Niqab experiments: don’t do it!

Someone asked on DeenPort earlier today for advice to give to a female Christian friend who wants to do an experiment by wearing niqaab, the face-covering worn by some Muslim women, for a day. My advice was very simply “don’t do it”, as this has been done so many times before, as I have mentioned here in the past, and the reported results are always negative. It reminds me of similar experiments by people who “experience” disability of some kind for a day by going out in a wheelchair, which are often roundly condemned by the disability community as they cannot possibly reproduce the experience of a person who lives with disability in real life every day.

What’s the difference between a one-day niqaab experiment and being a niqaabi? For one thing, a real niqaabi is doing it out of a real sense of religious commitment and gains some degree of strength from that in dealing with whatever strange looks and hostility she may encounter. She most likely lives in a place where there are plenty of niqaabis, so there is strength in numbers, and has friends who also wear niqaab. She has tried a number of different types of veil and has found one which suits her and is comfortable — there are many types, but the “three layer Saudi black niqaab” seems to be the most popular. Someone doing an “experiment” will find that they can’t breathe or see properly through the veil, that they get funny looks and might complain that they can’t express themselves properly.

Similarly, the disability-related experiments fail to represent the real experiences of everyday disabled people, not least because the experimenters jump straight into one aspect of being disabled in a way that nobody with a real disability ever does. Let’s take a wheelchair-user with a spinal cord injury, for example: these days, they will most likely have a lightweight chair which is specially made for their body and which may have been customised somewhat to fit their personality, while an experimenter will be using a clunky hospital chair that is typically used to transport an old person home in a van but not much more. The real wheelchair user will know that they will still have to use the wheelchair the next day, so they will be thinking of ways round the obstacles they encounter (and of fighting any obstacles society may put in their place), not huffing and puffing and then thinking “I can’t wait for tomorrow when I can walk”. But perhaps most importantly, before getting in the chair, the user will have spent weeks or months bedridden or attached to some immobilising device so as to let their injury heal, so compared to what they had before, using a wheelchair may well feel like freedom, which it won’t to someone who’s just walked up to the chair and sat down. Even for someone who is not paralysed but is, say, debilitated by a condition like M.E., a wheelchair may allow them to get out of their house, which they could not otherwise do.

Anyone approached for advice on such an experiment should be told very simply not to do it, and ask someone who wears a niqaab every day (or uses a wheelchair, if that’s the experiment) about their experience. There are many women around who do and many of them are more than willing to tell their stories, which will be so much more representative and meaningful than anything you would learn from a one-day experiment. We’ve all heard of walking a mile in someone’s shoes, but if your feet hurt from doing so, it’s probably because their shoes are not your size.

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