Ask Me Anything: Conversations on Niqab

The new CBC weeknight show Connect with Mark Kelley recently aired a segment on niqab as part of its “Ask Me Anything” series, in which members of the public are given the chance to ask questions about the experiences and perspectives of a designated person.  Previous “Ask Me Anything” conversations have included a nurse who had swine flu and a Canadian soldier who recently returned from Afghanistan.

Last Thursday’s segment featured Rabia Khan, a university student and part-time teacher, and the theme of the show was her decision to wear niqab (covering her face), which she has worn for the past three years.  Khan was seated at a table in the middle of a busy shopping mall, across from an empty chair, where people could sit and ask her whatever they wanted about the niqab.  The five-minute clip, showing snippets from a few of the conversations that she had, is available here.

My first reaction was to feel really nervous for Khan.  Although she appears clearly comfortable and enthusiastic with the project, I was worried about what she was being set up for.  What kinds of things were people going to say to her, given that they had free reign to ask her “anything”?  The edited segment that was aired doesn’t show any overt hostility, although it’s hard to know what kinds of things may have been asked and then edited out.  It’s certainly far from a safe space, and I’m not sure exactly how fair it is to put someone (who’s already in a minority position) in such a vulnerable context. However, Khan at least seemed aware of what she was getting herself into.

As it was, Khan and the questioners shown in the clip all show a genuine willingness to have a conversation in a friendly way, even despite disagreements. Khan is friendly and personable, and the questioners also seem friendly.  Considering the way that the media can sometimes build up the niqab as fundamentally antithetical to any other Canadian experience, it was refreshing to see people move beyond these polarizations and actually having a genuine discussion.

Khan spoke to a number of fellow Canadians: she explains to an older couple that she covers for her own protection, and for the protection of others.  She explains that she loves wearing it.  She also tells them that when she started university four years ago, she found herself with “too much independence for [her] own good,” and “wanted to keep [her]self intact with God, and to commit to [her] religion.”  It would have been interesting to see further questions about to what degree the niqab affords her the protection she wants, or about other possibilities for maintaining a relationship with God in the face of newfound independence; however, it was also a very short clip, and the issue in question was Khan’s own experience, in which she clearly feels that the niqab has had a positive impact.

Later, another woman asks Khan if she is married (she is), and if her husband is Muslim.  Khan responds that “Muslim women only marry Muslim men,” a response that bothered me, because it sounds like a descriptive statement – does that mean that the Muslim women who marry non-Muslim men are no longer Muslim?  She later clarifies that “in Islam you’re not allowed to marry outside [the religion],” which is definitely the mainstream position on the issue (and not a debate we’ll have here), and I’m guessing that’s what she meant in her original statement, but her initial response sounded uncomfortably exclusive.  Interestingly, the woman asking her the question called her on it, by referring to a Muslim woman she knew who had married a Jewish man, showing that not all Muslim women marry Muslim men (again, whether or not they should is a different discussion.)

The same woman told Khan that she was born in Toronto to parents who came to Canada in the 1920s because of their family’s persecution in Europe.  The woman spoke about how happy she was to be living in Canada, where there is “freedom” and “democracy” (her tone was especially emphatic on those two words).  She related her experience of growing up, where her family had to change their names to fit into Canadian society, and that now “it’s nice to see that you (Khan) can dress the way you want, and carry out your religious beliefs the way you want.”  I found this to be one of the most interesting parts of the whole clip; instead of the usual “you’re in a free country, so take off that veil” tropes we hear so often, the woman asking the questions was glad that Canadian society created a climate where Khan could wear what she wanted, even if the vast majority of Canadians don’t wear the same thing.

But the end of that particular conversation changed the tone entirely.  As the woman was leaving, she told Khan, “Once again, you’re very lucky (to live in a country where she can dress as she wants).  Don’t abuse it!”  Although she spoke the words cheerfully, almost jokingly, it almost felt that there was some kind of underlying threat, and a clear sign that she did not fully trust Khan.  Niqabs will be tolerated, but only ever with suspicion (and with the power to revoke such tolerance at any time.)  Nothing that Khan said at any point in the clip suggested in any way that she would be “abusing” her right to dress and practice her religion as she pleases, and I find it hard to believe that any of what was cut out of the interview would change this fact.  The woman’s celebration of Canadian society as open to diverse manifestations of religious expression still leaves space for “bad” religious expressions to be questioned and held as suspect, and therefore never seen as fully part of the imagined national identity.

In some ways, the entire show was framed in that context: in his introduction, Kelley talks about niqab being seen as un-Canadian, and immediately afterwards says that “we gave you the chance to ask [Khan] whatever you want.”  In such proximity to the discussion about whether the niqab is inherently un-Canadian, Kelley designates “you” (the audience) as judges of this Canadian-ness, and suggests that this “you” does not include people who themselves wear niqab.*

My biggest worry about the show is that it might imply that all women in niqab should be called on to answer questions, to open up about personal decision to random strangers in a mall, or to justify wearing it to outside communities.  The onus shouldn’t be on women in niqab (or on women in hijab, or on Muslims in general, etc.) to justify themselves to anyone or to prove that they are not oppressed (or scary, or terrorists, and so on.)  After all, how do you prove something like that, aside from just going about your non-oppressed, non-scary life, which apparently isn’t convincing enough for everyone?

Having said that, Khan’s openness to discussing her own personal experiences and opinions seems to have had a positive impact; I just hope that it doesn’t imply that the responsibility to fight misconceptions and discrimination lies solely within those targeted by the discrimination, rather than within those who hold and perpetuate discriminatory opinions that are often unfounded.

* Kelley’s pronunciation of “niqab” sounds a lot like “kneecap,” which made me giggle.

  • Anne

    The women you mentioned as emphatically telling Khan to not abuse her freedoms within Canada had shared how her family was forced to change their name when they moved there – so as to assimilate I gather. Perhaps the woman felt sometimes we sacrifice a part of our heritage (like her last name) to enjoy the freedoms of our new home – which is likely freer than where we came from.

    I also found the way the clips highlighted she choose to wear niqab after marriage while noticing she had too many freedoms had the undercurrent of the Muslim woman covering for her man and being restricted to limited freedom because of her faith/man- just how I saw it.

  • NiqabiSister

    Asalamu Alaikum

    You were bothered that she said that Muslim women only marry Muslim men? Well perhaps its not always the case, but if the Muslim woman wants to follow her religion correctly it is. I’m not talking about reverts who were married already.

    Only Allah can know who is truly Muslim and who is not, but this kind of blatant disregard for the commands of Allah can’t be a very good sign.

    [This comment has been edited to fit within comment moderation guidelines.]

  • Yasmine Jameson

    I had a question based on your article: I had watched a television show in which the lady who was a Muslim was dating outside of her religion. And her family was not aware that she was dating. Is it such a problem if you do that? What if you are a convert and not yet married? Is that something that she should do? What if she is already dating someone who is not Muslim and not converted- is that a consideration for her prior to converting?

    Also what is more common to see Muslim women wear- the scarf that covers the head and the face (niquab) or just the face? I don’t remember the correct terms.

    If you have time please forward a response.

  • softestbullet

    Nothing that Khan said at any point in the clip suggested in any way that she would be “abusing” her right to dress and practice her religion as she pleases, and I find it hard to believe that any of what was cut out of the interview would change this fact.

    And what would abusing the right to dress as you please even entail??

  • Sobia

    @ Yasmine:

    Although Krista didn’t want this discussed here I will still briefly answer your question (sorry Krista…I’ll try to keep it as non-controversial and short as possible).

    Traditionally the view has been that Muslim women cannot marry outside the religion. And I would say most Muslims interpret the Qur’an in this manner. There is a verse in the Qur’an which many state tells Muslim MEN that they can marry Christian or Jewish women. However, there are Muslims, including scholars, who interpret it a little differently. They say that verse is not addressed to Muslim men only but also Muslim women. In other words making it ok for Muslim women to marry Christians or Jews as well.

    So it has become open to interpretation and I think it’s a choice which interpretation people feel more comfortable with.

    Things in Islam, as in life itself, are rarely as black and white as they appear. There is a whole lot of gray.

  • Sula Lee

    Just found your blog and I LOVE it!!! As a Muslim married to a non-Muslim, I have to say I was at peace with that decision at the time, but it has not been a peaceful relationship…very interesting debate – thank you!!!

  • Anon

    “However, there are Muslims, including scholars, who interpret it a little differently.”

    those ‘scholars’ are very few and are not considered mainstream

  • Zahra (with a Z)

    Great piece! Krista, I especially like the way you parse Mark Kelley’s “you”–the whole question of who is Canadian, and who gets to judge who is Canadian, is central to the whole question of niqab in public discourse (and why it’s a matter of public discourse, anyway).

    I’m a bit amazed that the conversation keeps coming back to the theological question of who Muslim women are supposed to marry, when Krista specifically said this is “not a debate we’ll have here.” I appreciate Sobia’s explanation, which clearly delineates a mainstream and a minority position–but it seems others (like Anon) still feel a need to reiterate this.

    I think the recurrence of this conversation illustrates one of Krista’s points about the “Ask Me Anything” format–that it’s hard to rein in a public conversation once opened, and that putting the niqab up for debate in a public setting might lead to spillover, where other niqabis are expected to deal with intrusive questions. I can’t help but note that the nurse and soldier (unlike Khan) have experiences that aren’t immediately visible when they go to the mall just to shop, and are less tied to identity. They’re also experiences that are presumed to be negative, so I’m not sure if that colors the context of this niqab discussion.

  • Sobia

    Prophet Muhammad wasn’t mainstream either. Being mainstream does not auromaticlly mean right.

  • Krista

    @ Anne: Yeah, I think that woman was referring to the need to assimilate – but to me, it seemed like she was clearly saying that it was a bad thing that they had to change their names. She didn’t feel that she should have had to make that kind of sacrifice, and she seemed glad that Rabia Khan wasn’t feeling that same pressure to give up aspects of her culture/religion that were important to her. I don’t think she was trying to say that that’s a kind of sacrifice that people should have to make.

    There wasn’t much discussion (at least, not in the clip that was shown) about the role of her husband in her decision to wear niqab, if he had any role at all, so I didn’t really pick up the same undertones that you did. At the same time, I think she said at the beginning that she was 24, and she’s been wearing it for 3 years, which means she was 21 (or so) when she put it on – so age might have been a factor too in the timing of when she decided she wanted to, or was ready to, wear it.

    @ Yasmine: Different people would give different advice in the situation of a woman who’s considering becoming Muslim, while at the same time dating a non-Muslim. It’s not really my place to say what’s right or wrong there, but I think that kind of situation is definitely a complex and challenging one, and reflects one of the areas where people coming into Islam may struggle. As for the question about what Muslim women wear, a lot of Muslim women don’t cover their head at all, a lot of Muslim women cover their head in various ways, and the women who also cover their face are a pretty small minority, globally speaking (although there are specific areas of the world where most women cover their face.)

    @ softestbullet: Good question. I have no idea!

    @ Zahra: Very interesting thoughts on how this interview contrasts with the other “Ask Me Anything” segments with the nurse and the soldier – thanks for sharing those!

    @ Everyone:
    This is that last that I’ll say about the issue of Muslim women marrying non-Muslims. As I mentioned above, my problem was NOT with Khan’s belief that Muslim women *should* only marry Muslim men, which, as has been pointed out by nearly everybody, is the mainstream/traditional perspective on the issue. My problem was with the way that she just dismissed the question by saying that ALL Muslim women only marry Muslim men, which, as a *descriptive* statement, is problematic and exclusive because it ignores the realities of a lot of Muslim women (which exist, even if you think that their relationships are wrong and/or unIslamic.)

    Having said that, a look back at my original post shows it to be exclusive as well, implying that the only alternative to Muslim women marrying Muslim men is “Muslim women who marry non-Muslim men,” which also ignores Muslim women who don’t marry, or who don’t marry men. Again, this is NOT the place to talk about the right or wrong of any of this, but it also shouldn’t be the place to push anyone outside of the category of “Muslim women,” and I apologise for my original wording.

  • Rochelle

    Excellent response, Krista, on the marriage issue.