The Veil (Hijab) and the Face-Veil (Niqab/Nikab)

gate-and-cloudsLondon, 1984: A dark, triangular figure emerged from the door of a limousine parked directly in front of Harrods' Department Store. It was the body of a woman, covered from crown to ankles in the darkest of garments, so black that it stood stark against the overcast horizon. When she turned, I saw no face. Instead, a slit in a black gauze cloth revealed only a glimpse of brown skin and black eyes rimmed with kohl. As she and two similarly costumed companions moved steadily towards the door, other shoppers moved out of their way.

Snickers, stares, and startled head-turns failed to evoke a reaction from the women as they passed through the halls with the rest of the shoppers, selecting items for purchase, comparing opinions with each other and passing on the same pound notes as everyone else. While all eyes were on them, they looked at no one and soon passed out of the doors in the same deliberate walk, reboarding the limousine that had waited for them. All around people stared, shook their heads or sighed in relief.

I felt angry: at their men for forcing them to dress in such a degrading fashion and at them for accepting to wear it. I was furious that they dared to violate the rules of Western society so blatantly, without the slightest attempt to tone down their attire to suit the norms of English society. It was arrogant and insensitive. If they rejected the West, even in its dress, they never should have left their own countries, I thought and shivered with relief knowing that this could never happen to me.

Boulder, Colorado, USA 1986: Triangular shapes appeared all around me at the University of Colorado. Some wore long cloaks and headscarves, some long black abayas that ran from head to toe. A few covered completely, revealing only eyes that offered no clue as to who was inside. They walked quietly past the stares and comments that followed them everywhere. I watched in silent curiosity.

Although most large university cities have sizeable Muslim populations, Boulder in the 1980s had an especially large group of graduate students from all over the Islamic world. Unlike undergraduates, these students were usually married and brought their often large families with them. Although not all of the wives studied, they could be seen throughout the city in their Islamic dress.

They walked with a modest dignity that suggested that they were something other than the oppressed, subservient slaves to men that everyone said they were. Where I found them in class, their intelligence and confidence shone through. Where I bumped into them on campus, in the library and in stores, they seemed encased in a bubble from another world. No matter what people said out loud about them, they never shrank back or ran off in tears. Something lay beyond the mysterious veil that I could not understand with my American mind. I had to put a foot in through their door to comprehend.

On the first day of a course I took on Islam, the professor warned us that many students found Islam to be irresistible and converted right in class. This frightened but intrigued me. Several other students must have felt the same fear. The class fell to half its number by the next meeting.

The more I learned, the more I realized how ignorant I was about this religion. All I knew, I had learned from books, newspapers and magazines... everything written by non-Muslims. One by one, myths fell apart. Evidence came from the Islamic texts themselves. In our small class, we were able to get to know one another well. Several American students had grown up in the Middle East and wanted reminders of their childhoods. One Arab Muslim man recited Qur'an (Koran) for us and chanted the call to prayer. One American woman was engaged to a Saudi and wanted to know what to expect. I absorbed their admiration for the religion, pleasantly shocked at Islam's simplicity and straightforwardness. White was white, black was black and everyone had a specific place and job in society. In such a permissible society as the U.S., the idea of daily laws to govern even minute actions appealed to me.

It wasn't until Aisha, the professor's research assistant and an American convert to Islam, delivered a talk that I could actually believe that Islam indeed preached a high regard for women. Here was a highly educated woman from Iowa, standing in front of a class covered in her veil. Her clothing concealed her beauty and figure, but revealed her mind and personality. She could draw back or let show exactly as much as she wanted. I realized that the veil was just the opposite of what I had always believed it to be. Rather than oppress and hide, it empowered and gave a woman control, forced others to contend with facets other than her physical appearance.

Aisha explained that real incidents of abuse and horror fuelled the misconceptions about the veil. Muslims did not always practice what Islam prescribed. The veil was meant to liberate, not oppress, but many still used it that way. Some women were forced into the veil; others wore it as a cultural habit with no religious meaning. Some Muslims took it to mean that because men were not religiously required to veil, they had complete control over women. There were Muslims, she explained, who sometimes misunderstood their religion or disregarded its teachings. And then, she said, there was Islam.

Islam was an ideal that had not changed in over 1400 years. Those who practiced it fully--the so-called fundamentalists--were branded medieval and violent. Aisha was neither. She was modern and serene, fully devoted to her religion, no matter what other people may have thought about it.

The Arab Muslim friends I was slowly gathering all demonstrated the same love for their religion, the same certainty that they were in on the truth. Never did they try to force me to convert. They accepted and answered all my questions, often apologizing for what I perceived to be inconsistencies. They often said, "We really aren't supposed to do that," or "We are bad examples. Don't look at us, but learn what Islam teaches."

As part of my university studies, I travelled to West Africa and worked with Muslims on a construction project. In the rain forest of the Ivory Coast, Islam came to life in front of me. This time there were no apologies, though. Prayers were made on time, alcohol was forbidden and women were veiled and treated with honour. My bare arms and uncovered hair met with disapproval in the town until I expressed an interest in learning about Islam. Then I was excused: I would learn, I would understand and then I would do the right thing.

Returning to the U.S., I longed for the peace and certainty of faith I had felt among the African Muslims. I looked for that same tranquillity among the Arab Muslims I knew, but did not find it right away. Most of the Muslims I knew were westernized and shy about the actual practice of their faith. Few of them could answer my questions or direct me in any other way but to say, "If you become Muslim, you will be happy."

As I studied Islam, I tried hard to turn back to Christianity, to make sure I was ready to leave it. The more I studied the Bible and the history of the church, the more Islam made sense to me. I found questions in the Bible, answers in the Qur’an. I found verses requiring women to cover their heads in the Bible, which satisfied my questions about that. As I sat in class with Muslim men who dressed like Jesus and women who dressed like Mary, I began to confirm what the Muslims had told me --that they followed Jesus more carefully than Christians did. The Christian faith that I had tried hard to grasp and study since childhood but had never been able to believe slipped quietly away. . I was certain in my belief in God, but for several months I hung between Christianity and Islam, with no religion. Before I converted, I wanted to make sure I was not adjusting my beliefs to fit Islam -- that I truly believed in my heart what I was accepting. I could not turn back after having known Islam, but I was not sure I could dive in, either.

quran-illumunatedThe more I resisted Islam, the more it drew me in. The more I tried to convince myself that I could never live an Islamic life, the more I realized I could not live any other way. I "practiced" being a Muslim. I gave up pork and alcohol. I wore more modest dress. I read the Qur’an on a regular basis, looking for the answers to my questions. I sought out more religious Muslims, more women. I spent more time simply asking God what to do. Facing certain difficulty at work, with my family and friends, swimming in the middle of a society that only knows bad about Islam, I made my decision. Hard or not, I knew it was what I believed and I was willing to accept what came with it.

I walked through the door of Islam in 1989 by pronouncing the testimony of faith in front of my closest friends. We all cried, in both joy and fear: joy for the step that had been so painful for me to make and fear of what I faced as a Muslim in America.

Everything changed: my clothing, my manners, my sleeping habits, my friends. I changed jobs to one where I thought I would feel comfortable covering my hair. First, I wore a scarf and loose clothes. Then longer clothes. Then an over cloak. The more I learned about Islam and devoted myself to it internally, the more I longed to express it externally.

Many of my friends covered their faces. Some covered out of custom, following what the people in their countries did, but the ones who drew my admiration and interest were the Western Muslims who covered by choice. They insisted on being respected for whom they were, not for how they looked. After living in an open society all their lives and experiencing the dangers and discrimination, the threat of men's eyes that many American women faced, they had set a barrier. No men except very close family could look upon them, let alone dare touch them or harass them. Among women, they were free and uncovered down to modest clothing. Their relaxed laughter when unveiled reflected the safety they felt in the company of their sisters.

I knew it was not easy, though. The veil was difficult to get used to. It could get hot in the summer. Until a woman practiced walking in it for some time, it was easy to trip over the abaya or get it caught in doors. Some women had tried it and just could not adapt to the stares, the clumsiness, and the "un-Americanness" of it all. It was often hard to dress completely covered and realize that men did not follow the same. They, too, were to observe modest dress but to a lesser degree due to the more public nature of their Islamic duties. However, many wore tight jeans and T-shirts -- even husbands of women who were totally covered. Fully veiled women often encountered criticism from unveiled Muslim women who insisted, in spite of clear evidence from the Qur’an and other Islamic writings, that it was not part of Islam. For a woman to accept the face cover, she would have to be able to stand firm in the storm of all these difficulties.

What made the veil worth it all, though, was that it was an expression of religious devotion, much as a nun’s habit marks a devotion to God rather than to man. Although covering the hair and body is the minimum requirement for an adult Muslim woman, covering the face is a commendable act. I found in the face cover a means to externalize what my heart was feeling. I loved being a Muslim and I wanted the world to know exactly who I was. I wanted to be protected by the veil, covered in the expression of my faith.

* * *

I wind an oblong black scarf around my head. A gauze veil covers my face, all but my eyes. I put on an abaya, then socks, and then gloves. My heart pounds when I see myself in a mirror. I remember the Muslim women I had seen in Harrods' and realize how brave they had been. May God help me do this, I pray.

My husband has seen me "practicing" in the house with this clothing, but I have never gone out in it. He offers his encouragement, knowing it may be very hard for me. He puts his hand on my arm and we walk out the door together.

I see but cannot be seen. The veil does not suffocate; I feel free and strong. I thought I would feel tremendously self-conscious, but I feel certain and assertive.

As we drive along the highway, I am aware of stares and snickers, fingers pointing. I do not return the looks of the others. I simply don't care what they are thinking, I don't care if they understand. No one can see my reaction, my expression, my features beyond the veil. No matter how hard they look, they can see only my abaya and veil. I feel not smothered or hidden, but protected. No one can enter that private area behind my veil unless I allow it. From now on, I choose who sees what of my body, just as I choose to whom I wish to reveal my deepest thoughts. I sink into this refuge of cloth and wonder how I possibly could have come to the point that I could embrace what I had once so passionately hated.

The veil has become beautiful to me, not for its outward appearance but for what it says about what I believe.

Again, I shiver with relief, but this time because of the liberation I feel.


In a speech delivered on the 22nd of June the President of France said,

“The burqa is not a religious sign — it’s a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic.”

flowersniqabHaving already banned the Hijaab in public schools, France seems eager to move even further with a complete ban on the Niqaab and as a result we feel it is necessary to provide some advice on the matter so that Muslims living in the West are not caught unaware and unable thereby to articulate an accurate Islamic perspective on the issue.

Generally speaking there are three methods to answering questions when being interviewed:

(1) focusing on the content;

(2) the delivery of the content and,

(3) the perception of the audience.

Muslims who are interviewed on Islamic matters tend to focus solely on how the audience will receive their answers and tend to lose track of the real content that needs to be addressed. In stark contrast the Quranic dialogue with non-believers is very much content focused; delivered in an awe-inspiring way. We too, as followers of the Qur’an, are commanded to “Speak the truth”, albeit with wisdom and eloquence. Our Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam) told us that whoever tries to please the people at the expense of Allah’s pleasure will certainly displease Allah and he will also find that the people will eventually dislike him and that whoever speaks the truth to please Allah will find that the people will end up liking him.

In light of this I would like to provide some answers to questions that are often asked by non-Muslims, be they our neighbours, colleagues, or from the media. It is hoped that these answers will empower us to take the debate forward in a constructive manner.

1) Why do Muslim women wear the Burqa (face veil)?

All of us, we believe, have been created by an all-Knowing, all-Wise being who blessed us with a short life here on earth and then an eternal life in an abode in the Hereafter. The purpose of this life is to achieve success in passing the trials and tribulations God has decreed for us; the greatest test being sincere submission to His divine Will. Abiding by the guidelines and legislation decreed by God brings harmony and tranquillity to the hearts of the believers which is then followed by eternal happiness in paradise. Every piece of guidance legislated by God has copious amounts of goodness and wisdom behind it, including the dress code specified for both men and women.

Muslim women who adopt the face veil, for example, have a deep conviction that they are following the guidance of their Creator. The wisdom behind the injunction, such as protecting women from abuse and harassment, are of peripheral value as the main aim is to seek the pleasure of God.

2) Would you like all women in the western society to cover themselves up?

We would like all of mankind to live by the guidance of their Creator and understand their purpose in life. Many Muslim women including those who accept the message of Islaam do chose to adopt the traditional Islamic dress code.

Interestingly the majority of converts to Islaam are women. I recall once a lady had made an appointment with us to take the testimony of faith. When we went to meet her we found a woman fully dressed with Islamic attire. When we asked her if she knew of a non-Muslim woman wanting to become Muslim she replied that it was in fact her!

3) Does the Qur’an speak about the Niqaab?

It is very saddening to see so called ‘Islamic experts’ categorically deny the mentioning of the face veil in the Qur’an when it is in fact mentioned in two specific verses,

{O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies (i.e. screen themselves completely except the eyes or one eye to see the way). That will be better, that they should be known (as free respectable women) so as not to be annoyed. And Allah is Ever Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.}

And in Surah Noor chapter 24, verse 31,

{And tell the believing women to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things), and protect their private parts (from illegal sexual acts, etc.) and not to show off their adornment except only that which is apparent (like palms of hands or one eye or both eyes for necessity to see the way, or outer dress like veil, gloves, head-cover, apron, etc.), and to draw their veils all over Juyubihinna (i.e. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms, etc.) and not to reveal their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband's fathers, their sons, their husband's sons, their brothers or their brother's sons, or their sister's sons, or their (Muslim) women (i.e. their sisters in Islam), or the (female) slaves whom their right hands possess, or old male servants who lack vigour, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex.}

Therefore, one cannot deny the fact that covering the face is an authentic orthodox opinion held by a great number of scholars based on Quranic texts.

Even if one was to deny its place in the Qur’aan this by no means shows that it hasn‘t been legislated elsewhere in the Prophetic Guidance, the Sunnah. For instance the Qur’aan does not specify the number of daily prayers as being five or the obligatory annual charity as being 2.5% but such fundamentals were learnt from the Prophetic Guidance and are not disputed over by any Muslim.

4) Is the Niqaab obligatory?

The question is somewhat irrelevant as there exists a consensus amongst jurists that observance of the Niqaab is a legislated act within Islamic jurisprudence, that is to say, it is not merely cultural attire as many ignorant individuals claim. Though a great number of scholars opined that it is Mustahabb (recommended), many others thought it was obligatory. Thus, whether it is obligatory or not is not the issue as every Muslim woman has the right to adopt the Islamic dress code regardless of the opinions of others. The question concerns those who want to adopt it and would like to clarify their position so as to provide theological grounding.

5) Is the ‘Non-Niqaabi’ immodest?

The women who champion the Niqaab are raising the standards of modesty in their respective communities. If we say that modesty is essentially covering up ones beauty than inevitably the face veil does this more so than any other garment. However, modesty must be defined in the framework of Islamic tradition which means that while the Qur’an and the Sunnah (Prophetic Guidance) provide a general guideline for how to be modest (for instance the word Jilbaab is mentioned in the Qur’an and refers to a single garment that covers the body) the specifics of style and manner can depend on the cultural norms of the society.

A common pitfall Muslims find themselves in is when they simply refer to the Niqaab and Hijaab as a means of being modest without providing any sense of the general guidance of Islaam on the matter. This implies that clothing is completely relative and so what is modest in Saudi Arabia is inappropriate in Miami since a revealing dress in Miami could, in all seriousness, be deemed modest given that the norm there is a Bikini!

6) Why don’t men have to wear the Niqaab?!

Men have been commanded to lower the gaze and to cover that which is between the navel and knee but women have been commanded to cover much more. Why? Because they are physiologically and physically distinct and so the legislation, logically, encapsulates these differences.

7) Do Muslim men force their women to adorn the Niqaab?

We encourage each other to perform acts of piety and righteousness. If I felt that my nearest and dearest were going off the rails I would help them and actively advise them do change their ways. I would advise the women in my family to adhere to Islamic dress code because it is a call for righteousness.

8) Is the Niqaab a security issue?

There should always be a spirit of tolerance and forbearance in people, especially the natives as where ever there is a will there is a way. Muslim women who are accepted for who they are will be more appreciative of the state and help to develop stronger ties of cohesion in their communities. Forcing Muslim to uncover their faces will sow seeds of mistrust and even hatred with the state. And so banning the Niqaab would be grossly counterproductive.

9) Is Niqaab a symbol of subjugation?

The word subjugation, when spoken of in the West and addressed to Muslims or non-Westerners smacks of a colonial will to dominate through a preponderance of the view that European values are not only better than those of others, but that their being ‘better’ elevates their imposition on to others to the status of liberation.

What is frustrating to many Muslims is that over and over again Muslim women have spoken out claiming that what they wear is out of their own choice and a deep sense of spirituality. Yet the media and prominent figures in the West continue to ignore these voices and imply that only ‘they’ truly know what is going on inside Muslim women’s head, something which even the Muslim women – subjugated as they are – are not privy to. This obscene hypocrisy highlights the continuing Orientalism that still operates in the West when it comes to its discourse on Islam.

From a Muslim perspective (although many non-Muslims agree), the tyranny of fashion shows, billboards with air-brushed pictures, the use of scantily clad bodies to sell consumer products is a form of subjugation for Western women, who, if not dominated by men are certainly dominated by the demands and dictates of the market.

How, at any rate, is one to decide whether someone is subjugated or not? Banning a religious practice in a society where no Muslim is demanding its imposition seems more a fundamentalist move than a liberal one, but then perhaps that is exactly what we are witnessing: the fundamentalising of liberalism. What’s more is that Muslim ought not to feel cowed by media pressure or hawkish tactics by commentators who merely claim that such Islamic dress codes are oppressive – the onus of proving this, after all, lies with them and not with Muslims.

For our part we have firsthand accounts of women who have donned the burqa/hijaab/niqaab who repeatedly pronounce their individuality and choice as well as the fact that the majority of women who seem to be adopting the burqa are Western educated women all born and brought up in countries like France and Britain many a time at odds with their mothers from the East.

So, is the Burqa an Eastern or Western phenomena?!

muslimahindesertWhen American writer Samuel Cole's feminist sister converted to Islam and donned the Hijab, it shocked her family. This is his defence of Muslim women's status in Islam.

Sometime in 1987 my sister, an ardent feminist with a degree in civil engineering, converted to Islam. She now lives in Lahore, Pakistan where she is a full-time Muslim wife and mother of five—soon to be six.

As is required by her adopted Qur'an, she stops all activities to pray five times each day; and when she goes out in public she covers herself from head to toe in the Hijab.

The term "Hijab" comes from the Arabic word "hajaba," which means to hide from view. It is the long dress and veil worn by many Muslim women with the function of distinguishing them from non-Muslims, reminding them of their Islamic faith, and concealing them from the public view of males. In many of the more traditional Muslim societies women tend to remain outside the public sphere of men, devoting themselves to child rearing and taking care of the home. In part because of this apparent restriction from the public realm, many Americans see the Muslim Hijab as a symbol of female oppression.

Despite this perception, Islam is growing rapidly in America - and female converts outnumber males four to one. Indeed, according to my sister the Hijab is not a symbol of oppression, but is instead a symbol of liberation. Naheed Mustafe, a Canadian woman who converted to Islam, writes,

"Young Muslim women are reclaiming the hijab. . . to give back to women the ultimate control over their bodies."

Yet to most Americans this is a strange assertion. How can a law that restricts a woman's dress be liberating?

To Muslims the answer is easy. The Islamic tradition of Hijab frees women from being perceived primarily as sexual objects.

"[Non-Muslim] women are taught from early childhood that their worth is proportional to their attractiveness,"

writes Mustafe. It's not hard to understand this: leafing through the ads of any woman's magazine, even a male reader can sense the incredible pressure on women to conform to some ever-changing and abstract image of female beauty. Is it any wonder that American women spend billions of dollars on hair and beauty products; or that they subject themselves to plastic surgery, drugs, and diets; or that in despair they fall into neurotic cycles of anorexia and bulimia? It is the pursuit of a mirage—one that degrades and sickens the pursuers.

But the sacrifice of health (and self esteem) in a futile pursuit of physical attractiveness is not the worst effect of sexual objectification. Societies that view women as sexual objects have a horrendous rate of violence toward women. In the United States, one out of every four women will be sexually assaulted at some time in her life. And even in relatively non-violent Canada, one woman is assaulted every six minutes. Women in our society live with the awareness that they must always be cautious of dark alleys and fearful of strangers. This is true oppression, a type that stems directly from the perception of women as sexual objects.

quranbluemushafIn the few societies that closely adhere to the Qur'an—and many repressive Islamic regimes do not—this sort of violence toward women is quite low. In 1990 the number of reported rapes in Egypt, a relatively westernized Islamic society with a secular government, was only 17 (Israel reported 369 rapes that same year). And my sister has told me that as a Muslim woman, she feels a respect and security on the streets of Pakistan that she had never felt in 30 years of living in America. It does seem hard to ignore the fact that many Islamic women enjoy a level of protection and respect that is unheard of in the West. In some countries there is no doubt that this is due to the result of Islamic law that imposes punishment on offenders. But enforcement of religious law is not practiced in moderate Islamic countries such as Egypt or Pakistan; and there it seems Muslim tradition alone protects the dignity of women.

Nevertheless, Islam and its tradition of Hijab can seem to be an extreme solution to the sexual objectification of women. Can't society simply be changed through more education? Or perhaps through encouraging men to practice some self-restraint? In fact this has been a goal of the women's movement for years. But although there has been some success at increasing career and educational opportunities for women, the oppression of women continues unabated. One only needs to peruse the horror section of the local video store to see that the most common victims of violence portrayed in popular films are women. And not surprisingly statistics in the United States point to more violence directed at women, not less.

The problem in western society, as some Muslim writers see it, is that predominately Judeo-Christian cultures have no convention of equality between men and women. Instead, these traditions hold Eve to be ultimately responsible for original sin and the downfall of man. The story in Genesis is a cornerstone in the foundation of our culture. As such, it has institutionalized an essentially inferior status for women. This is not so in the tradition of Islam: Eve is not blamed for tempting Adam. Together they sinned, together they are guilty, and together they both begged for and received forgiveness from God. It is true that Islam holds women and men to be different in the most integral qualities. But unlike Judeo-Christian doctrine, the Qu'ran puts women and men on equal footing before God and thus as equally, and innately, valuable to society.

Unfortunately, many of us see Islam as a religion of suicidal bombers or of bearded zealots intent on returning us all to a cultural stone-age. But this image is perhaps unfair. All religions have their own fair proportion of crazies. Islam, however, is the largest and fastest growing of the world's monotheistic religions. Still, the Muslims have something to offer for women. Pierre Craibites (an American judge) writes,

"Muhammad, 1300 years ago, assured to the mothers, wives and daughters of Islam a rank and dignity [still] not generally assured to women by the laws of the West."

The conversion of my sister to Islam was a shock and then a mystery to me for many years. It did not seem possible for an intelligent feminist woman to, without coercion, suddenly chuck her ideals and embrace Islam. Within my family the subject is beyond the bounds of rational discussion, and it is only from my sister's very recent letters that I may have finally acquired an understanding of her unique brand of feminism: You see, in adopting Islam she has rejected a culture that assigns value to a person based on a masculine ideal of success. In exchange she has adopted a culture where she is valued as an equal...for no other reason than that she is a woman.