Last Say on Niqab Should be From a Woman Who Wears It. Obviously.

I took the a brief moment from work to watch a 12-minute segment on BBC’s Newsnight about why British women choose to wear the niqab and why more women are wearing it in unprecedented numbers. Like any Muslim feminist, I hung onto every word and hoped nobody said something that has already been said before, ad nauseam: “Muslim women who cover their faces are deluded and oppressed.”

But tonight was a little different: it was a program that provided the panacea to what I’ve been railing against since the talks about the French burqa ban exploded in the media. Finally, a whole segment—a brief but precious 152 minutes—on prime time British television was dedicated to only women in hijab and niqab talking about their sartorial choices and views about their British identity. No self-righteous, media-hogging commentators or “experts” were in sight. This was a rare occasion!

Women in niqab have appeared on British television numerous times, but usually in a situation where they are embroiled in a heated debate surrounded by detractors who were often white and male, or Muslim liberals who have little patience for other Muslims who do not fit some absurd model minority mould (Taj Hargey and Yasmin Alibhai Brown, I’m talking to you). Tonight’s program featured three British women, three out of four in niqab, and no one else talking over their heads.

The segment was, however, structured to be a story with two halves. On one side of the debate, three young British women, Rumaysa, Sara, and Ruman, chose to veil their faces, and on the other, one woman, Khola, who had previously done so but currently wears the headscarf. She is against the niqab.

They spoke about their concern for their safety in public spaces, an issue that grabs my heart, even as a hijab-less woman. Any kind of harassment against women—be it sexist, racist, or Islamophobic—is an attack on all women. But the main reason these women were on television is to explain the growing trend of British-born women who take up the niqab.

Debates about Muslim women’s hijab have been rejuvenated following proposals for new British laws to mimic those in France and Belgium. Similar re-assessments about identity and citizenship seem to fuel debates behind the ban, and I was pleased that the women on Newsnight went straight for the jugular of the issue, asserting their British-ness and even their Western-ness.

It shouldn’t be a big deal, calling yourself British or Western. You can have a passport to prove it. But identity can be a tricky beast. It’s tricky when you’re surrounded by people who want to define you and deny your selfhood. Identity is so precious, especially for people in power, who want sole control in determining who’s “in” and who’s “out,” using the language of identity, values, rights, and citizenship, as if they own it.

This has boiled down to whether the niqab (or hijab) is part of British identity and in line with British values. The answer to this should be left to open-ended interpretation, and something a person should be free and confident to define for herself. The women make it a point to say that their mothers do not cover their faces, and that the break with their parent’s generation and religious expectations is part of their process of carving out a uniquely British identity.

Behind the “why” in the question why women choose to cover their faces is a direction towards a potentially productive conversation about gender and clothing. If the non-Muslim British society at large can understand why certain women need to conceal their hair, face, and other parts of their body, then maybe certain irrational, racist, Islamophobic fears can finally be laid to rest.

But to argue that women’s choices in clothes are no one’s business but the wearer’s is to deny the position of society in helping a woman make that choice. Rumaysa, one of the women on the program, argues that by covering her face, her voice becomes the defining element of her identity. But more importantly, it helps her achieve a higher level of spirituality.

Her arguments make perfect sense, but I then wondered why these avenues for spirituality and identity are for women only. Men do not retreat from the world on a daily basis in a niqab or insist on being defined by his voice, thoughts, and ideas rather than the way he looks. These questions will be met with a variety of responses, most I figure will say I’m being a ridiculous, but such responses will certainly point towards the way society works and how that is implicated in why men do not wear the niqab.

By the end of the program, I felt happy that the attention concerning the niqab is taken away from right- and left-wing pundits for once, but I can only be sure that this is only momentarily. Before long they will make noise again, wondering aloud why women should cover their faces.

  • Dina

    “Her arguments make perfect sense, but I then wondered why these avenues for spirituality and identity are for women only. Men do not retreat from the world on a daily basis in a niqab or insist on being defined by his voice, thoughts, and ideas rather than the way he looks.”

    Exactly the root of the issue with niqab. A gender-specific requirement for protection, exclusivity for the male relatives, and spirituality all at the same time in a deeply patriarchal society, which the Arab pre-Islamic society was, and the Islamic society remained (patriarchy defined by male supremacy in decision-making and governance over women, which is obvious in Islam both in the marital relationship and in the Islamic state).
    If human beings, male and female, are raised to believe a woman’s hair, skin, face automatically cause her to be perceived not as a person, but as an object, this dress requirement creates and upholds much of the objectification it claims to denounce.
    And contrary to you, I do not believe the final voice on a dress code which is problematic for the stated reasons from a gender equality perspective should be women who wear it. The fina voice has to equally belong to women who resist objectification of women, also through hijab and niqab. It is a matter that concerns all women, as you said well. So it is fundamentally wrong to give the final say exclusively to those succumbing to patriarchal rules IMO. It is their choice to do so, granted, like all choices women can make f.e. in the family sphere. In the end, he effect will be felt by all women, though. I also do not believe men should be excluded from having a say, either. After all, if objectification of half of society persists and even aggravates, they feel repercussions as well as sons, husbands, fathers etc. Gender equality is a human issue, and adverse social phenomena for women affect all human beings including men and children.

  • Kathy

    One might argue that women’s perceived need to wear the niqab for safety has nothing at all to do with Islam, and everything to do with Patriarchy and women-as-sex-objects in the west. Frankly I think that’s way more responsible and damaging to people than hijab as a requirement of faith.

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  • Lara A

    Salaam Alaikum,

    It was a good piece. My only complaint is that the three women wearing niqab were shot in what seemed like an obviously gloomy studio, as is to make their dress choices more stark.

    For niqab wearing itself, for me, like the Run DMC song, it’s Tricky, tricky, tricky. I certainly don’t believe it should ever be banned, but I do worry about some (emphasis on some) of the reasoning behind the wearing of it and the increase in those wearing it.

    Do I believe women should be allowed to dress as they wish? Certainly. Do I believe that women are a fitnah, to be hidden away from society? Definitely not, and I find such views destructive and oppressive. Therein lies the difficulty.

  • Arwa


    “So it is fundamentally wrong to give the final say exclusively to those succumbing to patriarchal rules IMO.”

    Should we have some say in how women who dress just to please the male eye live their life? Should we tell women who dress “too provocatively” that they’re just playing by patriarchy’s rules? That’s what it boils down to isnt it? That a woman who dresses “conservatively” to remove her sexuality/body from a sexist society is reaffirming the fact that she’s something to-be-looked-at, and a woman who dresses “too sexy” is also reaffirming the fact that she’s something to-be-looked-at.

    Let women choose how they want to define themselves. And if you think they’re playing by patriarchy’s rules…that’s your problem. We each define patriarchy for ourselves and we each decide how to react to it.

  • Maria P.

    I agree that women who just conform to patriarchal dress codes need to be objects of concern and legislation. That’s why, when I carry out my long-awaited coup, traditionally feminine garb like rear-hugging hot pants, tube tops and heels will be banned. Liberation will come by adopting my style — sensible shoes, black t-shirts and men’s trousers. No makeup or fancy hair either. I’ll need to consult with my inner circle about whether or not we’ll allow the degrading tradition of marriage as a consolation prize to all the ladies who can’t risk alienation from their families. See, we’ll still have some freedoms in my glorious democracy!

    In all honesty, I do dress like that and I raise my eyebrows at frippery, but you know what? I find the idea of bans or official censure to be repugnant. As should everybody. That’s one principle I /will/ impose.

    For crying out loud. How many times do folks like Arwa and I have to use this analogy? (The answer, my friends, is blowin’ in the wind…)

  • Alicia

    Thanks for very intricately constructed and insightful comments.

    The difficulty with commenting on this issue is that we often envision another reality where women shouldn’t be dictated by the way they look, but this is a feminist utopia that we cannot possibly achieve by tackling only what women wear in public.

    What I really meant by the phrase “last say on the niqab” is a woman’s choice to wear the niqab should be respected. If someone else had the last say, then that someone technically has the right to decide whether the niqab stays or not.

    Now, I have to be honest with every feminist in the room here, I’m rarely satisfied with this concept of “choice”. As in choice full stop.

    I think too often we hear “It’s MY choice. It’s feminist because I’M making a choice. It empowers ME”. Sometimes there’s too many ME ME and well, ME. Women who choose to wear the niqab (again, all respect to them) should also think about how their choices are affecting other women (and indeed men). Will their self-empowering choices be good for women in general? These are issues that have kept me awake at night (well, some nights).

  • Emma

    I thought the three veiled women explained why they had made their choice very well. They came across as decent and well-balanced and proud of their religion and also their nationality. It is heart-warming to them hear describe how they overcame their families concerns and how it has helped them with their lives.