The Guardian today printed an article by the journalist Zaiba Malik about her experiences wearing the niqab for a day around London. This follows last night’s Tonight with Trevor McDonald slot in which Saira Khan - yep, her again (, ) - did the same, donning a niqab and going walkabouts in two districts in Manchester, one with a heavy Muslim presence, one without, for the cameras. Needless to say, both of them, neither of whom even wear the headscarf in public normally, came away disliking it.
These experiments aren’t new; during the early period of the Taliban, Eve-Ann Prentice wrote about her experience wearing the local burqa while working in Afghanistan, where it was compulsory, and last April Zoe Piliafas made local headlines (amplified around the world by blogs including mine) when she wore a “burka”, actually a niqab, for a semester as part of her college project. Eve-Ann Prentice’s aside, because she actually had to wear it, they all suffer from the same fatal flaw: they are written by women who have never worn the niqab, but wear it for a short time in order to confirm their prejudices and write about them with “more authority”.
To their credit, the Guardian and its sister paper, the Observer, have twice featured interviews with a real niqab-wearing sister, Rahmanara Chaudhary. Unlike Ms Malik, Khan and Piliafas, these women wear it because they want to, because it is part of their religious practice, and they find out how to wear it so that its less comfortable aspects do not become unbearable. In particular, they know where to get niqabs which are made of decent-quality cloth, are breatheable and do not slip so that she can always see properly. And somehow, they manage to wear it in a variety of different situations, whenever they leave the house, for years.
Saira Khan’s documentary showed a typical lack of understanding: while interviewing a real niqabi, she made numerous complaints, among them that she could not see her expressions. In fact, the lady would probably have taken off her veil if there had not been cameras, and no doubt men, in the room. She could have had a conversation with this lady without the veil getting in the way, such as it does (and it doesn’t in my experience talking to such women), off-camera. Ms Khan later said she came away with a positive impression of this woman’s character, but only said so later in the programme. Saira Khan complained about the anonymity, which some women no doubt like, while Zaiba Malik complained of being stared at even in Muslim-heavy areas such as Edgware Road, where she claims she saw not one woman in niqab (I’ve been there many times, and often seen women with their faces covered).
The Guardian is far from the most unbalanced of newspapers in covering this issue, but when will they realise that the experience of a woman who never thought of wearing the niqab doing so for a few hours is in no way representative of those of people who wear it by choice, and all the time? Of course, not all practising Muslim women wear the niqab or would choose to, but you would expect them to be fairer to women who choose to veil than Khan or Malik.
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