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Islamic Dress

Muslim journalist Zaiba Malik had never worn the niqab. But with everyone from Jack Straw to Tessa Jowell weighing in with their views on the veil, she decided to put one on for the day. She was shocked by how it made her feel - and how strongly strangers reacted to it

Zaiba Malik
Tuesday October 17, 2006

Guardian

'Idon't wear the niqab because I don't think it's necessary," says the woman behind the counter in the Islamic dress shop in east London. "We do sell quite a few of them, though." She shows me how to wear the full veil. I would have thought that one size fits all but it turns out I'm a size 54. I pay my £39 and leave with three pieces of black cloth folded inside a bag.
The next morning I put these three pieces on as I've been shown. First the black robe, or jilbab, which zips up at the front. Then the long rectangular hijab that wraps around my head and is secured with safety pins. Finally the niqab, which is a square of synthetic material with adjustable straps, a slit of about five inches for my eyes and a tiny heart-shaped bit of netting, which I assume is to let some air in.

I look at myself in my full-length mirror. I'm horrified. I have disappeared and somebody I don't recognise is looking back at me. I cannot tell how old she is, how much she weighs, whether she has a kind or a sad face, whether she has long or short hair, whether she has any distinctive facial features at all. I've seen this person in black on the television and in newspapers, in the mountains of Afghanistan and the cities of Saudi Arabia, but she doesn't look right here, in my bedroom in a terraced house in west London. I do what little I can to personalise my appearance. I put on my oversized man's watch and make sure the bottoms of my jeans are visible. I'm so taken aback by how dissociated I feel from my own reflection that it takes me over an hour to pluck up the courage to leave the house.

I've never worn the niqab, the hijab or the jilbab before. Growing up in a Muslim household in Bradford in the 1970s and 80s, my Islamic dress code consisted of a school uniform worn with trousers underneath. At home I wore the salwar kameez, the long tunic and baggy trousers, and a scarf around my shoulders. My parents only instructed me to cover my hair when I was in the presence of the imam, reading the Qur'an, or during the call to prayer. Today I see Muslim girls 10, 20 years younger than me shrouding themselves in fabric. They talk about identity, self-assurance and faith. Am I missing out on something?

On the street it takes just seconds for me to discover that there are different categories of stare. Elderly people stop dead in their tracks and glare; women tend to wait until you have passed and then turn round when they think you can't see; men just look out of the corners of their eyes. And young children - well, they just stare, point and laugh.

I have coffee with a friend on the high street. She greets my new appearance with laughter and then with honesty. "Even though I can't see your face, I can tell you're nervous. I can hear it in your voice and you keep tugging at the veil."

The reality is, I'm finding it hard to breathe. There is no real inlet for air and I can feel the heat of every breath I exhale, so my face just gets hotter and hotter. The slit for my eyes keeps slipping down to my nose, so I can barely see a thing. Throughout the day I trip up more times than I care to remember. As for peripheral vision, it's as if I'm stuck in a car buried in black snow. I can't fathom a way to drink my cappuccino and when I become aware that everybody in the coffee shop is wondering the same thing, I give up and just gaze at it.

At the supermarket a baby no more than two years old takes one look at me and bursts into tears. I move towards him. "It's OK," I murmur. "I'm not a monster. I'm a real person." I show him the only part of me that is visible - my hands - but it's too late. His mother has whisked him away. I don't blame her. Every time I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirrored refrigerators, I scare myself. For a ridiculous few moments I stand there practicing a happy and approachable look using just my eyes. But I'm stuck looking aloof and inhospitable, and am not surprised that my day lacks the civilities I normally receive, the hellos, thank-yous and goodbyes.

After a few hours I get used to the gawping and the sniggering, am unsurprised when passengers on a bus prefer to stand up rather than sit next to me. What does surprise me is what happens when I get off the bus. I've arranged to meet a friend at the National Portrait Gallery. In the 15-minute walk from the bus stop to the gallery, two things happen. A man in his 30s, who I think might be Dutch, stops in front of me and asks: "Can I see your face?"

"Why do you want to see my face?"

"Because I want to see if you are pretty. Are you pretty?"

Before I can reply, he walks away and shouts: "You fucking tease!"

Then I hear the loud and impatient beeping of a horn. A middle-aged man is leering at me from behind the wheel of a white van. "Watch where you're going, you stupid Paki!" he screams. This time I'm a bit faster.

"How do you know I'm Pakistani?" I shout. He responds by driving so close that when he yells, "Terrorist!" I can feel his breath on my veil.

Things don't get much better at the National Portrait Gallery. I suppose I was half expecting the cultured crowd to be too polite to stare. But I might as well be one of the exhibits. As I float from room to room, like some apparition, I ask myself if wearing orthodox garments forces me to adopt more orthodox views. I look at paintings of Queen Anne and Mary II. They are in extravagant ermines and taffetas and their ample bosoms are on display. I look at David Hockney's famous painting of Celia Birtwell, who is modestly dressed from head to toe. And all I can think is that if all women wore the niqab how sad and strange this place would be. I cannot even bear to look at my own shadow. Vain as it may sound, I miss seeing my own face, my own shape. I miss myself. Yet at the same time I feel completely naked.

The women I have met who have taken to wearing the niqab tell me that it gives them confidence. I find that it saps mine. Nobody has forced me to wear it but I feel like I have oppressed and isolated myself.

Maybe I will feel more comfortable among women who dress in a similar fashion, so over 24 hours I visit various parts of London with a large number of Muslims - Edgware Road (known to some Londoners as "Arab Street"), Whitechapel Road (predominantly Bangladeshi) and Southall (Pakistani and Indian). Not one woman is wearing the niqab. I see many with their hair covered, but I can see their faces. Even in these areas I feel a minority within a minority. Even in these areas other Muslims turn and look at me. I head to the Central Mosque in Regent's Park. After three failed attempts to hail a black cab, I decide to walk.

A middle-aged American tourist stops me. "Do you mind if I take a photograph of you?" I think for a second. I suppose in strict terms I should say no but she is about the first person who has smiled at me all day, so I oblige. She fires questions at me. "Could I try it on?" No. "Is it uncomfortable?" Yes. "Do you sleep in it?" No. Then she says: "Oh, you must be very, very religious." I'm not sure how to respond to that, so I just walk away.

At the mosque, hundreds of women sit on the floor surrounded by samosas, onion bhajis, dates and Black Forest gateaux, about to break their fast. I look up and down every line of worshippers. I can't believe it - I am the only person wearing the niqab. I ask a Scottish convert next to me why this is.

"It is seen as something quite extreme. There is no real reason why you should wear it. Allah gave us faces and we should not hide our faces. We should celebrate our beauty."

I'm reassured. I think deep down my anxiety about having to wear the niqab, even for a day, was based on guilt - that I am not a true Muslim unless I cover myself from head to toe. But the Qur'an says: "Allah has given you clothes to cover your shameful parts, and garments pleasing to the eye: but the finest of all these is the robe of piety."

I don't understand the need to wear something as severe as the niqab, but I respect those who bear this endurance test - the staring, the swearing, the discomfort, the loss of identity. I wear my robes to meet a friend in Notting Hill for dinner that night. "It's not you really, is it?" she asks.

No, it's not. I prefer not to wear my religion on my sleeve ... or on my face.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

Thanks to Christine for pointing me to this article. I found it interesting and thought I'd share.

You may have noticed that I've been very quiet on the whole 'Islamic dress' affair that's been in the UK news recently. This is because I personally don't mind how people dress and certainly don't find the full Islamic garb offensive or unnerving. There are a few women who dress this way in Finchley although it is still very rare to see it. I would hate to see the whole 'dress code' be demonised and become a symbol of militantcy. I can see that happening though if the press - and government - keep on the way they have been.

I do agree that religious garb should not be worn in schools though. Religious symbols - such as a necklace or pin - sure but nothing more overt. Schools are a place of education but of religion unless your parents have chosen to send you to a school with religion in it's charter. I agree with religion being taught in schools but the key word is 'taught'. I think all religions should be covered as knowledge helps fight predudice. I certainly don't think religion should be promoted or preached at schools though.

Anyway, it's 3AM and I should really get some sleep before my travels.

Take care everyone and catch up with you all soon. x

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
silver_blue
Oct. 18th, 2006 10:09 am (UTC)
I think the argument that the niqab, or indeed any other full face covering, creates a barrier to communication is a legitimate one. That's an entirely fair point to be raised, but very different from any kind of suggestion that it should be banned overall.

For issues where face to face communication and the development of trust is important - e.g. in a teaching role or similar, then limits on the wearing of the niqab seem legitimate. It is different from other overt symbols of religious belief because even without the religious aspect it acts as a barrier to communication.

I also think it's worth noting that if I or anyone else were to try and interact in day to day society wearing a complete face covering of one kind of another, it would be questioned and would certainly make people look askance. The importance of face to race recognition for trust and identification purposes is very clear.
brinker
Oct. 18th, 2006 06:14 pm (UTC)
in a teaching role or similar, then limits on the wearing of the niqab seem legitimate.

I'd like to note that here in Oman, students aren't allowed to wear any sort of veil (and we have all types) that covers their faces. This is a law that was instituted a few years back when there was a student caught cheating on the final exam at the govt's showcase university. (She had a friend come in and take the exam for her, and the instructor couldn't see her to know.)

I believe (although I'm not positive) that this is the case in all the Gulf except Saudi.

To contrast this article, I periodically wear an abaya/hijab when I'm back in the US just to see reactions. I've had a lot of stares, but never anything more overt. (I've gotten a few compliments on it, as well... )

On a purely personal note, after 4 yrs in the Middle East (and one year in Turkey... which half counts) I've found my reactions to the abayas/hijabs have shifted to mirror my stereotypes of the people... (and they're generally very positive stereotypes.) I do still find it distracting to try to talk to the occasional woman I meet who is fully covered, though. It's hard to gauge moods, and I never know where to look. Surprising how much we rely on eye contact in modern society.

So, I suppose the point of this post is.... If even the Arabian Gulf countries can ban any sort of veils in certain situations (schools, any sort of ID cards/scenarios, etc.) it doesn't seem too horrific for other countries to do so as well. Of course, I'm also pretty unhappy with policies that don't allow any sort of head covering, but that's a different issue.
littlestkobold
Oct. 18th, 2006 11:28 am (UTC)
I think the moment the government begins to dictate what we can and can't wear, it will be a very dangerous path indeed.
anyeone
Oct. 18th, 2006 08:46 pm (UTC)
I don't see a connection between wearing religious dress in a school and teaching or promoting that religion. Wearing a religious garment is no different from wearing a pin or a necklace, and for some religions is it forbidden to go outside without wearing those garments, i.e. Jewish men with kippot, Sikh men with their swords, etc. Wearing != promoting and telling someone they can't do something that is very clearly required by their religion puts them in an impossible situation.

So if you ban them from the schools, you are essentially disenfranchising the people who follow those faiths from the state school systems and any cynicism they might feel about being "different" is now exaggerated and gives the people involved yet another complaint against the establishment.

So my opinion is, let people wear whatever religious garments they are required to by their faith. If they start preaching or trying to convert, then you can complain about that but not about the garments themselves.
silver_blue
Oct. 18th, 2006 11:48 pm (UTC)
The difference being that being able to observe the movement of the mouth, for example, is a vital part of very young children being able to learn language. Even within strict Muslim countries there is no requirement for a woman to wear the niqab while among children. In the particular case at the moment the issue is a woman who did not wear a niqab during interview, and is now claiming the right to wear it at all times during the school day. The case seems as much, if not more, to do with the fact that it hampers teaching than with any religious aspect.
anyeone
Oct. 19th, 2006 03:19 am (UTC)
That sounds like a specific case of the garb getting in the way of doing the job, which is a somewhat different issue than banning the garb in schools as it sounded like Angus was calling for. If that isn't what he wanted, then I retract my conclusion.

People don't have to take any one particular job if the requirements of that job will conflict with their religion - case in point, when I was more observant I declined to take a job that would require me to work on the Sabbath. So if the niqab does make it impossible for a person to do their job, then they should find a job where it won't be a problem (functionally speaking, not legislatively speaking). Employers generally are supposed to make reasonable accommodations for such things but in a case where the person cannot do the job they were hired to do, it is understandable to inform the person that something has to give.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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