Conversation With Muslim Women About “Covering” (Hijab, Niqab, or Nothing)

I put this video on Facebook, but then decided that I wanted to comment on it more than I could in that venue. Watch it first and see what you think.

Before I watched this video, I was uncomfortable with the idea of the face veil (the niqab). But the woman who wears the niqab in this video is extremely articulate and persuaded me that there can be good reasons for covering the face, even if that is not a choice I would make.

I was also persuaded by the uncovered woman’s explanation for why she doesn’t cover. And that sums up my dilemma. I am a Muslim woman who has not made up her mind about covering. I have worn the headscarf¬† (the hijab) on many occasions, but haven’t made a total commitment to it. I’ve worn it to run errands, to visit my Muslim friends and go to Muslim celebrations, when I pray and to go to the masjid (mosque). But I don’t wear it to work or whenever I answer the door. And I don’t know if I would have enough courage to wear it on an airplane!

I’m embarrassed to admit that my reason for not covering all the time has more to do with fashion than with a personal ideology! I’m not completely ready to cover my hair–because I’m vain about it. Not that it always looks great, but it’s been a part of me all of my life. Part of my identity is that I’m a blonde. But that’s exactly the point: why should such a large part of my identity be based on how my hair looks? Shouldn’t it mostly have to do with my personality, with how I treat people and how I conduct myself?

It’s very subtle, the way we judge people by their looks. My reaction to the woman who only wears the headscarf/hijab was that she is rather plain and could do with some makeup. What a superficial reaction! On the other hand, the woman wearing the niqab has pretty eyes and I reacted to that. If I couldn’t see her eyes I would react to her voice. There are always going to be visual and aural clues that we will use to form our opinions of others. So does that mean that covering is pointless?

It might if that were the only reason for covering. But more and more Muslim women are finding spiritual benefits from covering. Partly because they feel that they are being obedient to God and partly because wearing the veil marks them as Muslims. It’s a lot like a Christian wearing a cross (for religious purposes, not for fashion). When I wear the hijab, it is a mark of respect as well as a personal spiritual statement. I am identifying openly as a Muslim.

The moderator in the video suggests that covering alienates non-Muslims and for that reason should not be practiced. Some people think that wearing the veil pushes a Muslim woman’s religion in people’s faces. Because it makes others uncomfortable, even in some cases, fearful. But does that mean that the Muslim is the one who has to accommodate herself? What’s wrong with encouraging others to make the accommodation?

Shouldn’t this question be asked: why does covering make people uncomfortable?¬† There are other women who cover besides Muslims (the Amish, for instance, and Orthodox Jews), but they don’t engender the strong reaction that wearing the hijab or niqab does. You can tell a society’s prejudices by its discomfort with symbols used by a certain ethnic group, race or religion. Look at the Swiss: they proved that they are extremely uncomfortable about their Muslim population when they voted to ban minarets in their country. If they had tried to ban synagogues or church steeples, the world would have erupted in outrage. But Muslims are fair game. Because, you know, Muslims are all potential terrorists.

Woman wearing NiqabThe next time you see a woman who is covered, remind yourself that this is a personal expression of faith, not a sign of oppression. More likely than not, she has made the decision to cover on her own and she is fine with it. Try to get past the covered hair, face, or body and look to the woman inside. You might be surprised by what you find.

More information about niqab here and here.