dont like it, it doesn't mean it's misogynistic.

Klingyston Wed 23-Oct-13 17:38:17

frankly, who cares? this is being done to death and it's so boring

SirChenjin Wed 23-Oct-13 17:44:10

We're not talking about Pakistan etc - we're talking about the UK (and incidentally, there are a raft of clothing options between coverings and balls skipping shorts and a bare chest...). Are you seriously trying to tell me that Muslim men and women cover equally here? Of course they don't - it comes down to picking and choosing, as I said.

As for the idea that they (coverings) exist to protect a woman’s modesty and safeguard the honour of her male relatives - you don't see that as misogynistic or that this notion should be challenged??

NumptyNameChange Wed 23-Oct-13 17:47:49

thank god - a voice of honest sense and true reflection of the koran and it's spirit. maybe as a muslim she'll get less abuse than i received - doubtful though as the aggressive hijabi brigade (modest my arse) will just say she's not a proper muslim as they say imams who dare to criticise anything in british muslim culture are not proper imams but tools of the evil islamophobes.

i totally agree it is a divisive and competitive practice.

humphryscorner Wed 23-Oct-13 18:25:04

fantastic insightful post.

also second sirchen post, why do they wear it when its NOT a requirement?

IndigoTea Wed 23-Oct-13 18:42:50

OP, thanks for your post but it is a great shame that you haven't represented in your article the voice of the majority of Islamic scholarship who state that not only is the niqab a Muslim tradition that has roots in the Quran, but it is in fact something highly recommended to wear in the Islamic faith, and many scholars consider it obligatory to wear. If you want to debate the legality of the niqab within the Muslim faith, then this really isn't the place to do it. The place to do that is within Muslim scholarship circles. Almost all Muslim scholars believe that it is recommended and a good thing for Muslim women to wear niqab, and some may argue that the majority also say that it is obligatory for Muslim women to wear niqab. If you disagree with that, that's fine, but please don't use your difference of opinion to demean and degrade women who do choose to follow traditional muslim scholarship.

IndigoTea Wed 23-Oct-13 18:47:24

Humphrey, it is a misconception that niqab is not obligatory at all in the Muslim faith. Some schools of faith within the Muslim faith (like the hanbali school for example) do believe it is obligatory. I myself do not follow the hanbali school and do not wear niqab, but I do know that it is extremely extremely difficult to wear niqab in this country, and it's only women who are very strong in their faith and character who are able to. Seriously, Muslim women are not stupid and would not be wearing it if they didn't believe that it bought them closer to God and is something that they will be highly rewarded for, despite however difficult it may be for them to wear niqab.

NumptyNameChange Wed 23-Oct-13 18:48:05

it is not recommended at all in the koran. this 'highly recommended' business is pulled out of the air and no one seems to be able to back it up.

it's not a muslims job to represent the majority view if the majority view has no grounding in islam but is a cultural practice that serves men not god.

NumptyNameChange Wed 23-Oct-13 18:48:50

it's incredibly difficult to wear heels imo yet some women do it. doesn't mean it's a requirement.

IndigoTea Wed 23-Oct-13 18:51:47

OP, the 'hijabi brigade' as you call it do not just pick on women. 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. So your assumption and dare I say accusation is clearly incorrect.

In conclusion OP, I think this debate is inappropriate on a majority non-Muslim and non-scholarship forum. If you want to have this debate, take it to a Muslim scholars forum!

NumptyNameChange Wed 23-Oct-13 18:53:49

so here we go - muslim dares to say something that others don't agree with and gets told to go away. so ridiculous.

wonder if they'd treat a man the same

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