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”.


21 thoughts on “Hijab and niqaab and the ban

  1. Safiyah says:

    I find this a difficult issue. In my country the niqaab is banned and in a lot of schools hijaab too. I am most definitely against the ban on hijaab in schools. The idea behind it was that too many girls were forced to wear hijaab by their family or peers. What will happen is that families will now keep their daughters from going to school instead. Good job! :-/

    About the niqaab, I’m not so sure. For one, there are safety risks. A niqabi will not be recognisable on a camera, she will be anonymous, so if she commits a crime, no one will know who did it. I’m not saying that niqabi’s are out to commit crimes, but it stays a security risk. I am still in favor of choice, though, and a woman getting arrested for wearing a niqaab, that is wrong in my eyes. That is a kind of oppression. I know that you can’t visit Saudi wearing western clothes either, but the West always claims to be liberal and free.
    But I wonder, the whole point of covering yourself is to draw less attention to you, and if you wear niqaab in the West, everyone will look at you. People might harass you and see you as a “terrorist”. Which is not right of course, but it happens. Basically, I just think it’s not a good idea to wear it here, but to forbid it and arrest women who wear it? That’s going a bit too far.

    • Metis says:

      Safiyah, That is such a wonderful response! Thanks so much for your comment. I totally agree that the drawbacks of hijab ban are far greater than the benefits. Yes there are women who are first forced by parents and then by husbands to wear hijab. They have no way out. But hijab is not detrimental to society.

      I also agree that niqaab draws attention – negative attention, and attention that accompanies hatred. I think that Muslims in such a time should be cautious and use common sense. I’m not a fan of niqaab. I’m still struggling to form a positive or neutral position about it so of course I have my biases.

  2. Sya says:

    I understand how the scholar’s wife feels; however, I feel different about it now. I am a Singaporean citizen, but I am often mistaken for a Indonesian migrant domestic worker.


    I am hesitant to agree that applying some sort of identification for a certain group of people based on a certain identity such as migrant status, would prevent harassment or wrong assumptions, only because it reminds me a wee too much of yellow stars. Besides, there are already implicit rules for how domestic workers ‘should’ dress in countries like Hong Kong and Singapore.

    • Metis says:

      Yes, Sya I get what you mean. Thank you so much for your comment! Thanks also for the link that I shall check out now.

      The scholar felt like you. He used his wife’s story as an allegory to illustrate why hijab was mandated and the socio-political reasons behind it. He doesn’t agree with it, I suspect, but he didn’t say it outright.

      “I am hesitant to agree that applying some sort of identification for a certain group of people based on a certain identity such as migrant status, would prevent harassment or wrong assumptions…”

      I’m against application of identification myself which is why in the end I decided not to wear hijab because I felt that while free women in the past were protected from harassment by mandating hijab so they would be recognised, it didn’t stop the harassment of slaves. And I can’t find positive steps to stop the harassment of slaves. When Hamza Yusuf says here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHVaLP2CzvU) that Islam has honoured women through hijab so anyone who doesn’t wear it chooses to dishonour herself what he really meant was Islam has honoured FREE women through hijab and I would be wary of using such statements because it means those who were not allowed to wear hijab were dishonourable or not worthy of honour.

      • Sya says:

        I definitely agree with the initial purposes of headscarf/further covering i.e. as a marker of freedom. Not many people have read about this and so thank you for bringing it to light. 🙂 I believe this is still implicitly in practice today, when women and men police women on who has the ‘right’ to wear it — women who fit a society’s representation of what a hijabi ‘should’ be.

        However, what do you think of normative meanings of hijab today though, as a means to mark out Muslim women? In my country, they often say that hijabis are a ‘symbol of Islam’.

        Personally, I don’t see why my body/clothing should represent something so much bigger than itself. 🙂

        • Metis says:

          I don’t mind anyone wanting to dress a certain way to be identified as belonging to a group. I have seen plenty of men in kilts and in robes 🙂 But I don’t like the fact that the onus of modesty and group identification is placed on women and not men. The Sitr of free and enslaved men is the same which ironically equals that of an enslaved woman so whether a slave was Muslim or non-Muslim she was a lesser human than a free woman. This is what I don’t understand about Islamic jurisprudence and this is why I don’t think that hijab has a religious attachment. So back to your question – if someone wants to use hijab as a marker of Muslimness I support it as long as the woman walks besides a man who also appears Muslim – short thob + beard.

          “Not many people have read about this and so thank you for bringing it to light.”

          You are welcome 🙂 I still get mildly annoyed that most Muslims and non-Muslims alike don’t know this because this historical fact changes everything. Most people think I don’t wear hijab (aka I don’t *cover*!) because I’m ill informed and that because I’m Muslim I should automatically oppose the niqaab ban.

          “Personally, I don’t see why my body/clothing should represent something so much bigger than itself.”

          This is very interesting! First time anyone has said this. I shall be thinking about this.

          • Fab says:

            “I support it as long as the woman walks besides a man who also appears Muslim – short thob + beard”. I totally agree with that. I have seen so many couples out here (in India) where the woman is covered head to toe in black, and her male companion (usually husband) is dressed in jeans and a tshirt along with cap/sunglasses, i.e. ‘traditional’ western clothing. I can’t help but think, Doesn’t that woman resent this? If she has to be a walking advert of her own faith, what about him? Does he consider her dressing be an implication of his faith? I’ve just barely stopped myself from asking such people these questions directly, they make me frustrated sometimes.

  3. I don’t wear hijab or niqab but I support any woman’s right to wear them especially in the West where there is supposedly more ‘freedom’ for women. Women should be free to wear whatever they want to, I’m not comfortable with anyone policing women’s clothing choices.

    And I am not comfortable with the idea of a uniform to identify sections of the society. I feel that in some way, this normalises or approves of discrimination towards those that may not be empowered or privileged.

    • Metis says:

      “And I am not comfortable with the idea of a uniform to identify sections of the society. I feel that in some way, this normalises or approves of discrimination towards those that may not be empowered or privileged.”

      Thank you for saying this ECC. I mentioned some related points to Sya above.

    • susanne430 says:

      Loved this. I agree. Great post, Metis! And I enjoyed all the comments very very much!

  4. Womble says:

    Metis I finally decided to post a comment here. I’ve stopped reading/ listening to ‘learned people’ (mainly men) who advocate views such as the one purported by Hamza Yusuf. To me the statement (you’ve probably paraphrased his words) ‘that Islam has honoured women through hijab so anyone who doesn’t wear it chooses to dishonour herself’ frankly does not make any sense. I observe ‘hijab’ I just don’t wear a scarf on my head. I’m covered from my neck to my toes but I expose my hair because it ‘ordinarily appear[s] thereof’ or is ‘decently apparent’. Showing my hair is certainly not indecent and it’s definitely not comparable to a woman’s breasts. May be a muslimah exposing her hair is dishonourable to him, but it’s certainly not to millions of other Muslims, female and male. Suppose a woman shows her hair and covers up her face? Is that dishonourable?

    Does the Quran actually support his views? People like him like to guilt trip women and the best way to guilt trip us is to say that it is dishonourable to expose one’s hair or another one is that we are committing such a grave sin that we are going to hell.

    Don’t worry I’m not foaming around the mouth in a fit of rage!


    • Metis says:

      Welcome to Metis, Womble and I’m glad you posted here 🙂 Thanks so much for your thoughts.

      To be fair, I think Hamza Yusuf was really open-minded in that lecture. I liked the fact that he urged men to leave women alone. And he refers to the “historical fact” about slaves not being allowed to veil which is why I think he should have added the adjective “free” with women he thinks were honoured.

      “Does the Quran actually support his views?”

      I’m glad you asked this rhetorical question. I read the three verses on veiling separately:

      24:31 – setting of sitr in front of Mahram

      33:32-33 and 33:53 – verses specific to the wives of the Prophet

      33:58-59 – verses related to veiling when going out.

      IMHO, 33:58-59 are the verses that support Hamza Yusuf’s views. Those are the verses that support information from other sources (sunnah, hadith and seerah) related to differentiation between social classes.

  5. Womble says:

    I recently finished reading a book called ‘The Eighth Scroll’ by Dr Laurence B. Brown (he is a muslim convert/revert). Here is a synopsis from Amazon:

    ‘Stirring the flames of age-old controversies, The Eighth Scroll by Laurence B. Brown draws on the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to create an unbelievably dynamic and powerful story. Set in a world that teeters between orthodoxy and heresy, this thriller is packed with intrigue and adventure. When a Roman Catholic scholar involved in the Dead Sea Scrolls Project hides one of the scrolls because of the heretical message it contains, no one is the wiser until decades later, when a prominent archeologist discovers reference to the scroll in an archeological dig. This discovery spurs the world religions into a dangerous game of cat and mouse, in which all who seek the hidden scroll are mysteriously silenced, leaving the salvation of humankind to a father and son, who must either find the hidden scroll . . . or die trying.’

    SPOLIER ALERT: So how does this relate to what you’re saying about Hamza Yusuf, because he didn’t add the adjective that ‘free’ women were honoured? Well in Christianity the information is out there that Jesus didn’t declare himself God, or the son of God or came up with the concept of the holy trinity. In fact his apostle Paul (formerly Saul) came up with these concepts and the eighth scroll is a testament to that. Interestingly, Paul, although a contemporary of Jesus, never even met him in the flesh.

    Likewise, the information is out there (though hard to find) that covering up is about distinguishing between the social classes. So either H.Y. deliberately didn’t say ‘free’, or he doesn’t know, or he doesn’t believe headcovering and jilbab applies only to free women, but to every muslimah until the end of time. The instructions telling women to cover up and wear a jilbab when going out was more a practical solution of being able to identify the free from the enslaved. Wearing the veil and jilbab conferred social status; she was elevated and shown to be free therefore she was an honoured woman (thank you Metis for clearing this up for me).

    The conclusion I’ve come to is that H.Y. believes that women must observe hijab until the end of time under the broader umbrella as a religious edict, rather than restricting it as a method of identifying women as free Muslims or not.

    Recently I’ve been wondering about who is non-mahram to me. Since I’m married does that mean that whilst I am married that all men are mahram or am I stretching the concept too far?

    I apologise for taking this discourse into a very different direction from the one you originally intended.


    • Metis says:

      Thanks for mentioning the book, Womble, and making that link. I understand what you mean. I have met Hamza Yusuf in person and I like him quite a bit and mostly agree with him (sometimes I don’t when I get the feeling he knows something but doesn’t say it). In the audio clip I linked he does mention the class differentiation so he does know the initial purpose of hijab but I think it is impossible for him to claim that hijab has no place in the modern world now that slavery is abolished.

      Theoretically one can argue that but it will never be possible to mandate that because the meaning hijab has taken on now is very different from the initial purpose. The symbol of freedom and pride has turned into a something that to non-Muslims symbolises oppression and hence Muslim women have become even more convinced that they should keep it on.

      “Since I’m married does that mean that whilst I am married that all men are mahram or am I stretching the concept too far?”

      In Islamic Law, a mahram is anyone whom a woman can never marry whether or not she is married. Thus, a mahram is her father, son, brother, nephew, father-in-law, husband’s son from another woman, maternal and paternal uncles and boys she may have breast fed as babies. All other males (including brothers-in-law and cousins) are non-mahram.

  6. Womble says:

    You are right Hamza Yusuf (or anyone from the mainstream) would never say hijab is not mandatory. Hijab is so entrenched that to purport a different view would open them up to extreme ridicule.

    Curiosity got the better of me and I did end up watching the clip 🙂 Incidentally I also saw that H.Y. does in fact have his critics.

  7. Helene says:

    I was intially impressed with HY. Then I watched a wide range of clips on YouTube, and noticed that he is a different personality in front of different audiences. Just goes to remind us that we should not allow ourselves to be blinded by someone else’s charisma.

  8. Metis says:

    I still like to listen to HY but I agree that his inconsistency sort of puts me off. I like honesty and consistency. Certainly one grows and changes that’s a different thing but if someone says two different things to two different groups within two days then there is something Doublespeak about it.

  9. Azhar Ali says:

    Forcing a woman to wear a piece of clothing, any clothing, is as worse and condemnable as forcing the same woman not to wear a piece of clothing, any piece of clothing. Both are equally respectable. Obsession with either of ideologies of religiosity and secularism are bad. Even the hijabis are feminists. You seem to be scornful to the hijabis. Don’t be for or against the ban, but be for the liberty.

    • Metis says:

      “You seem to be scornful to the hijabis.”

      Thanks for your comment, Azhar and welcome to this blog. This post is not about *Hijabis* but about hijab and if I was *scornful* about hijab or hijabis I would have said it quite plainly. I hope we all understand that the argument is far more complex than a simple like or dislike; support or ban. Even the definition of *liberty* differs from person to person. Sigh!

      • Azhar Ali says:

        “…although I don’t oppose the political ban on niqaab.” I’d like to ask why not. Do you then also not oppose Iran’s ban on uncovering? To veil or not to veil, I am of the view that this should be left on Muslim women to decide for themselves.

        • Metis says:

          “Do you then also not oppose Iran’s ban on uncovering?”

          Yes, actually I don’t even oppose that because it is not so black and white. There are many women in Iran who want to cover and there are many women in France who are forced to cover. I can speak for myself – I don’t agree with niqaab and so I don’t oppose the ban and because I don’t agree with forced veiling I don’t visit or live in countries where women are forced to veil but I don’t think I am anyone to oppose the ban or approve of it because there will always be women who’d want to veil and those that are forced to veil.

          “I am of the view that this should be left on Muslim women to decide for themselves.”

          I applaud you for saying that! And obviously I completely agree with you. When men aren’t forced to dress in a certain way then why are women?! Sadly this doesn’t happen. I personally think that this right to decide is also taken away from women who are taught to believe in a certain interpretation of Islam – if a woman is taught from start to believe that veiling is part of *religion* then the right to choose to veil or not is taken away from her. She will believe she is sinning if she doesn’t veil and so will veil whether or not she personally likes it.

          To me there are more important issues to oppose and support than veiling. I would oppose anyone who forces women to go through FGM or any country that refuses to educate Muslim women. I oppose child marriages. I am against polygamy and stoning. I want equal rights for women and girls including equal right to divorce, child custody, education, employment, salary etc. I oppose anyone who refuses these rights to women.

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