Have you ever met a woman in a niqab? Has one ever harmed you?

As politicians call for a "national debate" on the niqab, Aisha Gani speaks to women who choose to wear a full-face veil to discover why they do so.

Struggling politically? Want to fill columns? Start a debate about the niqab. It’s another opportunity to roll out the veil puns and plaster that stock image of a Muslim woman in a black niqab, her heavy eye make-up emphasised.

Sometimes I think that we are obsessed. Why do we insist on telling woman what they should and shouldn’t wear? As a British Muslim woman who wears the hijab (headscarf), I don’t think covering my face in public would be safe, appropriate or is necessary for me. But I have close friends who wear niqab, and I don’t want to judge them. I am no scholar. What other women believe and wear is up to them, they don’t have to justify themselves to me. There is so much hostility based on what we think the niqab represents. One of the first things that came to mind when Jeremy Browne made his comments was this: has anyone actually spoken to any of the women who choose to wear niqab? So I decided that I would talk to as many as possible. 

It’s been argued that women who wear a full-face veil are excluding themselves from society. Psychology graduate Nadia, who started wearing niqab a few months ago, tells me that opportunities are not taken away by a piece of cloth, but by how other people react to it. “From my understanding of feminism, women should be able to do want they want to do. The niqab isn’t imposed by men. I do it for God.” Tayabbah, 20, is an English student at King’s College London and tells me that no one should take her right of wearing a niqab away. “I’m not harming anyone. It is a choice I made and a choice I have to deal with.” 

These are determined young women. And they are hardly conforming – they are a minority within British Muslims, and no one forced them to wear a niqab. Several say they are the first ones to wear the niqab among their family and friends.        

“I found niqab liberating,” Muslim convert and mother-of-two Khadija Sallon-Bradley tells me. “When I turned 12, I started wearing make-up. There’s this notion that is if you’ve got it, you flaunt it - and it’s driven into you that if you don’t look good, you won’t be spoken to by boys. So much has to do with appearance and you are bombarded with images of perfect and skinny girls and it makes you very self-conscious. I had so many insecurities.”

She started to question her role in society, what was expected of her, and went through a feminist phase as a teenager. Khadija adds that although she converted at 18 and started wearing hijab at university, she couldn’t “ditch the concealer”. By wearing the niqab, she felt right and that people wouldn’t judge her just by her face any more, and that there are many ways to communicate.

LSE Sociology student Rumana, 24, has dreams of being a social worker. “I want to work with vulnerable women, deal with victims and inspire other niqabis. I don’t want to cut off my career choices. I don’t want to accept that.” Although Rumana concedes that physically she has put up a barrier, her intention is not to be cut off from society. She does not deserve to have “letterbox” shouted at her, she says. “You can’t see me, but I make sure you hear me. I make sure my character and personality comes through. I’m not just a walking Qur’an.” She tells me that she makes an extra effort to contribute to seminars, to say hello and so on. She does compromise when she has to and has given evidence in court. I can’t help thinking, is this chatty young Muslim someone who should be excluded and shunned for what she chooses to wear?

If these women didn’t want to be a part of society, you wouldn’t see them in the street in the first place, would you? In the past, I didn’t understand why some Muslim women would wear extra covering, but that’s because I never asked. These women have done their research, and feel compelled to wear the niqab. In most cases, they deal with the situations they are in pragmatically and with courage. When it comes to security and identification, whether they are sitting exams, going to the bank or travelling abroad, women who wear niqab have either worked out an accommodation or have compromised. 

When I go out to eat with a friend who wears niqab, we’ll choose a restaurant where she feels comfortable. It’s not an issue. The first thing I associate with my friend with is her love of baking, her football obsession and the way she laughs, not what she wears. She has never imposed her way of doing things on me.

Women who wear the niqab shouldn’t be dehumanised or othered. I am sure that my friends who wear it don’t appreciate how (largely) white middle-class MPs and commentators - who have little interaction with those who wear niqab - feel as though they have to act as a knight in shining armour to liberate Muslim women from their oppression. The women I spoke to don’t need a saviour, nor do they want anyone to view them with a patriarchal eye, as though Muslim women are meek creatures without agency. The fetishisation of a covered woman and the language of de-veiling is not only orientalist, but it can be creepy. I am reminded of the recent leak of Lady Gaga’s Burqa lyrics. It’s so wrong.

This is Britain, and pluralism is something to be celebrated. I have come to appreciate the diversity in Islam, and Muslim women are not homogenous. We have different inspirations and different styles. There has been a huge fuss about the niqab, and I think it would be more helpful to understand and appreciate the contributions of these women instead of marginalising and scapegoating them. Will it make us feel better to ostracise them?

Perhaps we should question ourselves and what makes us feel so insecure about difference. Have you ever met a woman in niqab? Has a woman in niqab ever harmed you?  

A veiled woman in Cairo. Photo: Getty
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The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war