The Niqab & All That

Wearing the niqab or face-veil in public is highly controversial. There are good reasons why the practice should not be allowed. And there are few reasons why women of religion should wish to do so …..

….. editorial by Paul D Kennedy

As a non-religious expatriate resident of an Islamic country for more than a decade and a half, and a curious human being who has studied Islam in reasonable depth, I have three solid reasons for questioning the right to wear the niqab, a veil that covers the entire face, in public – a right claimed only by a very small minority of Muslim women throughout the world. I am not talking here of the hijab, the Islamic headscarf, or the abaya, the voluminous over-robe, both of which leave the face exposed.

First, some very practical matters

What would the reaction be if I, a Western male, were to enter a bank with a mask over my face? Why are there moves to ban ‘hoodies’ from British shopping malls? Should anyone, regardless of their race, culture or creed, be allowed to hide their face in public?

Our faces are the main way we humans recognize each other. That our faces should be visible and recognizable to others at all times is accepted by most people as reasonable. This recognition factor is the reason why our faces appear on our passports and other ID documents, and are recorded for all sorts of official purposes. The niqab obviously hinders our recognition of each other.

I’m not sure I agree fully with Jack Straw, the English politician, who has stated that wearing a niqab ‘jeopardizes social harmony’. However it certainly does inhibit normal conversation, which is an exchange of both audible words and visual signals. The niqab prevents the transmission of the facial expressions that are part of a full, meaningful and satisfying discussion and which we all rely on in order to understand the nuances of a conversation.

During conversations, we normally look at each others’ faces to gauge the reactions to what we are saying, to judge whether our conversational partners are being serious, telling the truth, or joking. Those who look away are considered shifty or insincere. Why should those wearing a face mask be considered any differently?

Indeed smiles, grimaces and other facial expressions are part of social intercourse in all societies. We humans like to see people’s faces, especially when we are talking to them. And to have a discussion or negotiation on a serious matter with some-one you cannot see is difficult, hence the popularity of expensive video-conferencing over less expensive telephone-conferencing for long-distance business discussions.

Besides inhibiting normal conversational intercourse, the niqab can also be used as an effective disguise, as several examples show.

During the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990, male Westerners were trapped in that country and at risk of being arrested as hostages. A few managed to escape across the desert to Saudi Arabia disguised as Bedouin women. They did so by wearing a black abaya and niqab and sitting among Bedouin women in the back seats of trucks driven by Bedouin men. The Iraqi soldiers would check the IDs of the men but, true to their culture, never insisted on seeing the faces of the women. The trick worked successfully for a few weeks until the Iraqis discovered what was happening.

On a more mundane level, in many Arabian Gulf countries such as Kuwait local women use a niqab to go ‘mini-mini’, ie out socializing without the knowledge of their husbands or families. The practice is so common its condemnation has become a hardy annual in the local press.

Though the idea of using a niqab to go ‘mini-mini’ may seem trivial, the effectiveness of the niqab as a disguise is taken seriously in the Arab world. Recently, Abdel Al-Hay Ebaid, the dean of Helwan University near Cairo in Egypt, banned persons wearing the niqab from entering the women’s halls of residence at that university, stating that his express purpose was to protect female students from men who might enter thus disguised.

Female examination candidates in Kuwait University are not allowed to take their tests while wearing niqabs to prevent more knowledgeable substitutes from sitting the exams on their behalf.

Thus there are good practical reasons why no one should be allowed to go about in public wearing a mask that hides their identity and facial expressions, even if they claim a compelling religious reason.

Secondly, where’s the compelling religious reason?

I have read that marvelous book, the Holy Quran. There are no surats (verses) in the Muslim bible stipulating how women should dress. The only references I can find as to how people should dress are in surats 7.26 to 7.31. These verses merely state in general terms that Muslims are obliged to cover their private parts, nothing more.

I have also tried to find references as to how women should dress in the ahadith, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). According to most Islamic authorities there is no hadith stating that Muslim women must to cover their faces outside their homes, though there is, according to some authorities, one hadith that states that women should cover their entire bodies, with the exception of their hands and faces, in public.

Of course I may have been inattentive in my studies and would welcome a challenge that corrects my faulty knowledge. Anyone who knows better should send the surat number or hadith reference to my email address.

I have discussed this matter with several Islamic scholars in the Gulf. Most agree that wearing the niqab is a cultural preference, not a religious obligation. Indeed Soad Saleh, a professor of Islamic law and former dean of the women’s Faculty of Islamic Studies at Al-Azhar University, in Egypt, has publicly stated that the Holy Quran does not say that women have to cover their faces and that wearing the niqab is merely an old Bedouin tradition.

However there is no doubt that Islam obliges Muslim women to dress modestly. But how does wearing a niqab make a woman more modest than she appears while wearing only a hijab and full-length clothing? Personally, I don’t think a niqab does so.

Finally, the niqab as a negative symbol

I agree with most thinking Muslims who, when they discuss the position of women in Islam, say that evils such as child brides, female circumcision, honour killings and forced marriages are cultural issues that have nothing to do with the religion itself. I think this is obvious from even a cursory study of Islam.

Some Muslims defend the wearing of the niqab on the grounds that it is a symbol of piety. That may be so. But there is a point the niqab debate does not seem to have touched on so far and it is this: symbols are tricky things. The same symbol can have a positive connotation for one person but a negative association for a person from another culture.

In this context a niqab may be seen as a personal statement that the wearer is a religious woman who expects to be treated respectfully. In the Middle East. But use of the niqab as a positive symbol is this way is not confined to Muslims but can be seen among other sects, including a few Christian denominations. In these Arab cultures the niqab is a symbol of purity and female chastity.

But this is not so outside the Middle East. In most countries, including some where Muslims are predominant such as Indonesia, it is seen as a mask that disguises the face and the niqab therefore has connotations of deceit or shame.

This symbolic aspect of the mask is perhaps the (unstated) core of the current debate about the niqab. At its heart is the unspoken fear that obliges motorcyclists to take off their helmets as they enter certain buildings in London. It relates to the fact that faces are the main way we humans identify each other and communicate non-verbally, and the (unexpressed) feeling of many that the niqab is a form of camouflage. In order for the niqab to be accepted in non-Arab countries, some way has to be found to counter its negative perception as a symbol of disguise and deceit. This will not be an easy task.

So why do a tiny minority of Muslim women champion the niqab? It inhibits recognition and normal conversation. It is not a religious obligation for Muslim women. It doesn’t add to their modesty, and in non-Muslim countries it is perceived as a disguise or a symbol of deceit and is therefore resented.

So why should any Muslim woman wear a niqab in public? Why should she be allowed to? Why should she want to do so?

© Paul D Kennedy, October 2006

This editorial was written in response to an article How I came to Love the Veil published in the Washington Post on the 22nd October 2006 under the by-line of Yvonne Ridley.

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