Why Do Some Muslim Women 'Choose' to Wear the Niqab?


Every parent eventually learns that there is no surer way to add glamour to a garment than by saying, ‘You can’t possibly go out wearing that!’

So you can practically guarantee that somewhere in the UK, a young Muslim woman who is tired of being lectured by the scolding father figures of Jack Straw and Tony Blair is standing before a mirror, experimentally drawing a piece of cloth across her face and wondering if it makes her bum look big. She’d never put on a niqab because a mullah or an imam told her that she should. But she’s giving it serious thought now that the Prime Minister has said that he would rather she wouldn’t.

If the aim of the political ‘debate’ over niqab is to end up with fewer niqabis, it is likely to have precisely the opposite effect. I don’t predict that many Muslim women will take to covering their faces simply to piss off Cabinet Ministers. Wearing niqab is regarded by most Muslims in the West as far too extreme a gesture. Muslim parents are among those reported to have complained that their children could not learn effectively from a niqab-wearing teaching assistant, who last week lost her discrimination case.

But while there are plenty of Muslims who, like Jack Straw, would rather that niqabs were not worn, they are still deeply troubled to find Muslims yet again being used for political point scoring. As Straw and Blair conceded, it is perfectly legal to wear niqab (even if one has to expect that it will limit one’s employment choices), and only a small minority of Muslim women do so. Many dress codes signal (or once signalled) a separation from ‘mainstream society’ goth, punk, facial tattoos. So why choose to confront this particular mode of dress as ‘hindering integration,’ if not to indulge in a spot of polite Paki-bashing?

Western public debates about Muslim women’s dress codes revolve around the concepts of ‘choice’ and ‘force,’ neither of which adequately capture the experience of many Muslim women. For some women, their ‘choice’ of dress is unambiguously a choice. Some hijabis cover despite opposition from their families. This opposition may arise out of justifiable concerns about discrimination and harassment, or it may be cultural. I have heard from a young African woman whose family strenuously opposed her wearing hijab because they regarded it as a symbol of Arab imperialism; many Pakistanis view the modern hijab (the artfully tucked and draped headscarf) in a similar light.

And some women’s refusal to cover is equally unambiguously their own. They do not believe that the Qur’an requires them to cover their hair (translating the relevant verses only as an injunction to modesty) and so they don’t do so. But many others say that they would like to wear hijab, and are prevented from doing so by fears that they will suffer discrimination at work and harassment on the street.

If asked to describe their dress code in terms of choice versus force, nearly all Muslim women will opt for ‘choice.’ Their families will not beat or starve them if they don’t wear hijab; they are unlikely to be murdered on the street or driven to destitution if they do. And for many Muslims, to describe the wearing of hijab in terms of anything less than autonomous choice is to come too close to endorsing racist stereotypes of violent patriarchs.

Thanks to Bill Leak

I prefer to describe decisions over dress code in terms of ‘negotiation’ rather than choice and Muslim women often do not negotiate on equal terms, either within their own families or in wider society.

For example, some hijabis are trailblazers, the first in their family to go to university, to work outside the home, perhaps to marry outside the established social circle. Some such women wear hijab in order to signal that such innovations have not led them to abandon their religious values. Their mothers may not have veiled at all, but nor did they enjoy anything like the life opportunities and personal mobility exercised by their veiled daughters.

Trailblazers are also aware that their behaviour sets a precedent if their ‘freedom’ is seen as having led to immorality, their younger sisters may be denied the chance to follow in their footsteps. Wearing hijab is a small gesture that can make more important issues leaving home for study or work, marrying an ‘unapproved partner’ much easier to negotiate.

Women may also wear hijab as part of their negotiation with wider Australian society, despite the negative connotations attached to it. Media images of Muslim women nearly always feature hijabis, so that non-Muslims tend to overestimate its universality. Among non-Muslims, much more than among Muslims, a ‘real’ Muslim women is believed to be a hijabi. Muslim women who don’t wear hijab are seen as somehow inauthentic, as having rejected their faith.

Some Muslim women begin wearing hijab as they become active as community representatives, at least in part to signal their legitimacy as spokepeople. Journalists phoning Muslim women in search of media talent often ask whether they wear hijab, and fast lose interest if the answer is no. Some have been known to request that non-hijabis don a headscarf for the ‘moneyshot.’ And so they ‘choose’ to wear hijab but it is a choice that involves negotiation.

Similarly, while it may overstate the case to say that Jack Straw ‘forced’ his constituents to de-veil in his presence. I do not think that they ‘chose’ to do so, either. Faced with Straw’s suggestion that their appointment would run more smoothly if they removed their niqabs, they negotiated the situation as best they could. And if the de-veiling is seen as an act of negotiation, it is a transaction in which Straw, a senior politician with the power to grant or deny help to women in need of it, held the upper hand. I am prepared to believe that Straw would render such help whether or not the niqab was removed, but a desperate enough woman might be willing to remove her knickers, let alone her face-veil, if she thought it would make someone in power more inclined to help her.

When I was doing my fieldwork with the niqab-wearing women’s wing of the Pakistani Jamaat i Islami, I observed that wearing niqab in Pakistan does not stop women from leading relatively full lives; because Pakistan is a largely gender-segregated society, niqabis don’t actually need to veil their faces all that often. They spend the bulk of their time in women-only space, and it is possible for them to work, study and socialise without bothering to use their niqabs.

However, Britain and Australia are not gender-segregated societies, and a niqabi living in them will have to remain either very socially isolated, or spend a great deal of her life with her face covered. It’s not an option that is likely to appeal to many young Muslim women.

But ringing denunciations of niqab are likely to add to its appeal to some women, and to force many others into the situation where they feel that they have to defend women’s right to wear it if they so desire.

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