What Do Women Who Wear the Niqab Think of the Niqab Debate?
While Muslim women wearing niqabs in Britain might be a constant bugbear for EDL types, it’s generally not something the rest of the population are particularly concerned about. But once every couple of years, a “niqabi” demands the right to keep wearing the veil in a situation where other people think it shouldn’t be worn, so it becomes a Big Deal for a while and the media kick up a grand, preachy fuss until it all blows over.
The past week-and-a-bit has been one of those periods, thanks to two incidents. First, Birmingham Metropolitan College told a prospective student that it didn’t allow the wearing of niqabs on campus for security reasons, only to perform a hasty U-turn following a storm of national controversy. Then a judge at Blackfriars Crown Court ruled that Muslim women giving evidence must remove their veil. Before long, Nick Clegg was hinting at a ban on niqabs in the classroom and columnists were going into op-ed overdrive.
It’s a contentious debate, but whether it’s non-Muslims telling everyone that it’s fine to wear a niqab, Muslims telling everyone that it’s not fine to wear a niqab or non-Muslimscastigating their fellow non-Muslims for not castigating the niqab enough, it’s a debate that hasn’t had a lot of input from the women who actually wear the veil. With that in mind, we thought we’d talk to some of those women and find out their thoughts on the whole niqab debate.
Siama Ahmed, 35, a teacher and blogger from Oxfordshire.
VICE: What do make of the recent controversy surrounding the wearing of niqabs in Britain?
Siama Ahmed: My personal opinion about the recent [Blackfriars] court case is that it shouldn’t have been an issue. In Islamic law, if a judge asks you to remove your veil, you should remove it. And the judge correctly asked her to remove it. I can only assume that she is ignorant of the fact that she should have taken it off.
Do you wear you niqab all the time?
No. I have two small children and I don’t want them to feel the hostility of me wearing it from others. But if I’m in the Middle East I will wear it, or if I’m in a gathering where the majority of people present are Muslims – but only if people aren’t uncomfortable with me wearing it. So the main thing is I’m not making people feel uncomfortable. I think the bad of wearing it outweighs the good of wearing it [in everyday public life]. In the Middle East, it’s not normal for men and women to have eye contact. But in this culture, eye contact is important.
Why do you personally wear it?
In an ideal world, if we didn’t have any Islamophobia, I would consider wearing it all the, time because it’s really special to me. Part of the problem is that this country is deprived of spirituality, so it’s hard to explain why wearing the niqab is important.
Na’ima Robert, 36, is a British convert to Islam, author and magazine editor.
How does the niqab affect your day-to-day life?
Na’ima Robert: As an author and magazine publisher, I haven’t found that the niqab has held me back. As an individual, I am outgoing, adventurous and ambitious – the niqab hasn’t changed that.
So people not being able to see your face hasn’t changed anything?
It changes the way some people respond to me, as they’re initially disconcerted by my face covering. But I just work extra hard on those ones and grin like mad so that they can see my eyes smiling. But it’s more one’s demeanour that puts people at ease, isn’t it? After all, there are people who are “normally” dressed whose body language or attitudes are intimidating. A person wearing a niqab doesn’t have the same advantage as someone whose face is visible, I admit that, but you could say that someone with tattoos or piercings or an unconventional haircut is similarly disadvantaged, couldn’t you?
I guess so. What do you think of the idea that it’s inappropriate to wear the niqab in some situations, like in court or if you’re teaching children?
As a teacher and as a Muslim, I would like to know that I am not disadvantaging my students in any way. If my covering my face is clearly doing that, I will do one of two things: reconsider my decision to cover, or reconsider my position. That being said, I have conducted workshops in schools with my face covered, but I made sure to let my personality shine through so that I could engage the kids. And I would find a way to “flash” the girls, if possible. But seriously, the question is this: who gets to decide when wearing the niqab is appropriate or not?
What do you think of Muslim women who don’t wear it?
I think they’re missing out! No, really, I don’t think anything of them—they are free to choose their path to God, you know? One thing I have learned over the years is to cultivate humility.
What do you think of those who are freaked out by not being able to see your face?
As a writer, it’s my job to empathise, so of course I get it. Look at the image of masks in our culture: Darth Vader, ninjas, robbers, those with something to hide—it’s all overwhelmingly negative. Add that to the fact that images of veiled Muslim women have been used to illustrate the alleged oppression of women in the Muslim world from the time of the Orientalists to today’s front pages. It’s hard, I tell you, for a niqabi out there.