Hijab and niqaab and the ban

A few days ago I attended a small private lecture by an Arab scholar of Islam related to the quick spread of face-veil ban in the West. He offered an interesting allegory that I will return to in the end but first I want to give you some personal thoughts on veiling (hijab and niqaab).

In the summer of 2004 my sister who then lived in Saudi Arabia visited me. She wore a headscarf for the first time. All her friends wore the headscarf and it seemed natural to her to wear it too. She said it made her feel more modest.

That was the year I suddenly had to face meddling relatives who urged me to follow my younger sister’s praiseworthy footsteps and don the hijab too. I have always been rather unimpressionable and make serious decisions like this after some careful study. So that is when I began to study the role of head and face covering in Islam. However, it was not until a couple of years ago that I learned that the initial purpose of hijab (whether we believe it includes the niqaab or just a headcovering) was to differentiate between free and enslaved women[i].

Until then I didn’t know that women who were not free were forbidden from emulating the free woman (in one recorded instance beaten by the Caliph Omar Ibn Khattab because “the veil is to be on the heads of free women”). Knowing this I felt that if I veiled in modern times I’d still go back to the basic Quranic message to veil to base my decision. Thus in essence I’d be going back to a time and law when humans were divided into free and enslaved classes. Yet when we argue in favour of the veil we return to the contemporary time and use democracy and human rights to support our premise that we are all born free and should be allowed to wear what we want.

When I went back to the basic message to veil and acknowledged the reason for veiling which had socio-political reasons attached to it I concluded that in the modern world where we at least profess to truly believe that we are all born free (practice is another matter!), there is no need for me to veil and create a differentiation between the free and the enslaved. I thought if anyone wants to argue that that was the past and we don’t veil for those reasons anymore then why veil at all?

I appreciate that reasons for modern veiling are different. No Muslim woman today wears hijab or niqaab to show that she is a free woman and only because of her free status she is unapproachable. We veil to belong to a group, to appear Muslim, to make a point, to feel loved by Allah. I do put on a headscarf sometimes but it is only when I’m going to an ultra conservative area of the town where I know I will be stared at with a bare head. While I believe that veiling is prescribed in the Quran (and I believe it includes niqaab) I don’t believe that it is a religious law (like the five pillars) or that it makes us more modest. I don’t even believe that it protects us from physical attack or abuse.

The Arab scholar I referred to in the beginning is married to a Filipina. He said that whenever his wife goes out alone in the Middle East (where most housemaids are Filipinas) people confuse her as a maid or shop assistant. She is tired of this wrong assumption from people. This scholar commented that it would be easiest to establish a uniform dress code for all domestic helpers so that they are easily “recognised” as such.  This, he said, was the easiest option available in the 7th Century Arabia when affluent and free Jewish and pagan women already veiled and the sitr (marker of modesty) for enslaved women was being established. Veiling was the most obvious sign that a woman was free, affluent and powerful.

The scholar’s basic premise was that we should be very careful about the current political climate when Muslims are persecuted everywhere. He is afraid that niqaab is being used to turn people against Muslims by showing them as stubborn and intolerant people wishing not to integrate stand out and in the end it will be Muslim women who will suffer the most. On the other hand, I feel that if women who veil their faces give up veiling under pressure then it may mean that Muslims are cowardly and vulnerable. That would send a very wrong message and why should women stop veiling their faces anyway? New laws can ban women from adopting the veil (haven’t thought about how that could be managed) but it is unfair to ask women who have veiled for years to suddenly remove their face covering. I find that wrong to ask although I don’t oppose the political ban on niqaab.

In any case I was happy that a Muslim man had something different to say about the niqaab. I was also happy to note that his ideas on veiling very closely match mine. He was most respectful about the hijab and niqaab (his wife now wears an abaya so that she is “recognised” as married to an Arab) which put us all at ease. I wish he had offered solutions to some of the issues he raised.

A friend mentioned on the Facebook page that hijab may be banned next if we allow niqaab to be banned – that is a real concern. Couple others have said that it is mostly converts who are overzealous about niqaab. What to do you think about niqaab in the West? Why would you support it and if you don’t then what is your argument against veiling the face in the West?

[i] Al-Tabari – “To draw their cloaks close round them helps them in not being identified by anybody passing by so that they might know that these are not slave girls, thus harassing them”.

Ibn Kathir – “means, if they do that, it will be known that they are free, and that they are not slaves or whores.”

Al-Mahali and As-Syyoutti – “‘more proper’ that is they are closer to be ‘to be recognized’ i.e. that they are free women ‘and not annoyed’ that is, by sexually harassing them unlike the slave girls”.

Al Alousi – “‘Adna’ means closer to ‘to be recognized’ that is being set apart from the slave girls who were vulnerable to being sexually harassed”.