The Veil – a rethink

// October 30th, 2006 // Blog

I have been rethinking my original comment on the blog Women of Faith. My original suggestion was that the veil is a barrier to free communication, but that this was a deliberate part of its design. However as i do not wear the veil, i must question the validity of my own opinion. Many sisters insist that they are able to communicate easily whilst wearing the niqab, and speaking from my own experience i have always been able to understand what a niqabi sister is saying to me!

I still stand by my explanation of the benefits of the veil. I believe that a part of the resistance by non-muslims against the veil, and hijab in general, has a lot to do with society's current fixation with breaking down barriers. That is based on their assumption that most social restrictions are 'bad' as they somehow impede the development of society. To me that is as incorrect as saying a dam is 'bad' because it impedes the free flow of water. Water is necessary for life, but where the path of a river will endanger inhabitants of a town, or generally prove inconvenient, building a dam is essential for the safety and stability of the region. Similarly, male/female interactions are necessary for life. Restricting the free flow of such interaction via the hijab, lowering the gaze and avoidance of unnecessary free-mixing, stabilises society. The pressure of “water” building up behind the dam is carefully and selectively released via the sturdy outlets of marriage and family. And just as turbines rely on such pressure to generate useful energy, marriage and family generate healthy individuals which prove useful to society. Perhaps i may be accused of simplifying the matter, but sometimes we are guilty of complicating simple situations so as to avoid doing what is right, trying to argue “it's too difficult!”.

My re-think on the veil was in part encouraged by some very intelligent responses by some niqabi sisters in the media, māshā’Allāh. They answered the first accusation of the niqab being a barrier to communication, and thus an excuse not to be allowed to work in public settings (e.g., teaching), by giving interviews from behind their veils. I didn't see any subtitles on the bottom of the screen, nor did i have to put the volume up on my TV set. So what's the problem?

If there is a real problem, and not just one of women being soft targets, it is of trust – or should i say, of mistrust.

Obscuring the face may not undermine the ability for two people to adequately communicate, but it does discourage two strangers from communicating in the first place. There is evidence for this statement from both personal observation and public opinion. We use body language to intially assess whether or not someone is trustworthy, and thus safe to approach for whatever purpose. I often wonder why people seem to always ask me for directions, and many people have said it is because i have a “kind” face. Note, not a “pretty” face! That wasn't an attempt at a personal dig, i'm just trying to explain that subtle motions of the face (or not so subtle in the case of smiling), as well as overall attractiveness, contribute to how approachable we deem strangers to be. In the case of a niqabi sister the whole body will be covered – ideally with loose fitting cloth – and not just the face. Thus body language is limited to hand gestures and perhaps body postioning. I'm not an expert in this field, so i won't go further in my analysis! Basically, if not being able to see a face means you are less likely to trust someone, then you are also less likely to approach them. Thus whether one can communicate freely or not from behind the veil becomes a secondary issue.

This opinion is in line with what some members of the non-muslim public have been saying through media-conducted surveys (although how representative they are is questionable and unknown), and to some degree with that of the band-wagon-jumping politicians. However i do not think one should automatically respond to this opinion with immediate accusations of prejeudice – even though it is likely to be true. IMHO looking like a bunch of cry babies isn't going to gain us any favours. Besides prejeudice seems to be one of human-kind's most innate behaviours, so we have to cut the general public some slack. However, media moguls and calculating politicians definitely know better and thus deserve all the verbal pelting we can muster.

In the case of employment, trust is always an issue up until someone proves themselves to be reliable, and that can take years. When any person goes for a job interview, the prospective employer doesn't immediately take for granted that everything on their CV/covering letter is 100% truth. They question them, and even after being satisfied with their answers, there is usually some kind of probationary period. So why can't niqabi sisters be given that same opportunity to prove themselves?

Let us all be a tad more scientific in our understanding. Let us collect some hard evidence for our arguments (and that advice goes to myself first). Let us assess whether or not a niqabi sister can teach in schools, or treat patients, or sell washing machines at Dixons. Was such an objective assessment conducted for Sister Azmi of Bradford? Did the politicians go into the classroom and witness her alleged inability to teach small children before shooting their mouths off in the national press? Highly unlikely i propose.

Even if we assume that wearing a niqab does not interfere with the ability of a sister to do her job, we should still remember the issue of trust. Allāh alone knows how muslims are trying in their own way to build up trust, be it with community relation meetings or mosque open-days. But is it too little, too late? I often think that the public would not be swallowing the media muck being thrown at us if we had made more effort to be the good neighbours Islam exhorts us to be. Asian muslims are guilty of self-segregation and not just because we all happen to live in the same borough. It's an issue of mentality as well. How many of us at one time or another have referred to the majority white population as 'goras', this being meant as a phrase of derogation, rather than an innocent observation of their pale complexions? How many asian sisters do you know that are married to non-asian muslims, be they reverts or otherwise? In my case a handful, and even then they had to overcome resistance from their families. I know we have been at the receiving end of worse labels and racist treatment from the “other side”. No doubt segregation was a natural survival mechanism for immigrant communities that were not so graciously received by their British hosts. But to some degree things have changed for the better, shouldn't we now too? And since when has 'tit for tat' been a sunnah of our beloved messenger, peace be upon him?

inshā’Allāh, i do believe that our sincere efforts to be more approachable to the non-muslim community, even if it be by inviting our neighbours to break bread with us, will eventually bear fruit. There is much more to be done as always, and may Allāh make it easy for us. But please sisters, do not not let the politicians wear us down. Let us avoid becoming aggressive in our self-defence, and rather develop an assertive attitude that relies on the belief that truth and justice will prevail when all our efforts are for the sake of Allāh, al-'Adl.

I'll end with a fitting hadith that i only read today: The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “When Allāh wants to be good to someone, He tries him with hardship.” [Fiqh-us-Sunnah, Volume 4, Number 1]. Surely Allāh is being very, very good to the muslims of our generation! And for that we should say “Alhamdulillahi rabbil 'alameen!” – translation: “Glory be to Allāh, the Lord of all Creation!”.

Wa'salam

Your humble sister in Islam, iMuslim

One Response to “The Veil – a rethink”

  1. mummyjaan says:

    Lovely write-up, iMuslim.

    I want to write a more detailed comment, but later, inshaAllah….or perhaps I’ll email.

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