Niqabi women speak out about the surge in mainstream face-covering

Niqabi women speak out about the surge in mainstream face-covering
A hijab-wearing woman with a face mask. (File/AFP)
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Updated 12 May 2020

Niqabi women speak out about the surge in mainstream face-covering

Niqabi women speak out about the surge in mainstream face-covering
  • Voices from Saudi, Dubai, London, Pakistan, Kuwait and America discuss how the usage of face masks may impact how niqabs will be perceived in the future

DUBAI: “Bold looks coming out of the country that banned Muslim women from wearing burkas and niqabs,” tweeted US photographer William Vercetti in response to images of face masks on the Paris Fashion Week runways in February.

A few weeks later COVID-19 was classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organization and face masks went from “novelty” status to an everyday essential, even in countries where covering your face for religious reasons has been banned.

The double standard is glaring. While medical masks certainly serve a different purpose than niqabs do, it’s essentially the same amount of facial square footage being covered, by a similarly-shaped piece of cloth or other material.

The majority of Muslim women do not cover their faces but, with the rise of the global modest fashion revolution, there has been a movement to de-stigmatize not only hijabs, but niqabs too. There are niqabi Instagram personalities in London, Canada, the US Pakistan, the UAE and elsewhere. Saudi Arabia’s Amy Roko, with more than a million followers, is one of the most prominent. She recently starred in a campaign for Benefit Middle East.

While they may form a part of the cultural fabric in the Middle East, Belgium, Austria, Denmark and The Netherlands are some of the European nations that have outlawed face veils, in addition to Morocco, and the Canadian province of Montreal.

They are banned in some places for security and identification concerns in specific buildings and, in others, the ban is widespread and covers all public spaces.

Whether or not they live in a country with a niqab ban, Muslim women who cover their faces experience prejudice and persecution.

Marjaan Ali, a student from Madinah, was screamed at to “Go back to where you came from” when she visited a carnival in Texas. When landing in France she was told not only to remove her niqab – which is legally prohibited – but her hijab, too.

“When I calmly told him that I had read the law and it only banned face coverings, not head coverings, he turned red and let me go,” she told Arab News. “The whole time I was there, I walked through the streets of the small village we were staying in with my face uncovered, passing people with shawls wrapped around their faces for warmth. The irony of the situation did not elude me.”

Dubai resident Nadia Shafique has been wearing a niqab for 12 years, and is afraid to travel abroad, even to visit family. “I haven’t traveled West – although my brother is in the UK I haven’t mustered the courage to visit him. I have children and I have felt the responsibility of shielding them from anything negative or violent,” she told Arab News.

But now that covering your face has become the norm, some niqab-wearing women are optimistic that the overall resistance to face veils may lessen. “It should make (those opposed) re-evaluate and reconsider their ideas,” said Shafique, who hoped that the public rethinks how they view and treat niqabi women.

“I think that this gives everybody the opportunity to step into our shoes for once and experience it as somewhat ‘normal’ and as a necessity to whenever you step out,” Sarah Wazir, who wears a niqab and lives in Pakistan, told Arab News.


Portrait of Sarah Wazir. (Supplied)

Ali said that the arguments that were used to claim the niqab hindered social interaction, that it created an environment of negativity and hostility, were all false. “As we see everyone is perfectly able to communicate and interact positively even with face masks on.”

Naseema Begum, who lives in London, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson notoriously used the world “letterboxes” in reference to Muslim women who veil, pointed out the feasibility of performing everyday affairs with your face concealed. “If during this time people could go around business as usual, like shopping, banks, work, and public transport, while wearing face masks or covering their faces with bandanas, then why can’t we Muslims wear our veils for our religious beliefs?” she told Arab News.

While rulings against niqabs cite security as the main concern, Ali said that niqabi women did not pose a threat to society. “We happily take off our niqabs for identification purposes at banks, airports, and any other place that requires it.”

Rather than infringing on others’ rights, biases against niqabs seem to infringe on the rights of these women.

Kuwait-based Shugraa Iqbal stopped wearing her niqab after being denied education and work opportunities at US institutions. “I was asked so many times if I was willing to remove it, getting into university was difficult, and so was getting an internship,” she told Arab News. “I hope people will see us as independent women and not as women that are ‘oppressed’ who need saviors. Maybe, just maybe, what we wear and how much we cover will not affect our education, jobs and opportunities in the future.”

Begum said she had been unable to go for afternoon tea with her friends at The Ritz because niqab-wearing women were not allowed in the hotel or cafe. “Come on. The Ritz, in the heart of central London, in a very Arab-dominated area, is not allowing people to come in because they wear the veil!”

Once it’s safe to re-open, it’s possible that establishments such as The Ritz will enforce mandatory masking – or at the very least, certainly allow those wearing medical face masks to enter. It seems only logical that women who wear niqabs, with their noses and mouths covered, will also be permitted entry.

We may, as a society, grow desensitized to the sight of covered faces, but could the mass normalization of medical masks go so far as to help reduce religious prejudice?

“While I would like to say yes, I don’t think this will be the case,” Liz Bucar, religious ethicist, professor and author of Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress, told Arab News. “Banning face veils in the West had been about gendered Islamophobia. It’s not really about covering faces … I think most non-Muslims will not make the connection that face-veiling for religious reasons and public health reasons both depend on ideas about the common good, and that they are both motivated by ethical concerns, even if those concerns are of course different. At least, that is a connection they won’t make without actually learning more about religious modesty.”