To pre-order, visit the book’s page on the Bloomsbury Academic website
Read my recent article “Muslim women who cover their faces find greater acceptance among coronavirus masks – ‘Nobody is giving me dirty looks’” published on April 10, 2020 in The Conversation.
“even if we were to take off the niqab or take off hijab, we’re still Black. Like, we’re still, you know, African Americans, we’re still have dark skin complexion. So even if they weren’t judging on this [niqab] they could be judging us on our skin color …we’re going to get something from somewhere, you know. So it’s like, it’s, I guess, in a way, so it’s already been something very ingrained in us, not just as Muslim but as African Americans.” Sadiqa, 25
“Everyday I become more niqabi, I become more committed to my niqab” Amiina, 51
“I have always thought that it was a beautiful representation of religious practice” Nadia, 42
In the last five years, I have interviewed 40 women who choose to wear the niqab on both sides of the Atlantic. In my search for women willing to share their experiences I have visited mosques, Islamic schools, prayer groups, women’s gyms, halal restaurants, and university campuses. I have also interviewed women via Skype. They came from all walks of life and while they were all positive about the niqab itself, their experience of wearing the niqab ranged from entirely positive to one fraught with anxiety about reactions of others. Their narratives had one thing in common: they connected their love for God with practising modesty and emulating wives of the Prophet Muhammad. Hence, the choice to wear the niqab was a result of a reflection on how to best achieve the highest level of piety. The niqab itself also engendered piety and a sense of a transcendent experience.
Book keywords: niqab, burka, face-veil, women, Islam, Muslim, agency, gender, race, Islamophobia
Bringing niqab wearers’ voices to the fore and discussing their narratives on religious agency, identity, social interaction, community, and urban spaces, Anna Piela situates women’s accounts firmly within UK and US socio-political contexts as well as within media discourses on Islam.
The niqab, or the face-veil, sometimes mistakenly called the burka, has recently emerged as one of the most ubiquitous symbols of everything that is perceived to be wrong with Islam: barbarity, backwardness, exploitation of Muslim women, and political radicalization. Yet all these notions are assigned to women who wear the niqab without their consultation; “niqab debates” are held without their voices being heard, and, when they do speak, their views are dismissed. As these women do not fit easily in the pernicious category of the “good Muslim,” they are particularly vulnerable to Islamophobia.
The picture painted by the stories told here demonstrates that, for these women, the niqab is deeply personal, freely chosen, liberating, multilayered, and socially situated. The dynamics of niqab wearing are shaped by factors related to gender, race, language, and social space. Wearing the Niqab gives voice to women who wear the niqab, and sets the record straight, enhancing understanding of the complex picture around niqab and religious identity and agency.
Keywords: niqab, burka, the West, participant sample, women’s voices, public debate, political context
Abstract: The introduction sets the stage for the book. It defines key terms used in the book, notably “niqab,” “burka,” and “the West;” discusses the political context of the project and the author’s trajectory and methodological choices, as well as the participant sample. Finally, it outlines the existing scholarly literature about the niqab, and the gap within it: the lack of engagement with niqabi women’s voices. The main argument of the book is set out: it is essential to center the voices of the women who wear the niqab in the public debate about the niqab in the West.
CHAPTER 1: ERASING NIQABI WOMEN’S VOICES: MAINSTREAM MEDIA REPRESENTATIONS
Keywords: niqab, burka, burka bans, Islam, media, media representations, perceptions, feminist, culture, security threat.
Abstract: This chapter discusses the main discourses that shape mainstream media representations of women who wear the niqab, also called the burka. It deconstructs media critiques of niqab wearing that are framed, variously, by authors’ personal interpretations and experiences of Islam that are extrapolated on the women who wear the niqab; self-professed feminist convictions; and security concerns. These critiques cast the niqab as a cultural imposition, a tool of patriarchal oppression, and a security threat, respectively. This chapter problematizes the intense focus on such critical views of the niqab, giving platform to calls for burka bans, and the failure to engage women who wear it as commenters. It also highlights problematic ways in which women who wear the niqab are portrayed visually and how they contribute to negative perceptions of the niqab in the United Kingdom and the United States.
CHAPTER 2: RECLAIMING NIQABI VOICES: MAINSTREAM AND SOCIAL MEDIA
Keywords: niqab, burka, burka ban, Islam, media, media representations, women’s voices, social media, self-representations, grassroots.
Abstract: This chapter focuses on the ways in which women who wear the niqab (the burka) resist to the negative mainstream media representations. It approaches this task in a variety of ways: it examines the instances where they are engaged as commentators, experts, and sources in media pieces; it discusses articles authored by niqab wearers; it discusses social media content they produce and conversations they contribute to; finally, it analyzes women’s responses to mainstream media representations of the niqab, in particular their coping strategies related to media consumption. This chapter complements Chapter 1 as it offers insight into how women who wear the niqab successfully challenge dominant representations by creating self-representations that emphasize their expertise, agency, and humanity. It also demonstrates they are able and willing to communicate with their audiences on a variety of topics, including well beyond the stereotypical narratives of religion and gender routinely superimposed on them.
CHAPTER 3: RELIGIOUS FRAMING OF THE NIQAB
Keywords: niqab, Muslim, Islam, faith, religion, spirituality, religious authority, embodied practice, choice.
This chapter is about how Muslim women who chose to wear the niqab in the West use religious argumentation to explain their choice to cover their faces. The use of this discursive register reflects the wider debates of what religion is, what are its boundaries, how to define religious practices,and their role in the liberal, secular state. The women often juxtapose in their narratives the concepts of faith, Islamic doctrine, religious experience, religious authority, and spirituality. The niqab as an embodied practice functions as an interface between all these notions. It also encapsulates the understanding of Islam as a discursive tradition. This indicates that many dualisms ubiquitous in the study of religion, such as “religion versus spirituality” may have outlived its usefulness.
CHAPTER 4: TRANSLATING THE NIQAB FOR SECULAR AUDIENCES
Keywords: niqab, cultural citizenship, secular, discourse, rights, freedoms, agency, legal cases, sexual objectification, pro-choice.
This chapter focuses on women’s “secular” reasoning pertaining to their right to wear the niqab in the secular-liberal public sphere. To set the stage, it outlines landmark legal cases involving niqab wearing in the United Kingdom and the United States and indicates bias inherent in the legislation used to restrict the right to wear the niqab in these countries. Next, it analyzes alternative discourses deployed by the niqab wearers to argue in defense of this practice. These include comparisons with Christian practices of veiling, pro-choice arguments, opposition to sexual objectification, cultivation of wellbeing, and cultural citizenship. This act of translation of a religious practice into a variety of registers intelligible to secular audiences demonstrates that niqab wearers are sensitive to their context. They expertly present their selves in the complex landscape of broad legislative frameworks of rights and freedoms.
CHAPTER 5 INTERSECTIONS OF ISLAMOPHOBIA, RACISM AND SEXISM AND COPING STRATEGIES
Keywords: niqab, Muslim, Islam, Islamophobia, racialization, racism, sexism, coping strategies, language, context.
This chapter examines consequences of racialization of the niqab as women who wear it transgress unspoken norms related to race and religion. Their experiences thus highlight the way these norms operate. The hypervisibility of the niqab offers a useful case for the study of racialization of Islam as it functions as a visual symbol of the faith in the common imaginary. This chapter maps out how women traverse the matrix of religion, race and gender through analysis of interviews with niqab wearers in the United States and the United Kingdom. Various coping strategies of women are also identified here. Once read through the lens of critical race theory, their counterstories reveal that racialization of the niqab occurs at the intersection of racism with Islamophobia and sexism. It affects mainstream perceptions of niqab wearers’ race and leads to forced erasure of their cultural and national belonging.
Keywords: niqab, Muslim, piety, secular-liberal, feminism, patriarchy, decolonization, agency, identity, voices
This chapter brings together findings from all previous chapters of the book. It outlines the ways the book counters common misconceptions of the niqab. The charge of niqab’s inferiority rings hollow when we consider how Muslim women interviewed for this project challenge recriminations against the niqab at various levels: sociological, theological, political, and cultural. In addition to giving religious justifications, women mobilize the language of secular rights and freedoms to argue for their right to choose their attire, thus demonstrating their philosophical rootedness in the Enlightenment framework of Western liberalism. By acknowledging hitherto neglected voices of niqab-wearing women, this book challenges the essentialist understanding of the niqab as resistance to “Western values.” It shows how women’s adoption of a religious practice often read as oppressive constitutes an assertion of their agency and identity. Therefore, it contributes to decolonization of assumptions about what constitutes patriarchy, agency, as well as feminism itself.
The manuscript of the book has now been submitted to the publisher. I welcome feedback and personal comments, but unfortunately they won’t be able to be included in the book. Thank you for reading.
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