The many faces behind the veil

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A symbol of female subjugation? These women believe their Islamic headwear is a liberating way of expressing their identities.

Jilbab. Niqab. Al Amira. Dupatta. Burqa. Chador. Even the language used to describe the various kinds of clothing worn by Muslim women can seem as complicated and muddied as the issue itself. Rarely has an item of cloth caused so much consternation, controversy and misunderstanding as with the Islamic headscarf or veil.

For those Muslims who literally wear their religion on their sleeves, hijab (from the Arabic for curtain or screen) can be many things. For some it is a cultural practice handed down through the generations, an unquestioned given that is simply adopted. For others the need to dress and behave modestly can define a person’s relationship with God, their religious devotion or even their politics. For others still hijab is a complicated journey, one with twists and turns where veils are briefly discarded on the ground or taken up with willing fervour.

“Muslim women wear hijab for many reasons including piety, identity and even as political statements,” says Tahmina Saleem, the co-founder of Inspire, a consultancy which helps Muslim women become vocal members of their communities. “Most do so willingly, some unwillingly”.

To its detractors the headscarf – and in particular its more visible cousin the face veil – is simply a form of oppression, regardless of whether modest clothing has been adopted willingly or not. Why, the abolitionists ask, would any woman ever voluntarily choose to hide her hair or face in public?

Later this month France’s ruling party will debate a law that could see the face veils banned in public, meaning any woman caught wearing a niqab or a burqa (the Arab and Afghan versions of a full face veil) could be fined £700. If the law is passed it would represent a watershed moment in Western Europe’s relationship with its Muslims citizens and could encourage politicians in neighbouring countries to promote similar legislation.

In the argument over whether to ban or not to ban, the polemicists usually reign supreme. Hijab is either good or evil, wrong or right. The voices of the women whose lives would be monumentally affected by any sort of curb on Islamic clothing are rarely seen or heard from.

Today The Independent speaks to five British women from different walks of life about what form of hijab they choose to wear and why they wear it. From a graduate who became the first one in her family to cover her face entirely, to the mother of four who chose to take off her headscarf and sees no problem with remaining a devout and practising Muslims – their stories are as varied and colourful as the scarves on their shoulders.

Rahmanara Chowdhury, 29, grew up in a family of seven sisters who have each made their own personal choices on hijab. The student outreach worker at Loughborough University always wore a headscarf but nine years ago she decided to adopt the niqab, an Arabic garment which covers the face so that just the eyes are visible.

We have quite a large family, there’s seven girls altogether, and from a young age we were taught about hijab. But I guess as I grew up I began to understand the spiritual reason behind it much more. That would have been my teenage years. It was in my final year at university that I actually started wearing the veil.

But it took me a full year to reach that decision. I looked into it, did my research, before making the decision. Deciding to wear the veil was very much a spiritual journey for me - it wasn't about believing something is right and something else is wrong.

At that time none of my sister wore the veil, they wore hijab (headscarfs etc) but not the veil. It was quite a big thing in my family because I was the first one.

I didn’t discuss it with anyone. Once I decided to wear it I just put it on. I remember coming home from university one day and my dad was leaving the house and as I was walking down the street he noticed me. He just stood there watching me but he never said anything, he just accepted it there and then.

At university one of the things that held me back initially was that we had a lot of group work and a lot of interaction with different people and I was worried whether it would impact on that. But I actually found the opposite to be true. Once I had the veil on I found it easier to get involved in projects and socialise with my colleagues.

I guess I’m lucky in that I haven’t really had any negative experiences while wearing the veil but I do know lots of people who have. I have in the past been called a letterbox, or a ninja. But I’m so comfortable wearing it now that it simply doesn’t bother me. If things blow up in the media it’s often not the best time to go out in public so I’ll keep a low profile.

My sisters all lead quite different lifestyles and you have to respect that. You can’t impose your views on anyone else and I would never look down on anyone who doesn't wear the veil and think that I’m better than them. It’s not about that, it’s about my personal spiritual connection with God.

When something is right for you, you just know in your heart. It's solely for God, not for anyone else.

At the beginning of term when we get the new intake of students from all over the country you do get lots of stares. But in terms of my colleagues they are absolutely brilliant. They are naturally curious and I let them know that it’s fine to ask questions. I’m probably the first veiled person a lot of them have met but we have lots of interesting discussions.

I think headscarf wearing is on the increase because there is so much pressure on women to keep up with the latest trends and some people want to break away from that.

People say the veil is a tool of oppression but I’ve found it a tool of empowerment. It gave me the freedom to be who I want to be and not worry about what people might think of me physically or whether I'm up to date with the latest fashion trends. All of that went out of the window and you could then focus on the things that really matter in life. That gave me much more confidence to go out into the world and hold up the banner of truth and respect.

I tend to wear just plain colours, but I don’t normally wear black. Browns and blues are more my colours.

It's really sad that people automatically think a woman who wears the veil is some sort of oppressed woman.

When Jack Straw made his comments on the veil it was an incredibly difficult time for us because there was so much pressure on niqab wearers to speak out but only from a self-defence point of view, rather than talking about the veil as something positive. That automatically colours any discussion of the veil in a negative light.

Rajnaara Akhtar, 31, is one of Rahmanara’s older sisters, and chooses to wear a headscarf that covers her hair and shoulders (jilbab). Concerned by the regular debates among politicians about banning the veil – particularly across the Channel in France – she set the Protect Hijab campaing group.

We set up Protect Hijab in 2003 when France first began talking about banning hijab in public places. That move was a very scary development because although it is a different country it is just across the water from us. Here was a country which wants to ban a form of dress that for many Muslim women forms an integral part of their identity.

We knew people had to respond but most importantly that response had to come from Muslims women because a lot of the criticism that we faced had to do with the fact that there was a lack of pro-active engagement. It’s usually the men that do the talking and that just becomes more damaging as it tends to perpetuate stereotypes.

With the hijab in Europe there is a big misunderstanding about what it is and what it represents. Even though there has been work done to counter these stereotypes I think the view that women in hijab are somehow oppressed, or have been forced into some form of archaic dress, is still the most prevalent one. The reality is that you have a lot of well educated, young women choosing to adopt hijab because when they go down the path of trying to find out more about their religion and their identity they actually chose a form of modesty which may include hijab.

When you talk about the term modesty it has various meanings for different people and that’s only right. For some women the term modesty would mean covering even their faces and hands, but for others it may mean they won’t wear short skirts more than an inch above their knees. It is an individual’s choice and as long as that choice is being made voluntarily by that individual it should be respected.

It must be a choice that is made by the woman, if there are any outside pressures making a woman feel compelled to adopt hijab then that becomes problematic.

For me the most important thing is to dress in a way that is modest. I wear various types of dress including the jilbab, long skirts with a long sleeved tops, or dress that is appropriate to the occasion like trousers under a shorter dress for walks in the countryside.

Hijab for men is something which isn’t emphasised enough and it should be because there are similar criteria governing men’s clothing and conduct as women’s. Not covering their hair, obviously, but in terms of modesty. Hijab is not just a piece of cloth, it’s about behaviour as well. You conduct and your dress must be modest.

A lot of people ask me whether hijab means dressing drab and dreary but I don’t think that has to be the case at all. I have a huge collection of headscarves to match all my different outfits. For me modesty doesn't exclude a smart appearance. The two are equally compatible.

My sisters and I enjoy very close relationships with each other. I supported Rahnamara’s decision to wear the niqab as she freely chose to do so, but for me the niqab is not something I see myself adopting. I think it takes an enormous amount of courage to wear the niqab. Rahnamara chooses to work in an environment where Muslims, let alone those who wear niqabs, are very much in the minority. So in that respect I am enormously proud of her courage and her conviction.

In Britain I think hijab itself is not really questioned as it is accepted in society, however, I think the position on the niqab is a cause for concern. What worries me is that if we allow the debate to get to the stage of banning the niqab then we would have allowed a basic and fundamental freedom to be infringed, and surely a hijab ban will follow. If we ban the niqab, ten or twenty years down the line, hijab will also be outcast in much the same way. That is why I think it is important to challenge anyone who seeks to restrict a woman's free choice on what to wear.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, 34, author of Love in a Headscarf, a chick-lit memoir of her arranged marriage, from North London. Her parents were born in Tanzania and she is of Gujarati heritage.

“I first started wearing the headscarf when I was 13-year-old but I wasn’t wearing it all the time. It felt like something I really wanted to do. Intellectually, I understood the arguments around modesty but when I reflected on it, it was aspiring to be a good Muslim (that motivated me).

I was not wearing it to school, but elsewhere, and I justified it to myself and my parents, and they were happy with that, as there were only one or two men wandering around there. I also wanted to keep my school life separate to my home life. As it teenager, I didn’t know how to integrate these components. There first time I did so was when I went to university at Oxford, in 1992, where people didn’t know me, and the scarf was just part of who I was. I felt very comfortable in wearing it and people were very accepting.

She feels her scarf does have an aesthetic element to it, but stops from wearing high fashion scarves. “In the 1990s, it was a small scarf, a square folded into a triangle. Now it’s a long one.

There will be an element of fashion to the scarves I wear; I don’t want to look like I’m living in the 19th century…I have never liked wearing black scarves and black coats but I wear them occasionally if they match with other things I’m wearing. I tend to go for colour but not vibrant colour. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being aesthetic and wearing beautiful clothes but not wearing colours that are dramatic, which I feel tips over the edge of modesty.”

Modesty, she feels, is a ‘spirit’ as much as it is a code. “Sometimes you can meet the rules but they don’t conform to the spirit.

“When I get dressed in the morning, I ask myself ‘do I look the way I should look, even after I have met the rules,” she said.

She stops short at wearing a niqab as she believes it is not a religious requirement. “Islam places a great emphasis on personality and individuality.

In her experience, the events of 9/11 and its aftermath led to fear within the community around Islamaphobic attacks, and discussions around the removal of headscarves for women who felt under threat.

“If women wanted to stop wearing their headscarves after 9.11, it was allowed, but I’d been wearing mine for ten years by then. It seemed very strange for me that what I had decided to do privately was now a mainstream issue. For me, it had always been a private matter, reflecting that I was following a set of values and beliefs.”

“Just before 7 July, I started writing a blog. There was already a lot of discussion about Muslims by then, and someone had asked me to write an article about these issues which I really enjoyed writing. I come from a corporate marketing background but I remember thinking I really enjoy writing. The Muslim News newspaper gave me a monthly column in which I could write any issue that came up. I thought once a month is not quite enough so I started my own blog. It occurred to me that there weren’t many British Muslims writing in this way. I was invited onto Newsnight after Jack Straw made his remarks about the veil. It all encouraged me to write more.”

“I went into a bookshop promoting literature about Middle Eastern women and all the book covers showed women in black veils and they were about escaping from slavery and forced marriages. I looked at them and thought none of them told my story. That’s why I decided to write a book. I wanted people to stand in my shoes so I wrote a quirky, irreverent book.”

“I’m not that different in terms of aspirations to any other women.

“The most offensive suggestion is that women who wear a headscarf have no autonomy, and that it is not a free choice.”

Soha Sheikh, 25, a library assistant, who holds a media studies degree, from London

“I was 12-years-old when I decided to wear the headscarf. It was my own choice. I started to wear it after a trip to Pakistan when everyone around me was wearing it, and I liked the idea of being a Muslim woman, and being recognised as one, even though I was only 12 at the time. That was 1996

“I understood that it’s something that’s in our religion. I wasn’t afraid of wearing it to school but when I did, a lot of friends started to ignore me. They thought I was different and not part of their group. At school, there were very few people who were wearing it and the ones who were were older, and quite different personalities, not people I wanted to hang out with. I went through a period when I didn’t have a lot of friends for a few years and then I found a different group of girls, who I identified with. I got more confident within myself and I was able to make friends I could relate to, both non-Muslim and Muslim.”

“Either I was oblivious to other people’s (hostile) responses to me, but I have never felt anything negative in the way people treat me. There is a certain degree of unity you feel with other women who wear the headscarf, even if you don’t know them, they will often smile at me in the street and say ‘salaam’. You feel united in a sense, especially when you are younger.

“When I decided to wear the headscarf, my mum wasn’t wearing it, but she started to about two or three years later, after she came back from the Haj (pilgrimage).”

“I used to wear the scarf, Rastafarian style, with it tied around the nape of my neck, but now I make sure I have my ears and neck covered. As I’ve started to learn more about Islam, I realise there is a criteria I have to meet. Your ears, neck and bosom have to be covered. People don’t always realise that part of it is to cover your chest. Now, also wear a gilbab outside, but I try not to stick to black but wear various colours, and make them fashionable. You can get so many fashionable ones now, with wife cuffs, hoods, zips buttons.

“I do change my look sometimes but I still make sure the criteria is met. Sometimes I tie a lighter coloured scarf over a darker colour to make it more trendy. I do experiment with my style. I used to wear CK scarves back in the days when lots of others were. I wear whatever appeals to me now, colourful hijabs, stripey…clothes should not be so eye catching that people stop and stare but there’s no harm in some colour…And I like my make-up, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I’m happy to make the most of my face, as long as I don’t go overboard. I like to keep it subtle.

“I think the headscarf is the epitome of Britishness. Britain itself is so multicultural. If you removed these distinctions, it would not be Britain. I’m sometimes surprised by the naivity and lack of information of other Muslims: some think you have to be in the house 24/7. It’s really quite ‘fundi’, and it’s down to a lack of information and knowledge of Islam.

“When we talk about headscarves, the first thing that comes into a lot of people’s heads is ‘oppressed woman’. It’s hard for some people to accept that it’s a sign of liberation. You don’t always have to conform to a certain stereotype or fashion statement.

“The hijab is not a sign of separation.

Nusrat Hussain, 39, a mother of four from Illford, born in Pakistan, moved to Michigan, USA, where she married her husband and later settled in Britain. A practicing and devout Muslim, she recently decided to stop wearing a headscarf after 15 years of covering her hair in public.

“I came to Britain in 1988, at which time I was interested in my religion but I wasn’t really practising it properly until my early 20s. In 1994, my father in law’s passing away really affected me. He was the first person I knew personally who had died. I felt I should know more about my religion before I died, and at that time, I felt my life would not be complete unless I covered my hair.

For about 15 years I wore a scarf pretty consistently. Then my mum died in 2006 after a long painful illness and I feel like I have changed as a person since then. About a year or so later I gradually stopped wearing my scarf over my head. It wasn’t an overnight decision, it just happened slowly. I still cover myself because I would feel imcomplete without doing so. Modesty is still very important to me.

But it appears that many women who wear hijab have this perception that they are somehow morally superior to those who don’t. Although I automatically give salaam greetings to women in scarfs, since I don’t wear one anymore I don’t neccessarily get the salaam back automatically.

For a large group of women, covering their hair gives them something, women who otherwise might not have a strong sense of identity. It’s a personality thing. If you are not strong as a person, you use it. What other religion has such an obvious identity badge?

I certainly define myself as a Muslim, and within five minutes of meeting me anyone would know I'm a Muslim because of the kind of person I am. For me the bottom line is observing the five pillars of Islam (belief in one God and the Prophet Muhammad, prayer, alms giving, fasting, and making the Hajj pilgrimage at some point in one’s life). Hijab is just as much about behaving modestly, as dressing modestly. The two are inseparable.”

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