Wearing the Niqab: Fashioning Identity Among Muslim Women Who Wear the Face Veil

niqab_coverIn the last five years, I have interviewed 25 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.

These findings indicate that niqab is misunderstood by most people in the West who may encounter niqab-wearers directly or via the media. The data collected for this book suggests that rather than being a political protest or a practice of entirely separating oneself from society, it is foremost a religious practice of modesty/piety as well as a critique of gender relations in Western societies, both in Muslim and non-Muslim populations.

Even close allies of niqabis seem to misread what it represents, adding more confusion to the fact that it is already intentionally misinterpreted by its detractors. This is why it is so important to closely listen to niqabi women’s voices. This book is an analysis of their narratives addressing the practice of wearing the niqab. Here, I deal with several of  misinterpretations of the niqab, frame them with existing literature and media material, and juxtapose them with narratives of women who wear the niqab in the West. Through this, I illuminate glaring discontinuities in the hegemonic discourse about the niqab that shape current policy and practice affecting niqab-wearers in the West.

It is important to point out that the research context includes two Anglophone Western countries: the UK and the US. The findings cannot be transplanted to other contexts, especially non-Western ones. The understanding of the context is fundamental to comprehend West-based niqab wearers’ perspectives, as the next chapters will show. I do not, therefore, aim to generalise my findings to Saudi Arabia (where the niqab is culturally imposed, at least in conservative areas such as Riyadh), or other Gulf countries. I do not even claim that the findings are generalizable to the entire population of niqab-wearers living in the West; I merely point out that the conclusions I offer, based on in-depth interview data, challenge the consistently negative, hostile and one-dimensional opinions about the niqab that permeate the public sphere in the West. The data illustrates the ethnic, class, linguistic and other diversities represented by women who wear the niqab.

The book is organised into four main chapters, with each chapter examining narratives related to a particular misconception about the niqab.

The Saudi Arabian framing of the niqab, and the Salafi doctrine make up a notion that is misused in order to promote the first misinterpretation of the niqab in the West that I address: The niqab is misread as necessarily conservative and/or doctrinal, but in my study, women’s justification for it is neither. As far as its religious, (by far the most emphasised) aspect emerging from participants’ narratives the adoption of the niqab appears to stem from spiritual religious experiences such as the Hajj or Umrah pilgrimage, or an inspirational moment/realisation/encounter. The second misconception dealt with here is that the niqab is a fixed accessory of patriarchy. Niqabi women are resented and harassed for their dress which is often discursively constructed a tool of their oppression; it is seen as something that patriarchal relatives “made them wear”. The data I collected, or the extant literature, does not evidence this. It does, however identify sexual oppression in the web of dynamics that envelops the niqab but in a different form – that of on-street sexual harassment. This experience is often intertwined with the experience of on-street Islamophobic abuse. These two forms of oppression are managed dynamically in different spaces, using a range of coping strategies that I discuss. The third misconception is related to the perception that the niqab is unequivocally supposed to separate its wearer from the world. Not only do I demonstrate that the participants are deeply engaged in the community and public life, but I show that they consider wearing the niqab to be a practice that enables them to be active members of their communities. The fourth misconception, underpinning the first three, is that the niqab is seen as foreign, anti-West, and other. I show in my discussion that this view is a yet another iteration of the colonialist, Orientalist way of perceiving the world. The West makes a claim to be more tolerant and “civilised” by virtue of being more open to difference – but the case of the niqab demonstrates that this self-congratulatory view is misguided. The niqab represents otherness that is not tolerated in the West because it constitutes a necessary counterpoint to the West’s high notion of its virtues. It is constructed as a benchmark against which the West may be compared to the Orient, and inevitably emerge victorious. Yet, as I demonstrate in this book, the argument for the West’s cultural superiority and niqab’s inferiority rings hollow when we consider how 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 deftly mobilise the language of rights and freedoms that stems from the premises of liberalism to argue for their right to choose their attire, thus demonstrating their ability to interweave Islamic theological arguments with the Enlightenment framework of Western liberalism.

Wearing the Niqab: Fashioning Identity Among Muslim Women Who Wear the Face Veil

Anna Piela

Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic, London (forthcoming)

Note: I have completed the work on the manuscript which is now awaiting publication. Please leave comments in the form below.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s