Covering Your Face: religion, oppression and individual freedom

Posted: January 29, 2012 in Uncategorized

So this is one of those rare moments I blog about something serious. Cue gasp.

The face-cover, also known as the Niqab in Arabic, has been the subject of so much controversial talk world-over, first gaining fame for heated discussion in Middle Eastern countries. Is it oppressive? Is it a matter of freedom of choice? Is it necessary at all? Blah blah blah blah. Having been brought up till most of my teenage years around practising Muslims, I have come across many women who donned the Niqab.

Some of them did it on grounds of a personal decision, on basis of the general Islamic belief that men and women should simplify and dress-down, to such an extent of minimal physical adornment, in order to detach from the material world (which is a common theme in almost all religions and philosophies that preach detachment, ref. the bald monk in simple robes).  And some were just told to by their parents or do it because of their cultural setting without knowing why they do or how not to.

Islam in itself, according to a majority of scholars, does not declare it an obligation on women to cover their faces, although some pious women of the Prophet’s time did and so it’s looked upon as an admirable commitment by many religious people.

What do we think the Niqab is?

So let’s just examine what the Niqab really means in today’s context shall we? The media’s coverage of it through pictures and videos taken of women in Middle Eastern countries, has been — let’s not sugar coat it — extremely negative, bordering on sinister. It has, like the Hijab (the covering of the head), become ‘symbolic’ of a patriarchal type of oppression against women, as stories of men forcing their wives and daughters to cover themselves against their will have been sprung onto our eyes and into our ears through television and newspapers. Women in sombre blue Burkas (an entirely shapeless garment with barely any defining seams inclusive of a face-cover) crowd in a street corner in Afghanistan (supposedly) in a photograph captured by a British journalist. Captions under such pictures paint the mood of the moment an ominous and pitiful colour; ‘do these women know freedom?’ says a comment below the picture. And so, as a rule of classical-conditioning in the human brain, it becomes a natural assumption that a woman covered up either in Hijab/Niqab/Burka (mostly the latter two), is a victim. Pictures in the media of (some, not all) powerful and successful women, in little clothes, staring fiercely at the camera on the cover of a magazine, proudly presenting their physical beauty, in an era where physical beauty has become of such importance — has also helped with labeling negatively the image of a woman who covers her face.

‘Why would anyone cover their face?’

This is a question that plagues most people who are often completely outside Islamic and conservative spheres. Why would anyone do it? You can’t see the person’s face, I don’t know who I’m talking to, it’s unnatural. Different people may do it for different reasons, and even though I wouldn’t cover my face because I don’t feel strongly about it and it would definitely be at odds with my lifestyle — I believe that any women who chooses to wear the Niqab only has to justify it with a ‘because I want to.’ If we claim to be a progressive universal society of humans who are all for personal freedom and individuality, and we allow some people to wear teeny weeny polka dot bikinis, some to wear shiny ugly clothes that are a crime to fashion, and others to wear whatever they want, why not a woman to wear a piece of cloth on her face if she feels like it?

But let’s get real

I feel like it is, however, asking too much, to expect average society (except in an Islamic country) to suddenly just be OK with women walking around with covered faces. As time and places have shown, people stare, people ask questions, people are puzzled about it — I know, because one of my closest friends covers her face in public. She is extremely pretty, intelligent, creative, confident, has a mind of her own and is great fun socially – and in today’s context, when covered-lady has become almost synonymous for Middle Eastern victim of oppression and flirty-lady-in-short-skirt has become a positive connotation, she feels at odds with things sometimes. The reality is that there are some people who, for some reason, downright disapprove — I’m not even speculating here, I’ve heard people say they just can’t accept it. The reality is that you cannot expect miraculous open-mindedness from people; the reality is that most people out there will feel sorry for or feel uncomfortable around a stranger who appears with her face covered; the reality is that many of them have already made up their mind up about you and your life before you even spoke a word. You have been judged.

It’s ironic, said my friend, that some people walk around saying they are oh so very liberal and open-minded and preach no judgment for all, but when they see me, with a simple cloth standing over my face, I am almost immediately subconsciously categorized into a little folder before I can provide the first impression.

This is however somewhat of a generalization, there are some people out there who don’t care what you wear and are fair enough not to have preconceived notions shaped by the media’s classical conditioning. But I’m very sure it’s a small number compared to those who do.

What the Niqab really is

In fact, and not in historical symbolical terms, the Niqab is a piece of cloth, often black in colour, often worn along with a long loose dress. It is a piece of cloth attached around the face either with a knot or velcro. It is a thin light piece of cloth, she can still breathe and see from behind it because there’s usually a slit for the eyes, it does not obstruct her view in any way, no it is not going to interfere with her driving skills, and yes it is a little warm than without it but barely really because she’s used to it, it isn’t uncomfortable. In a majority of cases at least in Sri Lanka today, it is worn because the person wearing it wants to. On wearing the Niqab, the woman does not suddenly become a different creature – she’s still under there. It’s just cloth. It isn’t some diabolical transmogrifying device, and there are others who are much more deserving of your disapproval such as that fat hairy guy in the short-shorts and that school teacher whose skirt barely covers her posterior and that man with the nazi swastika on his tshirt.

She still has ideas, a voice of her own, she can still see you staring at her in wonder and she feels self-conscious and uncomfortable, she can still hear you call her ‘ninja’ and laugh at her, she still has feelings, she still gets hurt when your child points and says ‘bakkamoona’ and you don’t even correct the child, she has a laugh, she has aspirations, she has opinions. She has interests, she has family and friends, she’s just another person, except with different clothes on her body. Yes, it definitely seems ‘unnatural’ in today’s general context to see a potentially vivacious and confident woman in public with a black cloth concealing her face, but get over it. I’d like to think we live in a world that has the mental capacity to look beyond the cover of a book; when writing for the rights of women, which at the time in 19th century England, seemed a rather ‘unnatural’ thing to do, J. S. Mill said it best: So true is it that unnatural generally means only uncustomary, and that everything which is usual appears natural.

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Comments
  1. Chavie says:

    While I empathize with Niqabis and agree that the right to wear what you want and not be judged should be a feature of a tolerant and enlightened society, there is something very practical that you have missed out here. Your face is your identity, and covering it is hiding your identity. Think about it: Are you more likely to accept a Facebook friend request from someone who has put their face as the profile picture, or has put a Disney princess indeed? And to extend it a bit further from that point, in most societies the people who cover their faces/identities are people who operate would be in danger if their identities were to be revealed – be it ninjas, or Batman, or hijackers in balaclavas. So, while people shouldn’t be forced what to wear, the sad reality is that certain choices come with conditions. 😐

    • makuluwo says:

      You really think it makes sense for people to equate a girl in Niqab in, say, a school, to the likes of ninjas, Batman or hijackers? 😛 If I’m gonna get real, then yes like I said we can’t expect people to be OK with it because there are certain ‘norms’ in society — such as the notion that face = identity, and a covered face causes a bit of ‘o noes it’s a ninja/Batman/hijacker’ panic, and granted, meeting new people will be a bit weird for them. If you really open your mind though, you’ll notice this norm isn’t exactly infallible. What if I covered my face? You think my friends will have a problem figuring out my identity? They’d still know it’s me. I think this isn’t that relevant unless it’s in a country where constant vigilance on identity is crucial like if there’s a terrorist situation.

      • Chavie says:

        I’m not saying it makes sense, but that’s what people do. 🙂 And of course your friends will know who you are, it’s more about that first impression, and getting to know new people.

      • Chavie says:

        Also, I think that the human love for faces is much more than a societal norm. I mean, that’s the reason we use smilies isn’t it? To humanize and show emotion though we’re communicating through a flat textual medium. That’s why facial expressions are so valued in communication.

  2. dee says:

    I wasn’t going to write anything cos really..each to their own…but on chavie’s point…say hypothetically, I was ok to cover my face…would it narrow my scope for interaction and maybe doing new things..like say I want to learn swimming (considering the fact that it IS a life skill and say that I never learnt when I was little) orrr….want to attend a zumba class or learn the jive… am I to do all this at home and avoid weddings or dancing at them rather…btw is that haraam? :/ how would it work..? just wondering…:/

    • makuluwo says:

      That’s why I referred to it as a big commitment, dee. It is definitely not for everyone; it’s for those who prefer to live a certain kind of lifestyle, which doesn’t normally involve zumba classes. But I know Niqabis who do try out new things like swimming (all girls classes usually) and travelling and stuff. Those who wanna do some of the stuff that the Niqab keeps them from doing usually just opt not to wear it.

  3. Jerry says:

    First, you probably know I’m not the most open minded about this, but anyway 😛

    I still feel like it’s some tradition that belongs in the middle ages. Like wearing pantaloons and underwear the size of basketball shorts. It just doesn’t gel with what people get up to in 2012, like the above commenters have noted. For no observable benefit(See what I did there? :P)

    Even ignoring the very real issue of men forcing women into it, women who have evaluated and experienced all other options, and choose to cover themselves are a mystery to me. It’s restrictive, with nothing to show for it. I mean, maybe if there was some kind of martial art you could only get into in a burqa or _something_.

    Then again, the crux of your post is that they do it “because they want to”. Power to them, I guess. I still don’t get _why_.

  4. Jack Point says:

    Are you aware of any woman (in SL) who wears it because of peer pressure? Or pressure from society or family?

    Just asking.

    • makuluwo says:

      Yeah I know a few, I’ve mentioned this in the blogpost, very unfortunately some people are pressured into things by their conservative families.

      • Jack Point says:

        This is a very vexed question to which I have not found an answer.

        To start with a definition as to the types:

        http://twentytwowords.com/2011/06/06/not-all-headscarves-are-burkas-7-types-of-muslim-headwear-for-women/

        My ‘gut’ reaction is that find the black one full length ones to be a really ugly garment. I find myself automatically recoiling if I bump into someone unexpectedly who happens to be wearing one (eg around a corner or when entering a corridor or something).

        I have seen a few burqua’s that are in pale blue, cream or lightish brown that seem a bit better, especially when then are cut better. The hijab, Al-amira and Shayla are better than the others.

        I don’t find myself recoiling at the sight of a Salwar Kameez, even ones that are a bit sloppy. The well cut ones can be beautiful. There are also some beautifully cut veil/leggings/top combinations that look really nice if not downright hot.

        For example here:

        http://www.stylishhijab.co.za/index.php?option=com_morfeoshow&task=view&gallery=9&Itemid=131

        or even more dressy:

        http://www.arabstiles.com/2011/02/beautiful-hot-womens-turkish-hijab-style/

        While looking for other images came across this site. The comments seem to be telling women not to wear leggings.

        http://welovehijab.com/2008/04/22/islamic-clothing-leggings/

        I think my reaction to it is mostly to do with style. The full length shapeless cloak looks terrible, especially in black. I suppose the fact that some get pushed into wearing it does colour opinion even further.

        • makuluwo says:

          I know, even I kind of had a problem with the lack of style in most of these religious garments, which led to my conscious decision to wear my own Islamic clothes in a different-than-usual way that doesn’t look goday. There is no official thing that dictates that one has to wear these clothes in one *particular* style, the style that one picks has mostly to do with only geography and culture. But then style is very subjective to culture etc, so personally I try not to point and laugh at anyone. It’s tragic that some people get pushed into things but I guess that happens in many places under many different circumstances, all one can do is spread awareness about it and hope people break out of their inflexible ways of thinking.

  5. Sabby says:

    Most of the time, it’s not a question about ‘I cover my face because I want to’ but rather because I have to or because that’s how it’s done. What most people don’t know is the history behind the Niqab. History review: Islam came about in the middle of the dessert. I have lived in Saudi Arabia, I know how bad sand storms got. People used to cover their face and head so that sand doesn’t get into their eyes. Some men, bedouin men, still do back in Saudi when they live in the remotest part of the desert country.

    But over the years, this simple action of covering your face and eyes to avoid sand scratching your cornea out has been related to religion. Sadly, the women in Saudi know their history but they still do it because religion forces (i think) people to be creatures of habit.

    I don’t quite get why people in country’s like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or India wear the Niqab. I am okay with the Abaya and the hijab, everyone has their own reasons and they are entitled to show their faith however they choose. But the Niqab? Not so much.

    • makuluwo says:

      I get where you’re coming from about many people becoming mere creatures of habit, especially within inflexible cultures, but I think your belief that women ‘most of the time’ cover their faces because they feel forced to in some way is rather presumptuous and based on the hyper-sensationalization of saudi’s infamous oppression stories. As for not getting why people wear the Niqab in countries outside the middle east, does it matter why?

      It’s really fascinating to me, though, just how many people can’t be okay with the Niqab without really pinpointing a precise reason – maybe it’s some kind of subconscious psychological aversion, to the shapelessness, the dark colour, the not being able to determine the person’s identity on first glance, a sort of reflex panic reaction to the visually undefined form.

  6. MeatBalls says:

    I’d much rather see the face of the person I’m dealing with. A man could slip under that thing and pretend to be a woman. How could you tell? You never can.

  7. Fathimz says:

    lol…I wear the niqab and was driven to comment after seeing all these comments in here that give a negative idea about the niqab.

    I live in a family of which about 90% of the ladies adorn the niqab, yes that’s right, not just the abaya, but the whole package…face cover and all.

    Anyway it’s quite interesting that people have such different opinions about it. All I have to say is thank you for all who are so concerned for us, and who worry about us not being able to take zumba classes and stuff like that, we really appreciate it; but I think all these things we miss out on are actually more than made up for by all the benefits we receive in wearing the niqab.

    Although we may look oppressed and our facial expressions are covered by the veil, do not expect a gloomy face behind them. We are just normal human beings, we laugh when we are happy and cry when we feel sad. We do smile and stick our tongues out at annoying little brothers. WE ARE NOT ZOMBIES! We pretty much lead a normal life and have our own freddom and choices.

    We are educated (I know the basics of English and IT – otherwise I wouldn’t be typing here); we go shopping and splurge on our husband’s money (if you call our men oppressed, maybe you have a point there, cos we do tend to go a bit overboard with the shopping sometimes!!!); we travel and have vacations (of course it doesn’t cost us a cent, husbands in Islam are responsible for all the wife’s day-to-day expense – of course holidays are not included; but they spoil us with these extras too!), we can swim in a ladies’ only pool (I have) and participate in sport as long as the place is free of any of the opposite gender, etc;

    I’m not saying that wearing the niqab is easy but I have to admit it’s really not all that hard as long as you’re not forced to do it! There are those little sacrifices you have to make like covering up your face after wearing all your makeup and hoping it doesn’t get wiped off by the time you reach the ladies’ area of a wedding you’re attending; and having to cover up before you go and show the electrician which light has to be replaced in which room……these are little things we face each day but I don’t see them as major sacrifices.

    IF someone is oppressed, yes they need help and if it’s the niqab she feels is oppressing, maybe she needs to be gently educated on modesty in Islam rather than being forced into it; but if it’s solely a person’s decision to wear a niqab, just give her the freedom to do so.

    So my point is let’s just live and let live. Give the niqabi the same freedom to move about in the society as any other human being.

    Jazakallah Shifani for chosing to write about this topic. I actually came to your blog after a long time hoping to read some interesting and light-hearted post of yours and came across this. Guess more awareness of the niqab is the need of the hour! I’ve written such a long comment…but the topic of hayah (modesty) is one topic that would be hard to cover even by writing an entire book!

    PS: lol….yes I have come across one of those kids once at a shopping complex in Dehiwela, who pointed at me and said some word close to “bakamoona”, can’t recall the word..

  8. Fathimz says:

    *freedom

  9. I’m all for modesty, and would be the first to agree that the sexualisation of female imagery in the media, particularly in the western world is out of hand…. however I have the question….

    What type of modesty is trying to be preserved through a face covering, and is what is being sacrificed worth the cost? Would we women do this if we were free to choose… after all there is no stipulation to specifically cover faces in any religious text? Covering the face limits human expression and interaction. The niqab makes sense if this is the intended aim.

    Modesty is a noble trait that shows concern and respect for our fellow people. Similarly so are openness and trust. They say only 10% of what we say are related to the words we speak. How much of what someone says can we understand or trust if we cannot see their expression? So who are we helping/protecting here – it seems neither the covered nor the recipient? In this sense is covering the face really modest or socially polite at all?

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