On the continent, more and more European countries legislate “niqab and burqa bans” (most recently Denmark in May 2018) that criminalise face covering. The latter was recently publicised by Boris Johnson, in an article for the Telegraph where he said he was against a ban but went on to compare women who wear a face veil to postboxes and bank robbers. In doing so, he merely continued the age-old habit of many white male politicians interfering with Muslim women’s dress choices.
The British niqab-wearing women I interviewed for my forthcoming book Wearing the Niqab believe that politicians who make such remarks simply wish to increase their political capital without any thought for the suffering they might cause. The women who spoke to me expressed their concern that the UK might criminalise niqab wearers as well, especially after Brexit. Such fear is not unfounded, as, according to a 2016 YouGov poll, 57 per cent Britons would indeed support a “burka ban”.
Several women mentioned that the niqab was palpably less tolerated in the British streets following the 2016 referendum (for the American niqab-wearers who I interviewed, the onset of the Trump administration was a similar critical moment). They reported that they now experienced significantly more harassment from passers-by than prior to the referendum. One woman remarked that “it’s open season on the Muslims now”. As the women pondered on why this was happening, they suggested “inadequate education about Islam” was the main cause of such behaviour. Many generously shied away from accusing their attackers of racism, but stories they tell about their on-street encounters leave no doubt whatsoever that this is what they experience. Name-calling, hostile stares, having the niqab torn off, being kicked, hit, elbowed, spat at and having bottles and lit cigarettes thrown at them are, for many of the interviewed women, a “normal” part of life now. These days, they leave the house expecting to be abused. One interviewee called this increase in anti-Muslim attacks “the Brexit effect”. She also suggested that politicians’ hostility towards niqab-wearers may be a build-up to an attempt to ban the niqab. Several others mentioned that politicians may be testing the public reaction to offensive, Islamophobic remarks. “They’re waiting until nobody protests against this stuff anymore. That’s when they’ll know that they can move in with the ban”.
The niqab (sometimes incorrectly called the burka or burqa, which is in fact a different kind of face covering) has been sensationalised in the West since 9/11. Women wearing it are often depicted in a frightening way, either as a uniform sea of black, or terrorists posing for photographs with weapons. A niqab-wearer from West Midlands recalled that she had been very anxious after the man nicknamed “Jihadi John” was shown in the media wearing a black balaclava. She feared British women wearing the niqab would be associated with acts he committed by way of a similar look. It was no doubt such representation that led an elderly woman to utter “please don’t hurt me” upon seeing a woman wearing a niqab in a ladies’ at a service station outside London, in an incident described to me by one of the women I interviewed. That event left her in tears; she felt guilty for causing distress where none was intended. Such events could perhaps be avoided by inviting more niqab-wearing women to speak out in the media and public life and really listening to them. Tokenistic appearances in studios where women have to verbally wrestle with right-wing commentators to put their points across do not really suffice.
Some of the interviewed women try to counterbalance these stereotypes by simply being outgoing when in public. They explained to me that precisely because they wore the niqab, and because they could focus on their thoughts rather than their bodies, they felt more confident to strike up friendly conversations or answer questions about Islam. One niqab-wearer said that she made a point of looking people in the eye and smiling. Even though they cannot see her mouth, they can see her eyes crinkling in a smile, she says. Another one told me that in order to break the ice, she took a big dish of biryani and pakoras as a gift for a neighbour who was having her kitchen redone and was unable to cook. Yet another woman said that when she was on the bus, she often complimented other women on their handbags.
To minimise the risk of harassment, the women developed a range of coping strategies. One woman said she always looked forward to winter, when she could wrap up in a big scarf and pull it over her face. This is a strategy that some niqab-wearers adopt when they travel to France, which banned the niqab in 2010. Some reluctantly removed the niqab in places where they felt they might be singled out, while others chose to avoid such locations altogether. Worryingly, the fear of harassment also affects niqab-wearers’ children, who often witness attacks on their mothers. In a few cases, the children required the help of mental health professionals to deal with the trauma.
It might seem absurd that a covered face or head can trigger such violence and hatred. After all, Western cultural connotations of brides’ and nuns’ veils are decidedly positive. The Muslim niqab falls in the same category – that of modesty dictated by religious piety. All of the interviewed women said that they wore the niqab for God. In the Qur’an, the niqab is indeed not mentioned explicitly – but neither is the hijab. Both garments are worn because the requirement to maintain modesty is interpreted differently by different Muslim women (and some religious Muslim women do not wear either, while maintaining their preferred level of modesty). Niqab-wearers emphasise that the niqab is a choice, not an obligation. They also aim to emulate Prophet Muhammad’s wives and female companions who covered their faces according to the Prophetic tradition (hadith), second only to the Qur’an in the hierarchy of Islamic textual sources.
Why is it so difficult for Western societies to accept these motivations at face value? Perhaps the temptation to score points is just too much for politicians like Johnson. After all, the subject combines both women and Islam, subjects bound to mobilise his grassroots supporters.
Meanwhile, British niqab-wearers are suffering as a result of chaotic policy lurches enacted by successive British governments. One woman sadly reflected: “I think they’re going to make us want to leave places where we are a minority and go and be with ‘our own kind’”. But most of these women are solely British citizens, and many have never even visited the countries their parents arrived from decades ago. Where exactly would they be expected to go?
Anna Piela is a lecturer in religious studies at Leeds Trinity University. She is also the 2018-19 visiting scholar with the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, MA. Her forthcoming book, Wearing the Niqab: Fashioning Identity among Muslim Women who Wear the Face Veil in the UK and the US will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.