Warming up to the veil

I was away, as some of you may know. I got the opportunity to visit my university again and spend some time there. I discussed whatever I have learned up till now about blogging Muslim Feminists with my research supervisor and she was happy to read what you all have been writing/discussing. Lots of interesting stuff there!

I also got the chance to reconsider my stance on the face veil while sitting one warm and sunny morning in London’s Hyde Park. On a turf lay a woman sunbathing in nothing more than a towel wrapped around her trunk. My littlest pointed towards her and said “she is barefoot!” It amazed me that he didn’t notice that she was mostly bare! Sometime later an Arabic-and-tourist-looking couple passed by us and sat nearby. The woman was covered from head to toe and wore red shades. My son went near them to fetch his football and took no notice of the woman’s clothing.

I began to think how equally natural a scantily dressed woman is to my child from a woman in a complete veil. Yet how many times I have not been open-minded about the niqaab although I’m uncomfortable with nudity and it is because of this discomfort that I moved to the Middle East hoping that I’d see less flesh! I prefer to wear modest clothing but somehow I began equating face veil with extreme conservatism and felt uncomfortable that it had become a symbol of religiosity.

I discussed niqaab with my research supervisor (whom I consider more conservatively Muslim than myself) and she holds similar opinion about the niqaab to mine. But I’m not sure anymore how I feel about the niqaab. It is an identity for a number of women whether that identity is newly formed or is very old. It makes some women who they are and more importantly what they want to be. To some it offers hope of reward, to others it is devotion to God, and to some it is a means of identification strangely from a lack of clear facial recognition.

I am not blind to the fact that many women are forced to cover their faces either overtly or by being shown examples. There are also women who silently imbibe it from the throbbing placenta of the religious understanding of older womenfolk in the community and household. But should we judge all niqaab-wearers equally?

What do you think? Do you think niqaab should be accepted as a symbol of religion or a symbol of culture? How do you differentiate Islam from Muslim culture? Do you think Muslim women should “do as the Romans when in Rome”?

Thank you and hope you all have had a blessed Ramadan and a joyful Eid!

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19 thoughts on “Warming up to the veil

  1. Nahida says:

    I’ve always been fine with niqaab–it’s the burkha I have issues with: I don’t think the eyes should be covered. But I’m still uncomfortable with either being a symbol of religiosity–or any piece of clothing being a symbol of religiosity. My faith can’t be reduced to fabric.

  2. Zuhura says:

    I think the meaning of niqab varies depending on the reasons why an individual woman wears it. In Zanzibar, some women wear because they believe women should not be seen by anyone but their husbands. Others wear to keep their skin from getting dark, while still others wear it to sneak around and do things that can’t be considered Islamic by any stretch of the imagination. I will never accept niqab (nor hijab) for religious reasons because both are premised on women being fundamentally different from men, and with fewer rights.

  3. Metis says:

    Thank you Nahida and Zuhura! I like what you both said. Yes, I still feel uncomfortable when niqaab is equated with religiosity because it would make so many of us completely non-religious.

  4. Zuhura says:

    I will always practice Islam in ways that the most orthodox will find not religious enough; that doesn’t really bother me. But I can’t accept aspects of Islam that are premised on women being different than men in the eyes of God, since that contradicts what the Qur’an tells us.

    • Metis says:

      “But I can’t accept aspects of Islam that are premised on women being different than men in the eyes of God, since that contradicts what the Qur’an tells us.”

      Zuhura, I am looking into giving examples of how MF bloggers use verses from the Quran to argue that women are not inferior to men in the Muslim society. Do you think you could point out some verses where you feel that Quran treats men and women as equal genders? I have tried doing that and my understanding (so far) has been that men and women are equal in religion (unless we want to go into *that* hadith!) but that as humans in society there is equity but not necessarily equality. I know you don’t agree with it but how would you argue otherwise? Many thanks for your help!

      • Zuhura says:

        If we are equal in religion, that’s all that matters. Descriptions of Muslim society are specific to the time and place in which the Qur’an was revealed.

        • Metis says:

          I agree! So to you, is Islamic Feminism a way of reclaiming rights in Muslim communities in the light of modern times? That is how I explained to someone who asked why we need Islamic Feminism when Islam has given complete rights to women. Do you think we need to revise rights given to women in scripture because times have changed? I fear that would be very difficult since Quran is regarded by us as the unchanging word of Allah. Do you agree that it is difficult?

          • Zuhura says:

            “To you, is Islamic Feminism a way of reclaiming rights in Muslim communities in the light of modern times?”

            I think so, yes. Although I would say “claiming” more so than “reclaiming.”

            I wouldn’t say that “Islam” has given complete rights to women. Women have complete rights, and that is clear in the Qur’an. I see Islam as a way of life created by Muslims in response to the Qur’an and the Prophet, and because it was created by humans (mostly men) it is inherently flawed and does not live up to the ideals established by the Qur’an.

            “Do you think we need to revise rights given to women in scripture because times have changed?”

            I’m uncomfortable with the term “revise” but I think we need to look at the spirit behind those rights and find a way to accomplish that spirit in each time/culture. For example, it made sense that women inherited less than men when men were the breadwinners. It doesn’t make sense when they’re not. On the other hand, that women inherited at all was progressive for the time, as far as I know, so we must see that the Qur’an establishes a movement toward more progressive rights for women.

            I agree that it is difficult, though perhaps less so in the United States than elsewhere. Here I am not bound to follow so-called “sharia law” so I can inherit/marry/divorce/etc according to the laws of my state and country. However I would like more rights within the Muslim community, e.g. in accessing mosques, etc. and that seems hard to achieve, even though there is no Qur’anic support for discrimination against women in the mosque.

            • Metis says:

              Thanks Zuhura for your comments and for answering my questions – very useful and informative. I agree with much of what you have said.

  5. Welcome back, I’ve been away for a while myself.

    I’ve never had a problem with the niqab as I’ve befriended a few women who wore the niqab. Some women in my hometown, in Nigeria, wear the niqab and when I was a teenager my family, especially my grandmother, used to tease me saying that I may grow up to become like them (due to the fact that back then I was not a very outgoing person and preferred to stay locked in my room). At the same time I don’t have a problem with nudity.

    Interestingly, I got to hear my mother and some of her friends’ opinion on the niqab. They were discussing a Nigerian woman who wore the niqab and they all agreed that the niqab was part of Arab culture and not part of Islam. It is funny because this is how I view the hijab 🙂

    • Metis says:

      Thanks for your comment ECC! I like how you feel comfortable with the niqaab. I’m hoping to be more like that since I’m surrounded by women who veil. I also have a friend who loves niqaab and she used to share photos of various types of niqaab that are amazingly beautiful. There is beauty in mystery like she says.

      I would agree with your mother 🙂

  6. wafa' says:

    Living in a country where MOST women wear niqab especially in my city, you wont believe how many women wear it because they believe in it. I wear niqab but not all the time,lots of time I do take it off, but in my family it’s a must not due to religion but more of a tradition and when we do travel a bit away, it’s OK for us to remove it. Am I forced to wear it ? probably 30-40% because I know that the possibility to remove it doesn’t lay along way from me. But I do know a lot of women who are forced to wear it and I know a huge number who wear it because they truly believe it’s mandatory in Islam. Maybe because they believe what they have been taught and maybe not.
    The problem is when and if some want to fight such tradition”as they believe the niqab is”, they are always presume that women are either forced into it or being delusional to believed in it. We completely wipe their personality and that’s why we lose them “the women who wear it by force or by loving it”.
    I have no problem with niqab or any other kind of symbols that showed my religion or anyone. Shall I say but they must respect me..no I wont cuz I would do what I believe whether they believe in it or not.

    And welcome back 🙂

    • Metis says:

      Wafa that is very useful information! I find it interesting that my assumptions that niqaab has different meanings for different women are somewhat correct.

      “We completely wipe their personality and that’s why we lose them “the women who wear it by force or by loving it”.”

      This is what I have been trying to understand and accept.

  7. Sana says:

    Welcome back:)
    personally i have huge problem with nudity, or even too much skin. As for niqab and hijab, I always believed many women were expected if not forced to wear one. Sometimes it makes me think that some people largely use clothes to attrct attention, mostly when showing too much, either by wearing too little or fully covering themselves in super tight clothes( as many hijab wearing women do). I do try not to judge them based on their clothes but coming from a place like india, it’s very difficult. Maybe after a few years. Veil is worn by many hindu women too.

    • Metis says:

      Hey Sana! Thanks for your comment.

      “Veil is worn by many hindu women too.”

      I know that but do you know if it began after Muslim invasion of India or did Hindu women veil their faces (as in ghoonghat) even before the Muslim occupation?

  8. susanne430 says:

    Welcome back! I missed your posts, but I am glad you had a nice visit with family and friends – oh, and your university professor! 🙂

    This made me laugh

    ‘My littlest pointed towards her and said “she is barefoot!”’

    because in a post I wrote last week, I mentioned that S also noticed Michael’s bare feet! I take it this is not common so much in the Arab world after reading what took your littlest one’s attention. 🙂

    I’m usually OK with people choosing to wear whatever they want. My preference is to see people’s faces when they talk, but it’s not like I really talk to niqaabis (none here) so it’s rather a moot point for me. I’d rather people be more modest in my culture because I’d rather not see all their flesh, but to each her own.

    Oh, I enjoyed the comments – really interesting stuff!

    • Metis says:

      Thanks Susie!

      Oh yes, I remember S mentioning that about Michael. Actually people are barefoot often in Arabia. They don’t wear shoes inside their homes and leave them outside (like the Japanese). They are also barefoot in mosques. But we are strict with our littlest not to walk barefoot outside and he found that strange I guess that this woman didn’t have shoes on in the park 😀

      I also am more comfortable if I can see the face I’m talking too because I find it mildly rude if they can see me but I can’t see them.

  9. greenwoodknight says:

    I picked up third degree burns walking barefoot outside in the Middle East. It’s a health hazard to go barefoot out doors in the summer, so it’s definitely a good rule to stick to.

    I guess clothing is another spectrum… with “burka” at one end, and “nudists” at the other… and it’s like the normal curve we see in statistics… most people are comfortable somewhere around the middle with some variation for climate; I’ve been fully covered both in extreme cold and punishing direct sunlight, but when the weather dies down I’m okay wandering round in far less clothing.

    I think this is one of the reasons why people are ‘naturally’ uncomfortable (setting aside culture and anything else for a minute) with the extremes. I’ve never understood how women in full costume don’t bake/get enough sunlight for vitamin D release. At the other end of the spectrum… there are places where a draft would be most unwelcome!

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