The niqab has no place
in mainstream Muslim thought
BY MONA ELTAHAWY
The niqab, or the face veil, terrifies me. I am a
Muslim woman for whom the niqab says very little about religion but
a whole lot about the erasure of a woman’s identity, her very existence as
a human being in any society.
I am the first to admit that my views on the niqab
are thoroughly grounded as much in my own very personal struggles with the
hijab, which I wore for nine years, as they are more generally with the
obsessive focus on how Muslim women dress – an obsession shared by Muslims
and non-Muslims alike.
An argument I had years ago – while I still wore hijab –
on the Cairo subway with a woman who wore niqab helped seal for
good my refusal to defend the niqab.
The woman, dressed in black from head to toe, began by
asking me why I did not wear the niqab. I pointed to my headscarf
and asked her, "Is this not enough?"
I will never forget her answer.
"If you wanted a piece of candy, would you choose an unwrapped piece or
one that came in a wrapper?" she asked.
"I am not candy," I answered. "Women are not candy."
I have since heard arguments made for the niqab in
which the woman is portrayed as a diamond ring or a precious stone and
other such objects that need to be hidden as a way of proving their
And so to this day I unequivocally refuse to defend the
niqab, regardless of who is making the argument for or against it.
That is especially true in the wake of British House of Commons leader,
Jack Straw’s comments that the niqab prevents communication. He is
absolutely right. It prevents a reading of the face and its expressions,
vital ingredients in human communication.
While some have grasped Straw’s comment as but the latest
onslaught against Muslims, others have wisely tried to make the most of
the door that Straw kicked down by daring to broach the subject. Just
because some British Muslim women wear niqab it does not become
incumbent on every Muslim everywhere to defend the niqab, over
which there is no Muslim consensus.
Witness a parallel controversy that erupted in Egypt soon
after Straw ignited his firestorm. The dean of Helwan University, south of
Cairo, issued an ultimatum warning students they would not be able to stay
at college dorms unless they removed their niqab. The dean based
his decision on security grounds, saying that men disguised as women in
niqab could slip into the female dorms.
In the midst of Egypt’s niqab controversy, Soad
Saleh, a professor of Islamic law and former dean of the women’s faculty
of Islamic studies at Al-Azhar University, Egypt, said that the face
covering had nothing to do with Islam.
"I don’t agree that the veil should be compulsory and I
don’t like it," Saleh told Agence France Press. She said she wants to
"purge Islam of false concepts: the Koran does not say women have to cover
their faces, it’s an old Bedouin tradition." Amnah Nousir, a professor of
Islamic philosophy, told the Dubai-based Gulf News that "The
niqab was common in the Arabian peninsula centuries before Islam and
was not imposed by this religion."
"The face is one’s mirror. So why should the woman hide
herself behind this black veil?" she told Gulf News.
Gamal el-Banna, a liberal Muslim thinker, said recently, "the niqab
is an insult and he who calls for it is backward."
More or less Muslim
Needless to say, Islamists, mostly in the form of the
Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, lambasted Saleh and the others who have
spoken out against the niqab. But that was to be expected. What was
unusual was to hear Saleh and Banna, who is much more liberal, agree that
the niqab has nothing to do with Islam.
It is important to hear Muslim women and men take a stand
against the niqab so that it doesn’t join the ever growing list of
identity politics issues that is waved in the face of Muslims everywhere
as a sort of litmus test. If we don’t check our agreement to every box on
the list we are somehow less authentic or less Muslim.
Such a list is both dangerous and disingenuous because
those writing its contents are usually the most conservative in the Muslim
If we are not offended by the Danish cartoons of Prophet
Muhammad, if we are not enraged at the pope’s comments on Islam and
violence, if we are not up in arms over Jack Straw’s niqab
statement then we’re portrayed as, at best, Muslims who don’t care enough
or, at worst, sell-outs and self-hating Muslims. And it is even worse when
non-Muslims make such accusations, which at their core basically imply
that they acknowledge only one kind of Muslim.
While it is true that the furore over Straw’s comments can
be seen as the latest tortuous twist in the unravelling of what for years
has been an unhealthy understanding of multiculturalism in Britain, it is
also simply a case that the former British foreign secretary made a
legitimate point and there is no getting around it.
That the niqab is even an issue in the UK or Europe
is quite astounding for this Egyptian Muslim woman who grew up with
stories about feminist leader, Hoda Sharawi, who upon returning to Egypt
from a women’s conference in Rome in 1923 famously removed her face veil
on a Cairo train station platform.
To see a woman wearing niqab on the streets of
Copenhagen, as I did just a few weeks ago, and to read about the case of
the British Muslim teacher, Aisha Azmi, who insists that her face veil
does not hinder her ability to teach, is to shudder at how little progress
has been made in the more than 90 years since Sharawi so bravely broke
with her country’s tradition at the time and refused to cover her face any
That more than 90 years later the niqab is still
with us and has migrated to the West is a sad indictment of how far the
issue of Muslim women’s rights has regressed and an even sadder reminder
of how Muslim women’s bodies have become just another battlefield for
those determined to slug out the clash of civilisations.
Azmi was recently awarded £1,000 for being victimised by
officials who told her to remove her full-face veil while teaching. But
her more serious claims – of religious discrimination and harassment –
were rejected by an employment tribunal.
It is incredible that her case came to this. Azmi taught
11-year-olds learning English as a second language. The school suspended
her in November 2005 after she refused to remove her veil at work, telling
her that students found it hard to understand her during lessons and that
face to face communication was essential for her job. And, of course, the
school was right on both counts.
That was exactly Straw’s point and that was why he said he
would ask women who wore niqab to remove it before they met with
him in his office.
Azmi said she was willing to remove her veil in front of
children or other female teachers but not in front of men. But as Reuters
reported, she insisted at a news conference that "the veil doesn’t cause a
barrier" between teacher and student.
History in reverse
It is particularly difficult for those of us who are used
to fighting Islamists in the Muslim world to find ourselves fighting them
over the same issues in the West. The Islamist championing of the niqab
and the way it has been used as a literal ‘in-your-face’ way of separating
a Muslim woman from the West – by some Muslims who themselves live in the
West – is the complete antithesis of the attitudes towards the West that
existed during the Egyptian Hoda Sharawi’s time.
In early 20th century Egypt, delegations were sent to
Europe to learn and bring home to Egypt the modern intellectual tools the
country needed to industrialise and develop. The West, back then, was not
And so it is sadly ironic that Islamists are now engaged
in a reverse kind of export by bringing to the West ideas and practices
that are vigorously challenged in the East as both Soad Saleh and Gamal
el-Banna have shown above.
For those of us who criss-cross the West and East, our
best line of defence against Islamist thinking is to offer our personal
experiences with niqab, hijab and other issues that Muslims are
assumed and expected to agree on.
I first put on the hijab at the age of 16, a year after my
family moved from the UK to Saudi Arabia. I chose to wear it, thinking
that I was fulfilling a religious obligation required of Muslim women. But
in reading the work of various Muslim scholars, particularly female
writers such as the Moroccan sociologist, Fatima Mernissi, and Egyptian
American Harvard University scholar, Leila Ahmed, I learnt that the verses
in the Koran that are most often used to call for the hijab have been
I have also learnt to stop arguing about the hijab. It is
a waste of time and energy and distracts from the much greater issues that
most Muslim women are concerned with, particularly in the developing world
where poverty, illiteracy and the near impossibility of filing for divorce
are often much higher on the list of worries.
Not god, but tradition
The only opinion I offer on hijab is to defend a woman’s
choice – either to wear it or not. But even that is not as simple a
position as it once was. Where a woman lives when she wears the hijab, for
example, imposes a different set of issues for consideration. The hijab in
Turkey, where girls and women cannot cover their hair in government
schools or buildings, is very different than the hijab in the UK where
some schools with a high percentage of Muslim students have incorporated
the hijab as part of the school uniform.
My rejection of the niqab however remains absolute,
regardless of geography. My years in Saudi Arabia taught me that niqab
in that country is a marriage of Saudi Arabia’s particular interpretation
of Islam and its tribal traditions.
The niqab has no place in mainstream Muslim
thought. As Muslims in the West we must resist joining those Islamists who
insist on giving it a place in European capitals where hard won women’s
rights took decades to establish and enshrine. We must not allow Islamists
to so easily erase Muslim women out of existence. n
(Mona Eltahawy is a New York-based journalist and
commentator. Her website is