There is a lot of debate among Muslims as to whether or not it is required for a Muslim woman to cover her face and hands in addition to the rest of her body when appearing in public or in front of non-Mahram men (i.e. a man who is not a close-relative, to whom marriage is allowed). The purpose of this article is not to fall on either side of that debate, but to urge all Muslims to show respect for sisters who have chosen to wear either the Khimaar (head-cover which covers the hair, ears, neck and chest properly) or the Niqaab (face-veil.)
Some Muslims give these sisters a hard time, saying that they are doing above and beyond what has been commanded by Allah (subhaanahu wa ta'aala), and that the "extreme" appearance of these fully-veiled women projects a bad image to the non-Muslims who already view the Muslim woman as being weak and oppressed. They argue that such individuals, upon seeing fully-veiled Muslim women, will be "turned off" by Islaam, and that we may lose potential Muslim reverts, or/and even the understanding and sympathy of the non-Muslim community.
Think about it carefully: would we ever think of criticizing a Muslim who fasts extra days outside of Ramadhaan? Do we belittle the Muslim whose prayers exceed the prescribed daily five? Are we upset when Muslims give more Zakaat (annual obligatory charity) than required by Islamic Law? Of course not. We admire such people for their apparent dedication to Allah ('azza wa jall), just as we should admire Muslim women who cover their faces for the same reason. Whether they veil because they take the so-called "most-conservative" viewpoint that covering the face is a requirement of Islamic Law, or because they simply believe that they will earn extra reward from our Lord and Creator for doing something more. Praise be to Allah, veiled women are engaged in an act which is modest and permissible, and that is the bottom line.
As for the question of non-Muslims being "turned off" by Islaam upon seeing fully-veiled Muslim women, Muslims should not waste time and energy worrying about such matters. To the contrary, some non-Muslims are not critical of the face-veil at all and are so intrigued by it that they actually become interested in Islaam as a direct result of seeing fully covered Muslim women.
One non-Muslim woman wrote about her impressions of the face-veil in our local newspaper after crossing paths with a veiled woman on a busy city street. The writer was struck by the confidence with which the Muslim woman walked, seeing all that was around her, but not being seen by others, secure in the knowledge that no man could make a lewd comment to her about her shapeless body and invisible face. She confessed a twinge of jealousy as she contemplated her own short skirt and tight blouse, realizing in a split second that, no matter how much she tried to convince herself otherwise, society's men were probably not judging her solely for her intellectual and professional capabilities. She now felt embarrassed in front of the Muslim woman who must've, she imagined, felt somewhat sorry for a "liberated" western woman like herself who could not even make it from one end of the street to the other without fear of harassment.
Contrast this powerful piece of writing to an article authored by a Muslim woman in another newspaper. In it, the woman practically begged non-Muslims not to judge Islaam by the face-veil, which, she claimed, is a mere cultural tradition having nothing to do with Islaam. This article served to divide local Muslims into two camps, understandably upsetting veiled women and their families. Even if one wanted to take the "least-least conservative" point of view and say that the veil is nothing more than a cultural tradition, it should not be forgotten that such a tradition has sprung forth from a culture of Muslims who are seeking the reward and pleasure of Allah, Most High. We should, in fact, respect the sisters who, in spite of the intense scrutiny placed upon them by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, continue to veil, refusing to abandon an islamically permissible garment which provides them (and the community as a whole) with extra doses of security, honour and pride.
Islam is a light that Allah ('azza wa jall) puts into one's heart, and He will undoubtedly help those sincere individuals who are seeking the Straight Path to get there one way or another. It really has nothing to do with what people "think about Islam". One of the best things we can do as Muslims is to behave well, dealing with people kindly and fairly, remembering that it is ultimately up to the will of Allah (subhaanahu wa ta'aala) if a particular individual is to become a Muslim or not. We should never think that we have to change the good things about ourselves in order to attract new converts to Islaam. This strategy is not only demoralizing to one's faith, but it also does not work.
In conclusion, I would like to note that I do not wear the face-veil myself but have enormous respect for the women who cover their faces. I was prompted to write this article after hearing from many of my fully-veiled sisters in faith that some of the harshest criticisms they receive are from within the Muslim community itself and not from non-Muslims as they had anticipated before adopting the veil. I really think that all Muslims should realize how much courage and confidence it takes to veil one's self in the modern-day world and that we should be their best supporters in the struggle for the Muslim woman's right to veil.