Niqabs and hoodies

The London Evening Standard today printed a letter from one Papya Qureshi of west London, a Bengali Muslima “who has been taught to dress modestly”:

I have lost track of the names of clothes Muslim women cover themselves up with. There’s the burqa, niqab, jilbab and hijab - unless I’ve forgotten any; it appears as if it’s made up as it goes along. Indeed, increasingly extreme dress seems to have become a fashion statement for British Muslim girls.

Well, the four terms mentioned generally are used for specific items of dress. Burqa is generally used to mean the all-covering Afghan overcoat which covers everything, with a grille for the woman to see through. It’s often brightly coloured, and is a highly restrictive garment which is not worn anywhere outside Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the Gulf region, however, it’s used to mean a simple face covering, which does not cover the eyes and is usually black.

A niqab is a face covering. You can buy them in most Islamic shops and on various websites which can send them straight from the Gulf. They come in a variety of configurations, but usually consist of a thick “inner” layer with a headband and a window for the wearer to see through, with one or two flip-over eye layers. One of these may be flipped down and the other kept up, so that both the eyes and the poppers or tie behind the head are concealed, and it’s possible to find niqabs which cover the eyes leaving good vision for purposes like reading. Most common, however, is for both to be flipped up.

A jilbab is a long coat; in fact, terms like jelaba and galabeyya are variants on jilbab. These days it’s like a long, ankle-length raincoat, but the term has also been used to mean a covering worn over the head as well, sometimes drawn over the face. Finally, while hijab means a screen generally, it’s commonly used to mean the simple headscarf, which is usually tied first behind the head and then under the chin, although there are many variations. It is to be found in most Muslim countries and thus many words exist for it. In Turkish it’s known (confusingly) as a turban, while in Malay it’s called a tudung.

Ms Qureshi opines that there may be some wisdom in the recent action by Imperial College to ban niqabs and “hoodies” (these are loose hooded tops which can be used to cover the face, commonly worn by delinquent youths) because they are associated, respectively, with extremism and criminality. Well, this is mainly the result of ignorance, as and Muslim women have been wearing niqab on and off many British university campuses for years without any trouble. The action at Imperial may well derive from the college’s special circumstances, such as its involvement with animal testing which may make it a target for animal rights extremists. But there has never been a single incident of Muslim women’s veils being involved in terrorist activity anywhere in this country - a fact some claim is irrelevant, since anything that conceivably might be used by extremists should be treated as a security risk.

And as for the claim that “the burqa is banned in several universities in the Muslim world”, she does not name any, and the same can be said of the hijab, usually in secularist dictatorships and pseudo-democracies. It’s not “about tackling perceived links between behaviour and clothing”, but allegedly, in this case, about security. In cases where religious clothing is banned in the Muslim world, it’s about giving people incentives to join the secularist cause by making religious observance as unattractive as possible (and reinforcing stereotypes that religious women can only be housewives and seamstresses by making these the only occupations open to them). These people are revolutionaries, and “oldthinkers” are not welcome in their new world. As I pointed out when it came up on Opinionated Voice, the behaviour of religious Muslim women and delinquent “hoodies” are a world apart; they shouldn’t be treated alike.

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