In December, the University of Michigan released the results of a survey that, among other things, asked Middle Easterners what style of dress was appropriate for women to wear in public. Participants were invited to choose between various styles of Muslim head coverings, like burqas, chadors, and niqabs. The results showed that people from conservative nations like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan generally favored the face-concealing niqab, while most Egyptians, Tunisians, Turks, and Iraqis preferred traditional hijabs, which cover the hair and leave the face exposed.
These results aren’t particularly surprising, and neither is the fact that Middle Eastern women and men largely shared the same preferences. Though some Westerners associate Muslim religious head coverings with the oppression of women, many Muslim women view the hijab—a blanket term used to denote any form of traditional head covering—as a source of empowerment. During the Arab Spring–inspired protests against Hosni Mubarak, some Egyptian women wore hijabs to protest a ban against headscarves on state television.
According to Shereen El Feki, a researcher and the author of Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, many young Muslim women cover themselves to gain more independence from their parents. “They feel that their parents think these girls are good Muslim girls, therefore they don’t exercise as much vigilance and the girls get more latitude in their lives,” she told me. “They may get to travel, they may get to move around, and they have more mobility.”
Another common misconception about head coverings is that it is always worn as a statement of extreme religious modesty. “The women wearing hijab who I spoke to for my book have just as much sexual desire,” said Shereen. “Women put on hijab for a variety of reasons, not just to desexualize themselves.”
Denmark’s Controversial Teenage Muslim Superstar Poet
Yahya Hassan is an 18-year-old Muslim Palestinian immigrant to Denmark who has become a social critic, celebrity writer, and general shit-stirrer—all thanks to a slim volume of poetry. Since the release of his self-titled debut collection in October, he’s been all over the Danish media, at least in part due to his subject matter. His poetry, written in all caps in Danish, is full of rage directed at his parents’ generation, a group of Muslims he accuses of hypocrisy and abandoning their children. He’s penned lines like:
YOU YOU’RE A MUSLIM? / YOU YOU DON’T KNOW/ IF YOU WANT HALAL OR HARAM / YOU YOU KNOW YOU WANT HARAM / BUT YOU YOU PRETEND YOU WANT HALAL / YOU YOU DON’T WANT PIG / MAY ALLAH REWARD YOU FOR YOUR FOOD HABITS.
Some of his poetry documents an abusive childhood; Yahya grew up in a poor neighborhood of Aarhus, and flirted with crime from an early age. He blames much of that on his mother and father. “As soon as our parents landed in Copenhagen airport it felt as if their role as parents was coming to an end,” Yahya told the Danish newspaper Politiken in the interview, published on October 5, that turned him into a teenage social commentator.
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.
Why Is the Khaleejii Hijab So Controversial?
On a recent trip to London, my partner and I went to the Whitechapel district in East London to buy the component parts of the Muslim world’s most controversial hijab, the khaleeji. After settling on a shop next to the East London Mosque—a shop whose website proudly displays a model wearing her hijab in the bulbous Khaleeji style—we asked the sales girl for some general headscarf advice. She walked to the back of the store and opened a box full of flower-clips—puffy, flower-shaped pom-poms designed to add volume to the back of your hijab.
"And which of those clips would work best for the Khaleeji?" I asked.
"That’s un-Islamic," the girl said, shaking her head in disgust. "Haram. We do not wear it.”
They were, however, happy enough to sell what you need to wear it, hastily making out the bill for the two largest clips in the box. After we’d grabbed some thin black crepe for the headscarf, we were ready to go—but not before a pamphlet had been thrust into my partner’s hand. The gist: how to be a better Muslim.
Meaning “from the Gulf,” the khaleeji hijab isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Also known as the shambassa pouf, the camel hump, the big bun, the beehive hijab, and, in Arabic, “bu tafkha,” the style emerged from the shopping malls of Kuwait and is characterized by a rounded bulge emerging from the back of the head, which is supposed to give the impression of a cascading mane of hair that’s been neatly coiled up into a bun. Early adherents used milk cartons and yogurt cups to achieve the desired volume. Now, it’s all about “bumpit” gadgets and hair donuts.
Furious Buddhists Are Making Life Hell for Sri Lanka’s Muslims
Muslims are under attack in Sri Lanka. Recent reports indicate that gangs of Buddhists have been roaming the streets, administering bloody mob beatings, and attacking places where Muslims work and worship. Raw pork has been thrown into mosques, the Halal logo has been banned, and the prominent Muslim government critic Azad Sally has been arrested. One dramatic incident ended with government commandos being deployed to maintain law and order after a gang of Buddhistsinjured four people at a mosque in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city, forcing it to close and a curfew to be put in place.
Moulavi Fazil Farooq, from the Islamic political group All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, told me that Muslims’ “freedom of religion and freedom of speech” are under threat in Sri Lanka. He also sent me in the direction of one of the Buddhist groups that have been accused of carrying out the attacks: Bodu Bala Sena, which roughly translates as “Buddhist Power Force.” Their stated aim is to “protect” Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka, as it’s apparently under threat from Muslim and Christian groups. (For context, 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s population is Buddhist—less than 10 percent is Muslim, fewer still are Christian.)
Why Is Anti-Muslim Violence Only Now Being Classed as Terrorism?
Last Friday, a nail bomb exploded outside a mosque in the West Midlands town of Tipton. The blast came about an hour after the funeral of army drummer Lee Rigby—the latest in a broad series of attacks on Britain’s Muslim community since the soldier’s murder in May outside his barracks in Woolwich, London.
Britain’s Islamophobes haven’t just been leaving nail bombs around ex-industrial towns in the Black Country. Since Rigby’s murder in late May, aggression toward the Muslim community has included: an Islamophobic social media free-for-all, attempts to pull off hijabs in the street, phoned-in death threats, and various attacks on mosques, ranging from racist graffiti to arson and petrol bombings.
But do I blame Rigby’s two alleged murderers—both Muslim—for this swollen wave of anti-Muslim sentiment? No. The bigotry existed well before the murder, it’s just that the climate is now far more conducive for those who spout it to leer their way out of the woodwork, confusing Sikh temples with mosques and repeatedly spelling Qur’an wrong on Twitter. It was against British law to be Muslim until 1812, but the community has never been viewed as anything but “the other” in this country.
Saudi Arabia Isn’t Having a Feminist Revolution
When it comes to women’s rights, Saudi Arabia takes baby steps to a whole new level of infancy. (In utero steps? Spermy steps?) Sure, the King Khalid Charitable Foundation launched the country’s first ever anti-domestic-violence ad last month, but women are still unable to defend themselves against those same domestic-violence cases in court. In 2013.
One other huge breakthrough that I’m sure would have Susan B. Anthony setting off streamers in her grave is new legislation that allows women to ride bicycles. Granted, they still have to be supervised by men—but bicycles! Think of the endless freedoms that come with finally being able to cycle around Riyadh, a city not built with cyclists in mind whatsoever!
Oh, also, girls in private schools are now allowed to play sports, but girls in state schools still can’t. So, much like in other parts of the world, the amount of rights a person gets depends entirely on their wealth.
Despite these forward-thinking changes, Saudi Arabia was still ranked 131 out of 134 countries for gender parity in the 2012 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report. So recent, optimistic reports of Saudi Arabia going through a “feminist revolution" seem a little off the mark.
I spoke to Nouf Alhimiary, a 20-year-old photographer from Jeddah, about the challenges she faced when trying to put on an art exhibition about Saudi women in a country where basically every minutely inflammatory art piece gets banned from public display.
VICE: Hey, Nouf. How come you were only allowed to display half of your exhibition?
Nouf Alhimiary:You know that thing where you take a picture of your outfit every day and post it on Instagram or Twitter? I thought it was interesting that a lot my Saudi friends do that when they’re out of the country, but can’t do it here because they have to wear the exact same thing every day: the abaya. I wanted to create a parody of that by photographing women wearing the same thing in different places. I wanted to call it What She Wore/ What She Wore Underneath. The plan was to take pictures of all these women in the abaya, take pictures of whatever they were wearing underneath, and then display both pictures together.
But you weren’t allowed to do that?
The curator for the Mostly Visible show told me I couldn’t do it because the government would have rejected it. In Saudi Arabia, the government has to look at every art project that’s going to be exhibited to decide whether or not it can be displayed. The curator told me that if I included pictures of women outside their houses not wearing the abaya, they wouldn’t display it.
So what did you do?
I settled for What She Wore, which I actually like because it makes you ask, “Why do all these women look like they’re wearing a uniform?” But even though I only displayed pictures of women in the abaya, a lot of people at the exhibition came up to me and asked, “Why are you trying to change women?”
Is Burma’s Government Involved in Ethnic Cleansing?
The last couple of weeks have been filled with mixed news for the Burmese government. On the bright side, the European Union decided to permanently lift sanctions against the country and deeper trade ties with the United States were announced—both moves likely to result in more foreign investment and lucrative business deals. Shortly after, President Thein Sein received a peace prize from a prominent NGO for his role in promoting internal reforms.
However, on the negative side, state agencies were accused of complicity in ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Two things that don’t really sound that worthy of a peace prize and raise serious questions about the ethics of the West’s increasingly cozy relationship with Burma.
These allegations are outlined in a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in connection with two outbreaks of violence last year. In these attacks, the ethnic Rohingya Muslim community and other Burmese Muslims were attacked by government forces and mobs of local Buddhists. The violence, which took place in Burma’s western Rakhine state last June and October, left scores dead and more than100,000 displaced, most of whom have been crammed into IDP (internally displaced person) camps.
After recently returning from the site of last year’s violence myself, the new report makes for essential reading. It documents many allegations that fit exactly with the testimony of witnesses I’d met around Sittwe, the capital of the afflicted region. It also cites evidence of open support from local political parties and religious groups for targeted attacks on the Rohingya minority—some calling directly for ethnic cleansing.
The report also mentions another incident, one in which 18 half-naked dead bodies were dumped by security forces in a Rohingya displacement camp. Subsequently, the police ordered local residents to bury the dead in a mass grave.
Locals who saw the body pile before it was buried took photographs, which I managed to obtain. The images, most of which are too graphic to display without some kind of censorship, show corpses with a series of horrific wounds to their heads and bodies; in one case a man’s face is sliced almost into three parts. Another photo shows a dead child with a bloodied head lying next to a body bag crowded with maggots. Others have their hands attached to objects that they’d presumably been tied to while being executed.
It Was Probably the Internet, Not Chechnya, That Radicalized the Boston Bombers
The Tsarnaev brothers are the first Chechens to have been implicated in alleged jihadist attacks on US soil. But the more we learn about Dzhokar and Tamerlan, the blurrier their motives become. Why would these two seemingly well-integrated young men indiscriminately kill citizens of the country that welcomed them with open arms? What has America done to Chechnya? And is the horror we witnessed in Boston the beginning of a frightening new trend—an amalgamation of foreign and domestic terrorism into a bouillabaisse of confused and largely undefined hate?
While we’ll still be searching for more information about the Tsarnaev brothers and what motivated them for months—if not years—to come, their roots in Chechnya and the history of that country are a good place to start.
In the early 19th century, Chechnya resisted Russian attempts to occupy their small mountainous motherland, nearly 1,000 miles south of Moscow. The fight intensified when the region was assimilated into the Soviet Union. To quell rebellion in the 1940s, Stalin forcibly relocated the entire Chechen population to remote areas of Central Asia, repopulating the mountains with ethnic Russians. Some 200,000 people, one-third of the Chechen population, lost their lives to this process, called Operation Lentil.
A family takes an afternoon walk amid the rubble and burned-out apartment blocks destroyed during the fighting between Russian forces and Chechen rebels.
While Islam remains a central part of Chechen identity, religion didn’t play a major role in the nationalist struggle until recently. In the mid-90s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chechens again attempted to wrestle their independence from Moscow. Volunteer fighters, preachers, and NGOs espousing Wahhabism (an Arab Gulf version of ultraconservative Islam) flocked to the region to fight against Russia and instill Chechens with their radical views. A Chechen administrator explained at the time, “They [the Wahhabis] went to the market, and they paid with dollars. There was no power here; there was disorder everywhere, and their influence was very strong. The poor Chechen people were already suffering so much, and our young guys simply couldn’t think. They were ready to accept any ideas.”
Burma’s Rohingya Ghettos Broke My Heart
Sittwe, the capital of Burma’s restive Rakhine state, is a town divided. Or, put more accurately, segregated, thanks to the majority Buddhist Rakhine people developing a passion for beating, raping, murdering, and setting fire to members of the local Muslim Rohingya minority. As it stands, the Rohingya have been ghettoized into a series of internally displaced-person (IDP) camps just outside of Sittwe.
Things have been this way since last June, when the region witnessed a massive outbreak of sectarian violence following the alleged rape and murder of a Rakhine woman and a revenge attack that killed ten Muslims. From there, things escalated dramatically. Countless houses have been razed, and large numbers from both communities displaced. However, only the Rohingya suffered from systematic persecution by government security forces—again, involving rape and murder—in the aftermath. Further violence elsewhere in the state during October pushed the total number of IDPs over the 100,000 mark, almost all of them from the Rohingya community.
Such persecution for the Muslim minority is nothing new—they have been subjected to marginalization and violence within Burma for decades, mostly at the hands of the former ruling junta. Almost all have been effectively stateless since a citizenship law was passed in 1982, which effectively classified the group as foreigners, despite their presence in the country for centuries. Many NGOs have characterized the law and its consequences as part of a long-standing campaign to pressure the Rohingya into leaving Burma.
The situation for the minority, described by the UN as one of the world’s most vulnerable, is undeniably rough. Yet not everyone sees them as victims. During a visit to one of Sittwe’s many Buddhist monasteries, a resident cenobitic monk told me, “All the problems here are the fault of the kalar." (Kalar being a racist term for the Rohingya). “They want to take over all of Rakhine state,” he insisted. They were “terrorists” and the Rakhine people could not be made to live with them or violence would break out once again, he asserted.
A day later, visiting the Rohingya IDP camps, I had the opportunity to gain a very different perspective. I sat in on an art-therapy session hosted by a visiting humanitarian volunteer, in which children were encouraged to draw their memories of last year’s violence using colored pens and paper. Many of their drawings depicted members of the Burmese government’s Hlun Tin paramilitary outfit shooting at people outside of burning homes. One child, explaining what she drew in a particularly affecting piece, mentioned calmly that she had seen the severed head of a mentally disabled boy she once knew lying by the bank of a river. Another said that she saw a Rakhine man smash a woman’s skull in until some of her brains spilled out.