Enough of the silly veil-dabbling articles

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 ([1], [2]) - 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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  • That annoyed me too when reading the article. Why pick a woman who doesn’t even wear hijab to try a couple-hour experiment with niqab and then treat that as definitive?

    Niqab does take a bit of getting used to although I must say that I’ve never had any particular problems with it. An actual woman planning to wear niqab will usually experiment with different styles and practice until she finds what works best for her.

  • Ann

    Assalaamu alaikum,

    “Enough of the silly veil-dabbling articles” is right…

    The first few days I wore a niqab, it was uncomfortable, and I was already used to wearing a hijab and abaya. I had to find the kind that was most comfortable with me, made of the right fabric, as you mentioned. After that, it was perfectly comfortable, and I don’t even notice that I have it on. (And as I’ve said before, it doesn’t affect my peripheral vision; I don’t know how she was wearing it.) But I - and many other women - manage to wear it in much hotter weather than you have in England now.

    This woman wasn’t used to the hijab or the abaya (jilbab) even, and didn’t know how to wear any of these things correctly, so obviously it would be uncomfortable. Uncomfortable in terms of physically having it on, and uncomfortable in terms of people’s reactions.

    The first time you wear something so different, it’s bound to feel strange. Publishing these kinds of articles over and over again is just silly.

  • AnonyMouse

    Hmmmm… why don’t you write a letter to the Guardian and tell them what you think?

  • As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    AnonyMouse: I did, but they printed http://www.guardian.co.uk/letters/story/0,,1924583,00.html">http://www.guardian.co.uk/letters/story/0,,1924583,00.html”>someone else’s letter rather than mine.

  • Zoe Piliafs

    Hello, my name is Zoe Piliafas. I am the same Zoe Piliafas that wore the burka for a semester. Please realize that you have read ONLY one article about my experince, written by a college student. To assume that you know my every thought and feeling on the experince is absurd. If you have questions regarding my experince, by all means ask. Please dont make assumptions based on one article. Thanks.