| ||Why are more British Muslim women, without coercion from their fathers or husbands, choosing to wear the face veil (niqab)? On Monday 23rd August, Newsnight aired an interview with four women to ascertain why they adopted the niqab when their mothers did not.|
Ramaysa (sp.), one of the sisters interviewed, says,
“My decision to wear the niqab was to help me in my religion as I saw it as an act of worship. It helps me and protects me, I feel. It empowers me because when I talk I feel I have a voice and I have an opinion. I’m my own person; therefore people are judging me for who I am rather than what I look like”.
Sarah (sp.), a fellow niqab wearing sister, comments in a similar vein,
“I see the face veil as a form of liberation because it says ‘judge me for who I am, not for what I wear’”.
One of the comments made by all the sisters wearing the niqab was that when they chose to don the face veil, they were asked questions by both friends and family alike – Muslim and non-Muslim. When their reasons were explained, friends and family were accepting. There is a lesson to be learnt in this.
Asked why they choose to wear the niqab when their parents’ observance of Islam made no mention of it, Ramaysa comments that, “they came here and their purpose was to earn a better livelihood for their children and… give a better life to their children. But now, the thing is, we are born and bred here. Their aim was to work and fit in with the society and we are saying ‘hang on, we are born here; we are part of the society’. I see myself as British”.
Ramaana (sp.) further adds, “People, perhaps, feel more comfortable in expressing their religious beliefs or sexual orientation”.
The Newsnight piece then interviews Houla (sp.), a sister who wears the hijab and formerly wore the niqab. One of her reason for choosing to wear the veil was her experience of being influenced by scholars coming from the Arab world. She notes,
“One of the main topics of discussion by the scholars was that Muslim women, especially, and Muslim men need to be as different from non-Muslims as possible… and that the woman must be completely covered from head to toe, even the hands and the feet”. “I started feeling guilty about the fact that I didn’t cover my face, my hands and my feet and so I started to”.
The other sisters, who wear the veil, are heard commenting, “this is her opinion, this is why she chooses to do it”. They note that they have never been influenced by scholars preaching segregation. Sarah stresses that “the intention isn’t to reject Western culture. We are Western. In our home we wear jeans, go out shopping, go to drink coffee with our friends. We go out with non-Muslim friends that I know. And I’m British and I was born British and I’m proud to be British. But I’m a British Muslim. Just because someone’s got a different religion, it doesn’t make them less British”.
Asked whether she can understand why some people might say that she is shutting them out, Ramaysa replies, “the answer I would give to them is, ‘Are we shutting ourselves out or are they shutting themselves out from us?’ I believe I integrate fully in to British society. I go to work and the people I work with, majority of them are non-Muslim and they’ve absolutely been fine with me and I’ve been fine with them”. “They see me for who I am and they see beyond the niqab. We mix with people if people actually give us a chance”.
That the choice to wear the niqab is a rejection of Western culture or Britain is just one of the myths that the comments by the niqab wearing sisters dispel through the Newsnight piece. It is refreshing to hear their voices be aired amid this debate. In July last year, another piece by Fatima Barkatullah in The Times dispelled other popular myths surrounding the niqab.
Unfortunately, Houla recalls a different experience to Ramaysa when she wore the niqab. She remembers, “I was sensing this sense of racism and as I started to realise slowly, well maybe the fact that I dress so differently is not helping. The fact that I speak English and don’t sound very different doesn’t matter. The first thing people see is my appearance”.
The piece says that Houla thinks that Muslims should think carefully about the consequence of wearing the niqab, as “the whole situation at the moment in Europe is just so edgy and there is so much disrespect for Islam and Muslims – especially Muslim women. And in this situation, anything inflammatory about the hijab and the niqab just does not help”. “And no matter how hard you try to be friendly and nice and everything, people have already made their judgement about you – that you’re different. In our context today in modern Europe, where there is a lot of Islamophobia, it’s very dangerous and Muslims really need to try and help the situation, not make it worse and I just think that the niqab is a very visible way of making things worse for Muslims”.
Is the growing intolerance and xenophobia in Europe a reason for some British Muslims to abandon certain aspects of their identity? Should not this be challenged instead of appeased?
Houla recalls that, “I think my generation was very unhappy. We had experienced quite a bit of racism in the 70s/80s. We were very aware of the fact that our parents were immigrants. We were not, but we were not accepted and we’ll probably never be accepted”.
British Muslims are searching for a cultural space in which they can express their unique identity. Do we want a new generation of British Muslims growing up feeling rejected by their society?
The full Newsnight video can be seen here.
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