All Eyes on Me

Muslim woman using her iphone

Muslim woman using her iphone
Muslim woman using her iphone
Hafsah bint Sayeed al Awlaqi

I would never have thought a piece of cloth could cause so much fuss. But Jack Straw decides to pull a publicity stunt, Holland does away with the Human Right’s Act, and the next thing you know, pictures of veiled women are plastered across the front pages of almost every newspaper in England. According to Mr. Straw, those of us who choose to wear the niqaab make “better, positive relations” between communities “more difficult”.1

I first wore the niqaab three years ago in my sixth-form college. Out of approximately 400 students, there were only a handful of Muslims. And I was the only ‘niqaabi’. I began wearing the veil halfway through my AS year, so my teachers and peers had seen me without it. Those who knew me respected my choice; I remember my head of sixth form just smiled when she saw me for the first time in niqaab.

A friend of mine asked me why I was wearing it, I said it was too complex an issue to discuss during break time and a string of emails followed. A year 10 boy asked me if I was wearing it because I was married, prompting a laugh from me.

I was in a rush to get to class so I said “no” and turned to carry on down the corridor. But as I did so, I heard the girl sitting next to him whisper: ‘Would you want your wife to dress like that?!’

I felt compelled to turn back and explain myself. I got in trouble for missing half the lesson, but I’d say it was well worth it if I left those two youngsters with a better view of Muslim women in general.

I find it peculiar that Jack Straw chose to pinpoint veiled Muslim women as those who hinder community cohesion. Would language not be the greatest barrier? Why didn’t he comment on those who can’t speak English and yet are leaders of their local Muslim community? Or the parents who don’t know if their child is mistranslating and making things up at the parent-teacher meeting at school because they can’t speak English?

If Mr. Straw had mentioned language as a factor affecting community cohesion, or even the increasing ghetto-isation of certain communities (he need not look far from home), I would have wholeheartedly agreed. But instead he chose veiled Muslim women, who make up a tiny minority of Muslims across the UK.

Most Muslim women who choose to wear the niqaab do so due to an accepted interpretation of the Islamic sources of law; they feel it is a compulsory religious requirement. Another opinion does exist, according to which women may leave their face uncovered. But one thing’s for sure:

Jack Straw is the last person to be telling Muslim women which interpretation he would prefer them to follow - what qualifications does he have to say the niqaab isn’t necessary; isn’t that for a Muslim woman to decide on her own? Even non-Muslim women would consider it unacceptable for an MP to suggest what they wear to his surgery. It’s a basic human right for people to wear what they want, whatever happened to freedom of expression and freedom of religious practice?

The Rt. Hon. Jack Straw said that he “felt uncomfortable talking to someone…who [he] could not see” 2. Some may feel uncomfortable talking to people who have tattoos or a tongue piercing.

If only we could all go around making requests for others to remove certain pieces of clothing or jewellery which made us feel uncomfortable, but alas, I fear it would make life a whole lot more complicated - wouldn’t it be easier and more harmonious to accept one another for who we are, and overcome our own prejudices to accommodate each other?

This sentiment is perfectly expressed by Timothy Garton Ash in a Guardian article: “The most tiresome argument in this whole debate is that the niqaab makes white, middle-class English people feel “uncomfortable” or “threatened”. Well, I want to say, what a load of whingeing wusses. Threatened by drunken football hooligans or muggers - that I can understand. But threatened by a woman quietly going about her business in a veil?” 3

Mr. Straw also noted that the niqaab is “such a visible statement of separation and of difference”4 and what do you know, Tony Blair decided to chip in too, saying the niqaab was a “mark of separation”5.

Couldn’t one say the same about Rastafarian hats, Sikh turbans, nuns’ habits, Buddhists’ robes, gothic attire etc? As these are not the norm, they inevitably make a person stand out. But I would say this is simply the beauty of British multiculturalism - the colours of many different cultures together make the British landscape a whole lot more interesting.

Unfortunately Jack Straw’s eagerness for the limelight resulted in racists across the country acting like they had a free reign to insult Muslim women. In the week following Mr. Straw’s comments, I was verbally abused regarding my niqaab on four separate occasions.

My reaction was at first shock, and then sadness that it had to come to this. A friend of mine who also wears the face veil mentioned that she is so fed up with the racism she has to put up with, that she has considered removing the niqaab, but the only thing that stopped her from doing so was her refusal to give in to the racists.

I am not questioning Jack Straw’s right to express his opinion - of course everyone has the right to express their opinion, but words are not something to be thrown around without caution.

MPs and people in the spotlight have to be especially responsible with words because everything they say has an impact on the rest of us. So in my list of things which hinder community cohesion, it looks like I’m going to have to put ‘irresponsible MPs’ right there at the top.

Holland added fuel to the fire when it announced its proposal to ban the niqaab in public places. Not so surprisingly, this ban is likely to be in breach of Dutch religious freedom laws. Here are some of the arguments we’ve heard over the past few months regarding the niqaab:

The niqaab is a hindrance to communication because it’s hard to hear what a niqaabi is saying.

You’ve gotta be kidding me! The face veil does not muffle my voice or any other niqaabis’ voice. Contrary to insulting opinions it is not a mouth gag. Some people are genuinely quiet, you won’t hear them regardless of whether they’ve got a piece of cloth in front of their mouth or not.

And trust me, those of us who want to be heard, will be. Besides, the eyes are the window to the soul, as the proverb goes. A person’s emotions can definitely be seen through their eyes, and one’s body language and tone of voice also play a big part in communication.

I know of Oxbridge graduates who wear the niqaab, one is currently a practicing lawyer; I doubt she would have got to where she is now if people found it so difficult to communicate with her. In my opinion this is the most ridiculous argument outta the lot.

It’s a security issue

Women have been wearing the niqaab for a good few decades in the UK and they have never posed a security risk, so what’s the issue? How many niqaabis have refused to take their veils off when asked by security guards? At most, they’d ask to be checked by a female.

Most niqaabis are very willing to reveal their face for ID purposes, it is allowed in these situations, just as it is allowed in court if you attend as a witness. If anything I’d think they were getting a bit lax on security if they didn’t bother checking that I am who I say I am.

Besides, if one was to say the niqaab is a security risk, well then so are trannies. Even if they pull out their ID card, the pic won’t match the woman standing before you. What are they gonna do, start stripping their wig, make-up and clothes off to get down to the real man beneath?

It could be argued that they’re more of a security risk than women in veils, but no one is complaining about them: live and let live as they say.

We are imposing our ‘culture’ on others. If we want to follow our culture, we should go ‘home’

But this IS my home, I was born here! And what on Earth is ‘British’ culture anyway? My parents are Indian, if I go back there, do you want me to take the curry and tea with me? Some of the things we now consider ‘British’ were adopted from the cultures of our old colonies.

We’ve always been accepting of other cultures, so why the sudden change? By wearing a niqaab, I am simply expressing a religious belief, a right given to me in this country - I do not expect all women to follow my dress code. All I ask for is a bit of tolerance in this ‘free’ society of ours.

Non-Muslims can’t wear what they want in Muslim countries

I would say ‘so-called’ Muslim countries. Unfortunately many of them are very far from the true Islam. But people who complain about not having the right to dress the way they wish in a Muslim country completely miss the point. Yes, that’s not at all fair, but we’re talking about the UK here, a country which boasts about its free and tolerant society, where people are now saying it should be against the law to wear something.

It’s ridiculous. To ban someone from wearing the niqaab makes us just as oppressive as the Middle Eastern regimes we claim to have the moral high ground over.

It is a symbol of oppression and subjugation

Deary me. This argument must go back to Adam and Eve, that’s how old it is! Women who wear just the headscarf were once called ‘oppressed’ till they came out and made their voices heard.

It’s the same with the niqaab. Anyone who was to meet an educated young girl who happens to wear the niqaab would know that there is so much more to her than just the veil. It is a conscious decision made out of subjugation to God, NOT to man.

As other countries in Europe move to ban the niqaab and limit our religious rights and freedom of expression, as a Muslim I appeal to the Ummah to remain united on this issue - regardless of the way you view niqaab, the fact remains that it holds a place in Islamic history and in Islamic law.

And as a British citizen I appeal to my country’s sense of multiculturalism and diversity - let’s keep it alive; continue having such discussions whilst accepting each other for who we are.



I read this article today. I really like the style that it was written in and also the am impressed with the your ability to add in your own personal story which kept me reading on. It had a nice flow to it. So well done. (masha'allah)