Clothing and society: Encounters with the niqab

Personal, yet public

She came to interview for an internship. We had spoken earlier on the phone, a benign exchange of niceties and logistics that had belied anything unusual. Now she sat before me, blue eyes peering at me through her beige niqab. Her name was Christy, she was from Ohio and she had converted to Islam two months ago at a local mosque. I began to conduct the interview, going down my list of queries about her experience, organizational skills, etc. As she answered, in my head I battled the questions I really wanted to ask.

Why was she continuing to be veiled when she and I, both women, were the only people in a closed office? Should I tell her it was not necessary among women or would that be condescending — an unnecessary judgment on her lack of niqab etiquette as a convert? Perhaps she thought a man might burst in on us at any moment, and it was necessary to be appropriately vigilant.

None of these questions, of course, could be raised. After the due discussion on her grant-writing skills, punctual habits and filing prowess, we ended the interview. On her way out, she handed me a brochure of information about her online business selling niqabs on eBay.

A few weeks ago, I was walking out of a subway station with two colleagues, white American and non-Muslim. As we clambered onto the escalator that would deliver us up to the street, a woman climbed on to the adjoining escalator. A tall column in black, a mere slit exposing dark eyes that were focused intently on us, the bold stare that only the masked can manage. We were going up, she was coming down. Behind her, a middle-aged woman wearing a bright orange dress and pink tights also climbed on to the escalator. In front of her, a mother balanced her toddler’s folded-up stroller and a bagful of groceries.

When we emerged from the station I faced some expectant looks. Muslims living in western countries will recognize these expressions: politely apprehensive glances that look to you for an appropriate response to the spectre witnessed. “I respect her right to wear the niqab,” I blurted out. My friends nodded and we dispersed to our various destinations, taking with us our secret judgments.

What I said to them that day is true. I oppose the ban on niqab instituted by the French government this week past. A complete ban on face veils and the imposition of penalties on women who wear it is undoubtedly an abridgment of their freedom of expression and their right to practice their religion.

I also share the view of analysts who see the French parliament’s actions as a ploy to deflect attention away from the unemployment and discrimination faced by French Muslims. If there are French Muslim women who wish to wear a full-face veil to visibly assert their religious identity, they should have the freedom to do so.

But both of the encounters I describe took place in the US which, while struggling with its own scourge of Islamophobia, does not face any imminent movements that seek to ban the full-face veil. Both women, Christy and the anonymous lady of the subway, are free in their choice of garb and should remain so. It is also important, however, to discuss the cost they impose on all Muslim Americans by their choice.

In the tumultuous years since 9/11, the Muslim American community has been struggling to paint Islam as a mainstream faith, pluralistic and ordinary rather than cultish and secret. Their efforts are stymied by the presence of a vociferous and vitriolic religious right whose leaders repeatedly highlight the most egregious human rights violations taking place in Muslim countries as examples of ‘real’ Islam — the stoning of women and public beheading as core precepts.

In an ideal world, the machinations of hatred and propaganda would not impact anyone’s choices and the gleeful delight of Islamophobes would not be a consideration in whether or not the niqab should be worn. In that world, everyone would appreciate that Islam is a pluralistic religion and includes a variety of practices variously believed as being optional or obligatory.

In the unhappily real world of Muslim Americans, however, where schoolchildren get called terrorists at recess and men are chucked off planes to allay the anxieties of other passengers, the larger good of the community deserves some thought.

In this grim actuality, decisions must be made as to which practices must be lauded and which marginalised; whether championing niqabs undermines the goal of making Islam less sinister and more understood. Women who choose to wear the niqab, an expression of their commitment to Islam, must wrestle with this thorny ethical question prior to exercising their undeniable rights. Duties and rights must be evaluated on the scales of ethical responsibilities to one’s community.

There are many subcultures in the US: men are free to dress as women, teenagers can cover their entire bodies with tattoos and piercings, there are groups who camp out in trees to ‘save’ them from developers, others that worship crystals and chase aliens. Their beliefs and practices are not commonplace or mainstream. They are aberrations from the norm that are nevertheless allowed to exist.

Whether right or wrong, fully veiled Muslim women are added to their ranks at the ‘very weird’ end of the spectrum of mainstream behaviour, tolerated but also bizarre — their forbidding garb unintentionally casting Islam as a subculture imbued with secret, sordid practices.

I saw Christy, my would-be intern, a few months later at an ice cream store. For obvious reasons, I did not recognize her, but she chirpily accosted me and reminded me of our meeting. She was dressed in jeans and a long sleeved T-shirt, and her blue eyes now joined a previously hidden face. We did not talk long; she told me she was working at a local non-profit. Her niqab phase was obviously over, replaced possibly with a less rigid and more nuanced understanding of Islam.

Rafia Zakaria is Associate Editor of altmuslim.com and an attorney who teaches constitutional history and political philosophy. This article originally appeared in Dawn.