November 2006 
Year 13    No.120


Veiled threat


The niqab has no place in mainstream Muslim thought


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."

Who’s talking?

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 "worth".

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 community.

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.

Bodily battlefields

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 more.

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 the enemy.

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 interpreted differently.

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





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