Monday, October 3, 2011

Re-viewing the Niqab

I am a being in the making (or being in making, without "the"? um.). The more I learn, the less I know, as someone once said. This is in relation to so much of what I’m learning these days and what I’ve learned before, but in this post, I’ll specifically talk about my constantly changing views on the niqab, the full body-covering among some Muslim women. Click here for a picture of the niqab.

I cannot remember a year in my life during which I had the same views on this issue for that entire year. And I’m not ashamed to admit that my views and ideas on virtually everything (no, really, everything) are never the same. This scares me as I go into academia :p I imagine I’ll be asked questions in the media, and I’ll say one thing that I completely reject a couple of years later. But I shouldn’t worry about this. I’d hope that my audience is intelligent and reasonable enough to look at the date I said X and the date I said -X. If not, there’ll clearly be a lot more people to teach than I currently imagine. But let's not worry about that, k? I'll figure out how to handle that when the time comes, ka khairee.

k, but that’s not the point, really. The thing is, I have this friend who wears the niqab. She’s a convert to Islam. No, no – don’t make assumptions already and be like, “Oh, how typical. Non-Muslim western woman converting to Wahhabi/Salfai Islam, going from one extreme to another.” That’s not how she is. And shame on you if you made that assumption already. Her example is for me to think about myself. It’s not that every time I meet someone, my opinion about certain things that they uphold changes all of a sudden 180 degrees. It’s just, she’s not just anyone. She’s someone worth knowing.

There was never a time in my life during which I believed that all niqabi women are stupid or don’t know what they’re doing. I’ve never believed that. I know that there are always exceptions, even if I were to believe for a milli-second that niqabis are not intelligent. But I have personally never met an intelligent niqabi woman, and intelligent here means someone who can think critically on her own. I have met one niqabi woman who’s very smart, very cultured, very well-read, and I know that her decision to wear the niqab is solely her own—but I don’t think I know her well enough to deem her intelligent. I’m sure she is, however. I just don’t know that about her yet. And so all the niqabi women I ever knew before I met this friend of mine, whom I shall from now on call H., were pressured into wearing the niqab. When they chose to wear it, it was because someone had “convinced” them that the niqab was mandatory –but it was never a personal choice. This, again, does not mean that there’s never existed a woman who did it out of choice (d’oh), but it only means *I* didn’t know any such woman.

There was a time in my life, however, when *I* believed covering the face was required in Islam, and I felt guilty for not doing it in the U.S. Then I learned it was not obligatory. Even if it was, I wouldn't do it because nothing could convince me why I should do it. I did it when I was in Swat (Pakistan) this summer, though, and I did it not because I enjoyed it or wanted to or believed it was obligatory in the religion; I did it because there are social consequences if you don’t do it, so, yes, it's obligatory in the system. And I was a “guest,” so I really had no right to not submit to the norms of their society when I knew I wasn’t losing anything by doing so. (I’ll tell you about the things I didn’t do but was pressured into doing them daily, and I didn’t do them because there were consequences. Another time, I promise.)

So, back to topic! It’s true that the niqab limits women’s opportunities to be actively involved—but our friend H. won’t let that get to her. She’s as active as anyone else you may know, a non-niqabi. She’s so intelligent some people might feel intimidated by her (God bless her knowledge and intelligence). She’s so active, social, and popular I feel completely worthless around her. She knows more than one side of many different issues, and she’s not one to say something without knowing why she is saying it.

This does not mean all niqabis are like this, of course. Almost all other niqabis I know cover their faces (or cover their whole bodies, period) because their fathers or some other patriarch in their families (or their mom, really) command them to. In Swat, it’s a whole different story: All women cover their faces when they leave their houses, and most women don’t do it because they “want” to; all of them do it because they are obligated to because that’s what the social obligation is. I’ll talk about that in another blog post, but that’s just to say that I’m not denying by any means that many niqabis dress the way they do out of compulsion. Some do it out of necessity. But then there are others, like H., who simply want to do it. There’s no one in her family who would force her to do it. Does she enjoy it? Well, that depends on what kinds of situations she’s in; there are times, for example, when people stare at her because she’s different.  Is she treated fairly all the time? Well, we know that her chances of getting the kind of job that she strives for are very low, but she has plans to work around that. She’s been wearing the niqab for I believe 4 years. That’s called dedication. Strength. Belief. Commitment. I couldn’t keep my head fully covered for more than 30 minutes, let alone keep my face covered for four whole years non-stop! And for this, I admire H. so much I want to applaud her.

It’s about choice, people. And no one, no woman, should have to explain herself to anyone. I have learned that when someone wants to open up to, talk to me, express their most inner thoughts to me that they cannot express elsewhere, they will realize it within very little time of knowing me that as long as they’re around me, they have the space and freedom to be their whole selves with me; they can say whatever they want with me, because before I can say anything negative about anyone else, I have millions of negatives to admit and change within myself. And I realize more and more what my faults are when I talk to people; the more I talk to people, the more I’m around people whose views are different from mine, the more I realize how much more I need to study and learn.

So! That’s my current take on the niqab. There’s nothing wrong with it, there never was, and there actually do exist women in this world who wear the niqab because they love it, they want to do it, and they find nothing wrong with it – and, most importantly, they are not pressured to do it. H. even believes that it’s not obligatory in Islam, but she does it because she really, really wants to. Would I ever wear a niqab out of choice? Well, as of October 3rd 2011, absolutely not. But is it likely that I may change my mind? Absolutely yes. Do I think all niqabis do it because they want to? No. Do I believe that it’s anyone else’s business if women cover their faces? NO! Damnit, NO! When will we stop having this discussion on whether a woman can wear something or not?! That’s just another, a subtle, way we reduce woman to nothing more than the cloth on her body. She’s oppressed if she’s not covered enough; she’s oppressed if she’s covered too much. Can we shut up about it now? Thanks.

Good night :) I promise I’m not angry. I know I sound like it in the last paragraph, but it’s only to remind you that there’s so, so much more to a woman than what she wears, whether she chooses it or not. Even if she covers her whole body because she’s being forced to, so what? Should it really be even a priority like it is in some countries today? Why not just use that energy and passion and deal with more important things, like, oh I don’t know – what could possibly be more important than whether a woman’s face is covered in public or not… hmm… hmm… Genocide? Famine? Lack of water in some countries? Or it if absolutely has to be about women for you (it often is for me unless it’s something more serious that’s relevant to both women and men, like the aforementioned), how about women suffering from anorexia?  Rape? Spousal/domestic abuse? Women’s subjugation in western (or eastern, including Pakistani) media? And so much more.
k, good night now :) Happy thinking of solutions to serious world issues … like the niqab.

1 comment:

  1. I actually have a hard time trusting any Muslim person who is trying to present an intelligent, critical view that is not accepting and supportive of the fact that some women *choose* to wear niqaab. I am glad that you were completely honest here on your evolving feelings on niqaab and munaqabaat (I have known some very intelligent niqaabis in the Gulf, BTW) but you are not one of those people who like to seem open-minded but don't support freedom of choice in dress. I know some people think hijaabis are less intelligent, too. Anyway, niqaab is so complex and means such different things in different contexts. Niqaab has such difference in meanings (plural) for Gulf women than it does for many Western-based women who wear it. And then you have situations like what you describe about Swat. Anyway...niqaab is very complex. Not a simple for-against matter.


Dare to opine :)

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