An insider’s view on niqab

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What follows is an account of the experiences of a young sister in Canada who has been wearing the niqab since she was 17 and at school. Her name is Ardo; she is of Somali origin and lives in Ottawa, and is presently in her fourth year at university. I wanted to present a real sister’s experience and perhaps defence of the niqab, because although I strongly defend the right of Muslim women to wear it (and, insha Allah, I may post a more comprehensive defence either here or at the Sharpener either today or tomorrow), I am not best-placed to do so as a man, so I sought Ardo’s experiences. What she told me was both enlightening and sometimes depressing.

What Jack Straw said was extremely offensive and disturbing, particularly to those who wear the Niqab. I have been wearing the niqab for the past five years and when I decided to wear the niqab I did so for three reasons. First, I wanted to create a barrier between me and those who were disobedient to Allah and the niqab without doubt does create that barrier. Second, I wanted to become closer to Allah and this was act not of order but rather out of choice, so I figured for example if I did the extra homework for my physics class I would get extra bonus points, thus why not do an act of obedience not because I have to but because I want to increase my taqawa, surely a great reward does come with this. Third, I wanted to make a point to Westerners because when I decided to wear the niqab it few months after the September the 11th, there was a lot of negativity about Islam. Muslim women where portrayed as oppressed, abused, uneducated, powerless and far most dehumanized, because of Islam and its teachings, but anyone who understands the true teachings of Islam would understand the status that Muslim women are given in Islam. The point I wanted to make was the fact I lived in a so called democratic country, where I was given the freedom to address others anyway that I wanted, and I choose to wear the niqab. Some of the girls in my school began to take off their hijabs, either out of fear or because they did not want to separated from the norm.

If I was honestly dealing with Jack Straw I could care less what he demanded or how the niqab made him feel. I was created to please my Creator, not a man who thinks highly of himself.

Alhumdulilah my experience with the niqab has been a pleasant one. I had barely had any obstacles, I was well treated in society, I felt welcome anywhere I went, I traveled to US and it was a pleasant trip, I lived there for a year and it was great. I’m in my forth year of university studies and I was well treated throughout my studies by both my professors and colleagues. I have worked for a marketing research company and I was hired with my niqab, as well as gas marketing company.

So if the niqab is Banned in UK, sure this will have some implications that might or might not influence Canadian politicians, but believe me the Muslim community in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada is one of the strongest communities in the world, at least in my opinion and we as communities of different faiths will not tolerate any discrimination against the identity and rights of collective groups. I would advise my Muslim sister to remember Allah, we wear the niqab because its an act that is pleasing to Allah, who cares if the Politian’s in the UK or elsewhere don’t like it, that’s too bad. Remember that there is no might nor power except that of Allah and no matter what they do or say we have the protection of Allah above all else.

After she wrote this, I asked the sister a number of questions:

What age exactly were you when you started wearing the niqab?

I turned 17 in December 2001 and I started wearing the Niqab in February right after Eid.

What type of school were you at?

I attended public school that was extremely multicultural, 70 different nationalities with 70 different languages. This was a very diverse school in terms of class, race, and religion. Although I would say roughly about 70 % or more of the student populations were Muslims, then followed Christians of different sects, and then few Jewish students, not many.

Did you discuss it with anyone else, Muslim or otherwise, before taking the decision, or did you simply turn up for school one day in it?

I always wanted to wear the niqab because I extremely shy around men and my father was always going to the Mosque and I often I went with him. So this was one of the elements that pushed me to wear the niqab. I did consult with my best friend and we wrote a list of the benefits of the wearing niqab and the hardships that might arise from it. I did do research in terms of what the scholars said about it, whether it was mandatory or not. After I deicide that it was something that I wanted sincerely to do, then I consulted my parents. My parent’s advised me to wait until the fusses about September the 11th diminished, and then perhaps wear it. But I told them I really wanted to wear it at the moment I decided and they were fine with it.

Did anyone else do the same?

Not at the school which I attended. However, there were sisters attending other high schools that where close by that also wore it, perhaps a year later.

What did your family and sisters think at the time?

My sisters are younger than me, so they didn’t really understand why I wanted to cover my face and what significance it had. As for my brothers, parents and relatives they were very proud of me, as well encouraging and supportive.

Have any of your sisters expressed an interest in taking it up?

Yes and no! My 17 year old sister who is graduating high school this year wanted to wear it a while ago, but I think she changed her mind at the moment because she wants to pursue university education and she thinks wearing the niqab might limit her opportunities; and I understand where she is coming from. One of the things that I did not take into account before wearing the niqab was the fact that niqab is not meant to be worn outside all the time, it creates unnecessary attention. So if one wants to purse university studies or career interests I would advise them not wear the niqab.

Did anyone else take it up following your example?

I would not say I was the example for them, but I know two sisters that decided to wear the niqab at the university I was attending. Also there was a sister before me that was attending the school that was wearing the niqab. She was my example and she very much motivated me throughout studies.

Have you always worn the same type of niqab, i.e. the Saudi three-layer type you told me about, or have you experimented with others?

I like to be consistent with the niqab I wear, it’s always black and it’s the Saudi kind. However, I often wear it with different colours of hijab and dresses.

Do you wear mostly dark colours when you are out?

No; not always. I noticed people feel more comfortable around me when I wear less dark colours and very distanced when I wear dark colors.

**Do you know many other women who wear niqab, and if so, what have they said to you about their motivations for wearing it? **

There are a lot of sisters who wear the niqab in Ottawa and Toronto, most of them believe that it’s a mandatory act that every Muslim woman should fulfill and that is why they wear it, and few of them believe that’s it an optional act of obedience and that is why they wear it.

Have their experiences been as pleasant as yours?

I would say so or even better because most of them are married and they either wore the niqab after their studies or after they got married, therefore they are not in the public eye that much, they only go out for necessity.

What are their intentions in life; do they plan to follow professional careers or to be primarily wives and mothers?

Most of the sisters I know are very educated women, with either one or two university degrees, very educated about Islam as well. They understand the importance of motherhood and the responsibility of being a wife, so they try very hard to fulfill their duties to Allah accordingly, and they told me that they will make use of the university degrees once their children mature.

What is your own intention in this area?

I want to be independent person, meaning I want a career. I’m specializing in International Development and Globalization for a reason. I want to school for a purpose that is to obtain education that will allow me to make a difference in the world, in particular Somalia which is the country of my origin.

What would you do if it became clear that you would not get a job in your chosen area without removing it?

Subhan Allah, this is a hard question. I know for sure wanting to do development work and wearing the niqab is simply not well-matched, I have learnt this from my experience. The niqab creates a barrier and if your intention is to help people, you want people to relate to you and feel comfortable around you, even if they are women. So what would I do in this situation, I honestly would weight the benefits of each element. If the development work will benefit the people, society and the Muslim community and that work cannot be done by me because I’m wearing a niqab, I would most definitely remove the niqab, because this itself is an act of worship, and that does not make one less of a Muslim.

But, I would never remove the niqab, because I want to obtain the highest job in development work and to get that job it was necessary for me to remove the niqab.

What did you mean by “a barrier between you and those who were disobedient to Allah”? Do you mean putting up a barrier to those disobedient to Allah ta’ala because you didn’t want their company and they would leave you alone, or because you wanted to distinguish and disassociate yourself from them? I ask this because this distinction is one of the excuses anti-hijabists use to ban the headscarf, never mind the niqab, in places like France.

What I meant was I did not want my classmates inviting me to perform inappropriate activities, such as dating, going to dances, smoking, and slacking off school. I was a lot more respected when I did not give into the pressures of my peers. I had no intention to demean non Muslims in anyway what’s so ever, I wore the niqab to better my self and I assumed if I was dressed this way they would not invite me to perform these activities, and this tactic absolutely worked; and when they asked me why I simply told them they were inappropriate acts according to my religion.

I asked the sister to clarify why she would advise sisters not to take up the niqab if they intended to go to university if her experiences had been generally positive. Her reply shocked and disappointed me:

I would not advise sisters to wear the niqab if they wanted to purse university studies or career oriented work for the following reasons:

(1) Wearing the niqab in public creates unnecessary attention and tension. My experience with the niqab has been a positive one in terms of internal growth. It is extremely difficult to bear the burden of being the only one on the bus wearing the niqab, the only one at the mall with a niqab, and the only one who can’t eat in the cafeteria. If we look back at the history of the righteous Muslim women, their interaction with the public was far less then our interaction with the pub lic today.

(2) The niqab creates a barrier between the individual and society or the public. The people you want to work for want to relate to you and feel comfortable around you, but when one has the niqab on they get intimidated or threaten by it. I know for a fact that there are sister who never approach me because they feel intimidiated by me, it’s always the person who is wearing the niqab who has to make an effort so others feel comfortable. When people smile at me, I honestly smile back and I greet them with a hello or hi since they cannot see my smile.

Although my experience with the niqab has been a positive one in general, there were days I went home and cried the whole night, there were days when I was attacked on the on the bus or downtown, there numerous days when I was insulted and there were days in the summer when I fainted because of the heat. Nonetheless, after each incident I became a stronger person. I went from being defensive all the time to a person who is more patient, calmer, and more tolerant to things. Wearing niqab is not easy; there are expectations to meet and pressures to deal with, but the expectations set by Allah are the only ones to fulfill. Wearing the niqab is constant reminder of why I was created, to worship Allah, and because of this I continue to wear the niqab day after day.

I asked the sister if she knew of women in hijab, without the niqab, experiencing the same problems as she sometimes had:

Some sisters who wear the hijab have told they have been mistreated, but to what extent I don’t know. My best friend, who is also Somali, is specializing in Biochemistry and she is always complaining about how she is treated by her peers and professors. She says she has experienced discrimination on three accounts; first she’s discriminated against because she’s Muslim as she wears the hijab, second; because she’s not white, and third because she’s a woman. These are everyday racism and systematic forms of racism, and they are very difficult to cope with or combat.

The most important lesson I take from sister Ardo’s experience is that we should not be pressuring sisters in the west to wear the niqab, especially as we Muslim males often don’t make much concession to Islamic dress beyond growing our beards longer than average (sometimes not even that). When I first came to Islam, I was in contact with a group of brothers in Croydon who followed Shaikh Asif Hussain Farooqui, and he insisted that all the brothers wear the shalwar-kameez or other sunnah dress with a turban, and their wives often wore niqab even though the shaikh himself did not regard this as compulsory. This is not what we find in many universities in the UK, however; we often find brothers in western clothes, while the sisters wear long dresses and hijab, and often niqab as well.

Ardo is not alone in having been attacked on account of her niqab; there has been at least one in the UK since the present controversy arose, but even in the 1990s such things were happening in the UK; Q-News printed an article about a sister who said she had been pulled off a London bus when she was with her young daughter. There are those who would say that such experiences are no excuse, and that the more sisters wear it and the longer people see it, the easier it would get. A lot of scholars of Islam would disagree; for example, Shaikh Nuh Keller said a few years ago that he did not advise sisters in the west to wear it, because while a headscarf was an easy thing for non-Muslim westerners to accept, niqab was rather less so, although he insists on it for his female students visiting Syria or Jordan and attending the suhba meetings.

More recently, he appeared to have softened his position, giving a speech (which is available at the website, although probably not to non-members) in which he said that the wearing of niqab anywhere outside the aforementioned situations was entirely the women’s choice, and that husbands should tell anyone who had a problem with it that the wife is religious; the impression being that husbands should not pressure their wives either to wear it or to remove it. He mentioned that his shaikh, Abdul-Rahman al-Shaghouri, had been furious when the Muslim Brotherhood circulated a poster of a beautiful young Syrian girl with a hijab, but no niqab, in Damascus with a slogan that “this is how a Muslima should look”; he had said that anyone who campaigns for women to unveil their faces is a shaytaan (devil).

Ardo’s experience notwithstanding, I was aware that there were many sisters wearing niqab at Kingston university in south-west London when I was there in 2003 and 2004; I was briefly in contact with one of them who did not tell me she had been having any such encounters. Perhaps when there is a supportive group of Muslim sisters and a relatively open-minded academic community with a robust anti-discrimination policy, women will find the going somewhat easier. Still, while I personally approve of the niqab and support any sister who decides to wear it, I believe us brothers should not pressure any sister who is wary of it to adopt it unless they spend most of their time in places with a big Muslim presence. They have, after all, been at the front-line of Muslim visibility for the past twenty years, wearing their hijabs and long dresses while we men stick to our trousers and suits. It’s unfair of us to push them even further over the parapet.

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