Niqab furor becomes national debate in UK, overlooks personal choice

By: Sarah A. Harlan

The din of the niqab-ban debate continues to rise in the UK as lawmakers express concerns of the security implications of women covering their faces with niqab and the overturning of a ban on niqab at Birmingham Metropolitan College.

The debate is polarizing within and without the Muslim faith community in the UK, but a leading concern of many is that the debate is monopolized by those who do not wear niqab, indeed most of them non-Muslim men.

In September, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said niqab was inappropriate in the classroom as well as the airport, and Home Office Minister Jeremy Browne has called for a national debate on whether niqab should be banned in public places.

Like debates on the issue in France, much of the concern comes from being able to see another person’s face to conduct a two-way social interaction. Said Clegg on the classroom issue, “there is an issue of course about teachers being able to address their students in a way where they can address them face to face. I think it is quite difficult in the classroom to be able to do that.”

Na’ima Robert, a British convert, engaged this question with VICE magazine:

“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.”

Niqab isn’t only a hot-button issue in Europe, and it has felt its share of Clegg-caliber concern in Egypt, as women in niqab fought - and won - the right to wear niqab on the American University in Cairo campus in 2001 and 2007. The debate in Egypt in 2009 was a near-mirror to that the current uproar in the UK. While a leading Al-Azhar cleric called for a ban on niqab in classrooms and dormitories, one woman expressed her feeling that “the sheikh won’t affect my decision to wear it… I feel more relaxed in [niqab]. Men aren’t looking at me. I feel closer to God.”

And the discourse has grown more complex as traditional leadership structures are challenged across the Middle East. After the dissolution of the Mubarak government in Egypt in 2011, an all-woman, all-niqab channel was formed. Last summer, Mariyah TV began broadcasting, led by female preacher Safa al-Rifai in an effort to empower women, especially those who wear niqab and often feel social marginalization. Mariyah is “a women-exclusive channel,” al-Rifai said, and commented that “men will not be allowed to interfere in its general or programming policy.”

Despite the empowerment felt by many, the seemingly greatest misconception about wearing niqab is that it is forced upon women by their husbands. Another woman explained to VICE:

“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.”

And this is much of the discourse from women who wear niqab. Further undermining Jeremy Browne’s call for a ban that would “protect” women from the imposition of niqab, Sahar Al Faifi commented in an op-ed to the Independent:

“Allow me to introduce myself. I am a proud Welsh and British citizen, a molecular geneticist by profession and an activist in my spare time. I have formerly been elected as the Wales Chairperson of a national Muslim student organisation and held other leadership roles including working with bodies such as the National Union of Students. I wear the niqab as a personal act of worship, and I deeply believe that it brings me closer to God, the Creator. I find the niqab liberating and dignifying; it gives me a sense of strength. People I engage with judge me for my intellect and action; not necessarily for the way I look or dress. Niqab enables me to be, simply, human.”

Despite the wealth of personal motivations behind wearing niqab in the UK - and elsewhere - the popular discourse in the news treats it as a monolith, an opinion-setting touchstone. The Telegraph reported Friday: “Devout Muslim Jubel Miah battered wife and forced her to wear niqab.”

Reading the Telegraph’s report, Miah’s “devotion” is seemingly demonstrated by forcing his wife to wear niqab and beating her repeatedly, including when she was pregnant. She escaped after he stabbed her with a pair of scissors and hit her with a dumbell.

The report never uses the word Islam or makes mention of what makes Miah exemplarily devout by the standards of Islam. What the story does detail is a horrifying case of domestic violence and the system’s lackluster attempt to police the situation - Miah was jailed for 16 weeks and subject to a restraining order, causing outrage among many:

After the case Rachel Horman, head of the domestic violence division at law firm Watson Ramsbottom, said: “The sentence is an insult to the victim and people will view the punishment as a slap on the wrist.

“There has been a prolonged 12-month ordeal, so why was only one charge brought? It’s absolutely shocking and it makes me really angry.

“If this was an attack by a stranger in the street, I can guarantee it would have been a different story. Domestic violence is often undersentenced and too much blame is given to the victims.”

So why was this story touted as one about niqab? Why is a personal choice such a polarizing point of debate? Niqab is so external it’s frequently highjacked to be part of a debate on Islam - its merits, its meanings, its laws, and its practice. Niqab, in actuality, plays a minor role at best in the vast tapestry of Islam, yet wearing or not wearing niqab ignites a binary discourse. And that reductionist approach is dangerous. If niqab is about modesty, are women who wear sheitel next up for persecution? If niqab is about not showing your face in public, should plastic surgery be part of the debate - surely with enough alteration you’re no longer showing “your” face to the rest of society. These are extreme scenarios, but they beg questions about why it would be ok to single out women who wear niqab.

Saiyyidah Zaidi doesn’t wear niqab, but she doesn’t feel any kind of prescription about it is appropriate. What is important, Zaidi says, is the right to choose - in Islam and in the UK. And after all this, as Sahar Al Faifi puts it, “don’t we have more important things to talk about?”

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