A Muslim woman wearing a niqab in London. (Photo via)
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-Muslims castigating 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. She didn't want to be photographed.
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.
Soumaya Bezgrari, 34, full-time mum from Camberwell, London.
Do you feel safe wearing the niqab?
Soumaya Bezgrari: I do get a lot of name-calling. It's only in East London that I feel safe. But I feel things are going to get worse – the situation will get heated. I definitely think more women are wearing the Niqab these days. I think it’s because Muslims are becoming more religious.
How long have you been wearing the niqab?
For six to seven years. I was born and raised and educated here, with a university degree.
What do you think of the argument that it's oppressive?
It was my choice to wear the niqab. It’s not because my husband makes me do it – not at all. I don't mind people asking me, "Why do you wear that veil?" But people don't.
Why do you wear it?
The niqab protects me – I don't get the builders whistling at me or looking at me inappropriately. With the niqab, they can't harass you. They might shout verbal comments, but I deal with it. There are thousands who wear the niqab – are you telling me all of them have been oppressed into wearing it by their husbands?
Tajminah, 20, is a receptionist and administrator at the East London Mosque, East London. Again, she didn't want to be photographed.
Have you received any abuse for wearing the niqab on the street?
The first day I wore it, we went to Goodmayes in Essex, which is a majority white area. There were these white men – I’d say around 20 years old – and they flipped their middle fingers at us, just shouting and swearing.
Why do you think they did that?
I think the main argument people use is that we haven’t tried and don’t try to integrate, but I still live my life as a member of society.
What do you think of the argument that the niqab is oppressive?
Most of the time, the misconception is that your husband forces you to wear it – or male relatives, like your dad and brothers, etc – but I'm not married and I don’t have any brothers in my family. I’m from a family of sisters and my parents are divorced, so my dad doesn’t really have much of an influence in my life. I’m the youngest in my family and the only one who wears a niqab. I chose the niqab for myself.
When did you start wearing it?
I started wearing it last year during Ramadan. I always wanted to wear it. I always hesitated to wear it and I used to ask my friend who wears it how it feels. I didn’t go into it blindly.
Do people often stray away from wearing it, or do most people stick with it, do you know?
I think stories of people getting attacked may put people off wearing it. After the Woolwich attack, one of my friends got attacked by a white man. She was on her way to college and the man ripped off her niqab and started terrorising her outside her house. That is scary for young niqabis. In this society, you’re allowed to practice your faith freely, so why should our religious right be taken away?
More about Muslim modesty: