If you think the niqab is a choice, think again

Published: February 14, 2016

Whenever I fly to Saudi Arabia, I find the women on the flight, expatriate or Saudi, donning colourful western, Middle Eastern, or Asian clothes one second, and dark abayas the moment the airplane hits the runway in Saudi Arabia? PHOTO: AMER HILABI/AFP/Getty Images

In my recent article, ‘Our national dress is the shalwar kameez, not the niqab, while examining countries in and around the geographical vicinity of the Middle East, I lamented the loss of cultural riches such as art, music, various religious festivities, as well as heritage sites like ancient temples and monasteries to a single fast-spreading inflexible ideology. To drive the point home, between a dozen countries, I compared various cultural garments with the full single-colour veil called the niqab, also known as the abaya or the burqa.

The contrast was startling.

On one end were 12 aesthetically delightful national dresses varying from one to the next like 12 seasons designed by Mother Nature herself, and on the other was a single dark and restrictive attire, standing out like a uniform for the circumscribed.

Thankfully, the thousands upon thousands that shared the article had little difficulty comprehending the symbolism:

Across dozens of countries; for every temple ransacked, for every monastery brought to its knees, for every language lost, for every painting vandalised, for every statue broken into a hundred pieces, for every book, essay, and piece of poetry declared illicit, there has been an austere binding rule.

Much like the niqab.

The degree with which this cultural appropriation scorched nations has varied.

Take a long hard look at this Middle Eastern man:

Photo: Reuters

At a British museum in 2003, he was overwhelmed with emotion when he found treasured Iraqi antiquities safe from conflict. I can only imagine the pain he feels today at the destruction of the world heritage sites in Iraq and Syria at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Unfortunately, the nuances of ‘Our national dress is the shalwar kameez, not the niqab’ were lost on some of the local readership. In response, many argued that for women, much like a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, or an Indian sari, a niqab was as an outfit of choice.

To start with, what is choice?

Does that man who lost both of his arms in a factory accident, and now stands begging for money at an intersection I pass every day, have a choice? Sure, he willingly gets out of bed every morning to do what he does, but does this translate to choice?

This is American porn actress Raylene.

Photo: Facebook

As the documentary After Porn Ends reveals, she has a small child to take care of, mental health challenges, and a stigma to overcome when seeking regular work. Sure, she willingly gets in front of a camera, but in light of her life’s struggles, how much of a choice does she really have?

I think we can all agree that when it comes to choice, there are different degrees. Action doesn’t always translate to the same level of choice.

Here are some American slaves on a sweet potato plantation in the mid 1800s.

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

There doesn’t seem to be a gun to their heads, but are they farming by choice? At the peak of slavery, many slave owners also built a narrative around how slavery was beneficial for slaves. Some slaves were psychologically conditioned into believing this. Not only did slaves called ‘House Negroes’ whip other slaves into submission for their masters, but some refused freedom when it was offered to them.

Did they have a choice?

These are women on a typical street in Saudi Arabia:

Photo: AFP

Sure, they willingly put on the abaya before leaving home, but how much of a choice do they have when wearing anything else will mean being abused by their husbands, fathers, brothers, or the armed mutawas (religious government police) prowling the streets?

How much of a choice is the niqab, if whenever I fly to Saudi Arabia, I find the women on the flight, expatriate or Saudi, donning colourful western, Middle Eastern, or Asian clothes one second, and dark abayas the moment the airplane hits the runway in Saudi Arabia?

How much of a choice is the niqab, if Pakistani women who work as domestic helpers in big cities often wear shalwar kameez when in upscale neighbourhoods, but don the black cloth when going home to avoid catcalls, sexual harassment, rape, or worse?  Is the niqab really a choice when so many Pakistani women wear it out of fear?

Moreover, why is the onus on women to protect themselves by wearing a mentally suffocating garment? Why can’t those who force the niqab wear blindfolds?

A decade ago, while new in Pakistan, I was stunned when our family was dropping off a domestic helper to her home at night, and she quickly put on the niqab when close to her neighbourhood. When I later asked her why, she said,

“Bhai, warna kirdar pay shak kertay hain aur utha kay bhi lejatay hain.”

(If I don’t, men in the area will use it as an excuse to malign my character, and perhaps kidnap me [for sexual abuse])

Here are some Muslim women in ISIS controlled Syria:

Photo: Reuters

If the niqab is a choice, why is ISIS ‘encouraging’ them to dress like this? Why aren’t they wearing a kurta, a shalwar kameez, a sari, a skirt, or a pair of jeans and a t-shirt?

Here is a 19-year-old Afghan girl Rokhsahana. She ran away years ago to Iran after her family forced her to marry an old man. Her people somehow got hold of her and eventually stoned her to death while she screamed and begged for mercy.

Photo: AFP

Notice the outfit they forced her to wear in her final moments. Is the veil really a symbol of choice? This woman spent her entire life suffering decisions made by other men. The niqab was but one of them.

Here are some of the 250 schoolgirls kidnapped by Nigerian terrorist outfit, Boko Haram:

Photo: Dailymail

The niqab they were forced to wear doesn’t cover their faces, but it is a version of a niqab none the less.

The Guardian reports that the women captured by Boko Haram face,

“Forced marriage and labour, rape, torture, psychological abuse and coerced religious conversion.”

Here are some schoolgirls who managed to evade Boko Haram. They have now found a new life in Oregon, United States, thanks to a non-profit organisation.

Photo: Cosmopolitan

One of the escapees, Grace, says,

“I decided I would rather die trying to escape than be killed by these men”

If the niqab is a choice, why do these young women not wear it in a place where they are free to dress as they please, away from the grip of an organisation that forces the garb?

Yes, many women in western society freely wear the niqab, but is it really a choice when they consciously or subconsciously wear it out of fear of being ridiculed or ostracised by their community? Is it really a choice when they wear it for fear of facing eternal damnation in the afterlife because of a hard-line interpretation that, according to many scholars, contradicts passages of the very scripture they follow?

Let me put it this way: Is any garment really a choice when it is worn out of fear rather than respect? Does anyone truly wear any other outfit out of dread? When was the last time a woman was killed because she didn’t wear a bikini? When was the last time a terrorist outfit made women wear jeans and t-shirts?

Consciously or subconsciously, how many other unified outfits in history have a large number of people been scared into wearing?

Of course, fear can do funny things. Sometimes, it psychologically conditions the oppressed into oppressing their own:

Photo: Alamy

Photo: Allkindsofhistory.com

Some critics argue that the niqab is similarly frowned upon by western societies as are western outfits in portions of the Muslim world.

Well, not really.

First of all, some western societies may not welcome the niqab, but are happy to see just about any other outfit in the world, be it a sari or a skirt. On the other hand, parts of the Muslim world only enforce one outfit on women, and that’s the niqab.

There is also a reason behind the burqa ban movement, and that’s because the black veil stands as a symbol of oppression.

The following outfits aren’t well received in western societies either:

Photo: Hulton Archive

Photo: Twitter

Take a look at how these slaves are dressed:

Photo: Hulton Archive

And these prisoners:

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

And people of this concentration camp:

Photo: Ushmm.org

How does it compare to this?

Photo: AFP

Tellingly, the majority of outraged comments on my ‘Our national dress is the shalwar kameez, not the niqab’ article came from men themselves. Once again, an outfit is forced upon by the powerful on the powerless, once again as a tool of suppression. Here, it is an instrument to further misogyny, convincing some of those who wear it that it is for their betterment.

Noman Ansari

Noman Ansari

The author is the editor-in-chief of IGN Pakistan, and has been reviewing films and writing opinion pieces for The Express Tribune as well as Dawn for five years. He tweets as @Pugnate (twitter.com/Pugnate)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • UzairH

    Noman, you are an amazing person. I feel proud that we have sensible people in our country, albeit in the minority but at least there are voices of sanity, courage, rationality, and plain human decency. Thank you for fighting the good fight, and I look forward to more articles like this one.Recommend

  • Prof

    Religious Dogma offers a very limited choice between Heaven or Hell. The burka is associated with the former.

    I’ve read of a sufi saint who once brought fire and water to a sermon. When inquired why, the sufi responded that the water was to quench the blazes of hell and the fire to set alight the heavens so that the people would do good for goodness sake and not out of fear of damnation or from lust of paradise. That was a much different dogma of a bygone era, today we are terrorized into submission.Recommend

  • Wah Bhai Wah

    You seldom offer any reason in your articles. I pity you. SalamsRecommend

  • PANKAJ TOMAR

    great articalRecommend

  • Parvez

    You have laid out an argument that is almost irrefutable to the sane progressive mind. The practice of resorting to misogyny shrouded in religious colors to hold on to ones political fiefdoms or to support ones personal weaknesses, remains strong. The frail are always exploited, that is why the religious extremist first chose to destroy girls schools because they knew that education was the the most effective way a girl could gain parity with the male….and thus, God for bid look him in the eye.Recommend

  • ut

    Brilliant!Recommend

  • Fahimuddin

    Certainly people can write a better article of choice of ‘showing body parts’ in western societies but it may not be published by Express Tribune.Recommend

  • abhi

    Nice article again. I wonder how any one can claim that women wear burqa with their choice.Recommend

  • AnupK

    Brilliant! The best ever i read on Tribune!Recommend

  • Raj – USA

    Great job Norman. Like your write up. Excellent compilation and comparisons. Your follow-up piece is even better than the initial peace.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Make your case……..justify it with reason, logic and fact and I am certain that ET or any other credible site will print it.Recommend

  • MUHAMMAD

    The hijab or niqab is the Muslim woman’s proper dress, which Allah
    Almighty has ordered her to wear when he said what means:
    *{And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to
    display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw
    their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to
    their own husbands or fathers or husbands’ fathers, or their sons or
    their husbands’ sons, or their brothers or their brothers’ sons or
    sisters’ sons, or their women, or their slaves, or male attendants who
    lack vigour, or children who know naught of women’s nakedness. And let
    them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their
    adornment. And turn unto Allah together, O believers, in order that ye
    may succeed.}* (An-Nur 24:31)

    This verse shows clearly that Allah has obliged women to wear hijab.Recommend

  • Biswajit Biswas

    “In case of burqa , choice is not burqa …. Choice is being a Muslim or not? ”
    What is the punishment for apostasy in Islam?Recommend

  • Muhammad Qasim

    and i can see 4-5 years old pakistani girls not wearing niqab, hijab, burqa etc. this can’t either be “BY CHOICE”Recommend

  • Noman Ansari

    To the readers lacking basic comprehension skills… the topic says ‘niqab’ not ‘hijab’. Try again.Recommend

  • Sadaf

    The argument that men’s dislike of your point of view is because they are oppressive of women is very interesting. I believe it’s quite possible for a man to disagree with you based on other reasons, most important of them being that hijab is ordained by Allah SWT, certainly not a mundane reason as some of your readers think it is.

    As a Muslim woman, I believe that Muslim women have been told by Allah to cover themselves. The ‘choice’ is similar to any other choice about obligatory commandments–whether you pray or not is up to you. This doesn’t change the fact that it’s a commandment.

    It’s disappointing that you should choose to label a garment ‘mentally-suffocating’. I live in the United States, and wear this so-called suffocating garment by my own decision. My husband would have had me throw it off, but I am a strong woman who knows my rights, and I prevailed. (Feminists should be applauding.) I know countless women, young and old, who are anything but mentally slow, suffocated or retarded. I find it insulting that you think that if I cover my hair, I must have covered my mind also.

    (BTW ‘hijab’, ‘niqab’, ‘burqa’ and ‘abaya’ are not interchangeable, but we can talk about the finer details another time.)Recommend

  • Muhammad Arslan

    Don’t we have a school of thought in Pakistan that discourages their children wearing niqab when they want to don it….I think (Mostly) in our society, its about imposition of parents will on their children without realising the wishes of their children. and this article covers only one aspect of that fact. so I believe its an incomplete article keeping in mind only specific angle of an aspect.
    In my opinion its mentality gap between generation and clesses that we are unable to bridge.Recommend

  • Fareed

    Spot on.

    If we make a choice to live as Muslims, we must abide by certain rules and that’s what our Deen is all about i.e. submitting one’s self to Allah (Creator).Recommend

  • Ahmad

    They choose to become Muslims. Knowing the things that come with it.Recommend

  • Someone

    Awesome Noman – God Bless youRecommend

  • siesmann

    if wearing veils is being Muslim,then over 95% women claiming to be Muslimas are non-MuslimRecommend

  • siesmann

    Seems like majority pf Muslim women are not wearing Proper “Islamic” dress,so thereby not MuslmRecommend

  • AJ

    Very well written…I agree with writers view …..Now i am sure that many of our muslim brothers will start debating against this article only because they want to enforce their thinking…very sad to see when people have no tolerance and just try to dominate others…Recommend

  • siesmann

    He did not say Hijab,but Niqab ans BurkaRecommend

  • Arsha

    A child would any day make the choice to not wear something so restrictive. Any child would CHOOSE the freedom to play unobstructed, run around , satisfy their curiosity about anything and everything around usRecommend

  • Arsha

    Why is it always men who get so worked up about what a woman needs to wear? Why don’t you worry and put restrictions on your gender and try to control them. Please stop standing in the way of women’s empowerment, women’s rights, women’s freedom, women’s dignity, women’s happiness. Please stand aside and let women make their own choices. Recommend

  • Arsha

    You are a man. Better not stress yourself about women’s attire. They have the ability and intelligence to make their own choicesRecommend

  • s

    But where does it say you should cover your face? Niqab is covering face and it should be banned everywhere for security purposesRecommend

  • Sara

    “In case of burqa , choice is not burqa …. Choice is being a Muslim or not? If chose to be a Muslim then you have to follow the rules”

    Religion is thrusted upon you by your parents and society you happened to live in.

    “Being a Muslim” and “Chose to be a muslim” are totally contradictive. Option of “Chose ones religion” was never given to you. No human is born with a religion tag on his/ her face.Recommend

  • Kamal

    These women never “chose” this religion of niqab, hijab and burqa by themselves. It was/ is thrusted upon them by men?
    No human is born with a religion tag on his body.Recommend

  • MUHAMMAD

    It was narrated that ‘Aa’ishah said: “The riders used to pass by us when we were with the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) in ihraam. When they came near, each
    of us would lower her jilbaab from her head over her face, and when
    they passed by we would uncover (our faces).” [Narrated by Abu Dawood, 1833; Ahmad, 24067]
    This hadith has decisive proof that Niqab is Wajib, because the blessed wives of Prophet (salallaho alaihi wasalam) kept extreme care of covering themselves and did not reveal their faces infront of strangers, however when women are with their husbands and those with whom their Nikah is impermissible (being single that is) they can take off the face veil.Recommend

  • MUHAMMAD

    If we are true Muslims then we should obey our God and obey the messenger Muhammad (P.B.U.H), we must follow the message of the
    messenger. We must follow the Quran. Here we don’t have choices or options of our own ability and intelligence.Recommend

  • SAJAD

    Articles is all about strengthening the stereotypes.Recommend

  • Linux Novice

    It should be both.Recommend

  • Linux Novice

    When the wahabis mind their own business, then may be?!Recommend

  • Linux Novice

    That was the point most of the people commenting here didn’t seem to understand.Recommend

  • MUHAMMAD

    Well done my sister.Recommend

  • SAJAD

    Linking social & religious extremism with niqab with presumption that no sain mind can accept niqab with free will……………how creative are we……..Recommend

  • Kushal

    “At the peak of slavery, many slave owners also built a narrative around how slavery was beneficial for slaves. Some slaves were psychologically conditioned into believing this. Not only did slaves called ‘House Negroes’ whip other slaves into submission for their masters, but some refused freedom when it was offered to them.”:Recommend

  • Sohaib Rashid

    Right! So when did burqa became one of the rules for Muslim Women please do explain?Recommend

  • Mahi

    It is not Allah, but humans whisper Azaan into a child’s ears and take all his/ her freedom the moment he/ she is born.Recommend

  • Nandita.

    No. Muslims have to shed their individuality to fit into or be accepted in their own homes. What a pity!Recommend

  • Noman Ansari

    As a man, I want women to enjoy the same freedoms as men. As a man, you’d like women to be confined to ONE garment. There is a difference. It is like the difference between a man who is a jailer, and a man who is not. That’s what is funny.Recommend

  • Noman Ansari

    “Women still wear NIQAB in European countries where no one forces them ..”

    I suggest you read the whole piece.Recommend

  • Hamza

    freedom to wear NIQAB should also be in your definition of freedom….Recommend

  • Parvez

    Possibly you need to ask yourself ‘ why do you feel discomfort without your Naqab ? ‘……….is it because of your shortcomings ?…or is because the environment around you is faulty ? . If it’s the former or the latter you need to muster the courage to confront it . Hiding behind a veil ( a Hijab is not hiding, a Naqab is ) is not the answer, especially in today’s world.Recommend

  • Khansaab

    God has also ordained Muslim men to be dressed modestly. Also, neither of the genders are required to observe hijab before they reach puberty. These are some of the basic facts that I just wanted to mention, although I can’t be sure if you’re joking or actually serious.Recommend

  • Chitral wala

    Your vitriol is still your your clue.Recommend

  • M

    Once again you have hit the nail on the head. It is refreshing to hear some sane voices on this planet. Congratulations and thank you for this article!Recommend

  • Holier than thou

    There is no heaven in Hinduism (or in Buddhism and Jainism). Only a cycle of births and deaths until you get nirvana. Clearly, you know nothing about Hinduism either but you want to lecture other people in the comment section.Recommend

  • Holier than thou

    “choice is not burqa …. Choice is being a Muslim or not? If chose to be a Muslim then you have to follow the rules and cover your self properly”.
    So you are saying that you are only muslim if you wear a burqa. You are proving the author’s point you know. Your reasoning is flawed. You lose!Recommend

  • REEarl

    If as you say, everyone is equal, why are women not allowed to wear what they want to wear? Or do you mean that all men are equal and that women are a lower caste?Recommend

  • Holier than thou

    Dear Ali, there are a million things that Muslims are trying to debate on to decide whether they are Islamic or not.
    Is ISIS islamic? Is Burqa islamic? Is Jihad Islamic? Is music Islamic? Is sculpture Islamic?
    Problem is that there are no easy answers for any of these questions.
    But in the mean time, people continue to do use these islamic and non-islamic labels as per their convenience. These labels also allow people to continue doing despicable things to other human beings and animals.Recommend

  • REEarl

    It appears that if you choose to distance yourself from being a Muslim, your choice is to be hunted down, kidnapped, taken back to your village and stoned to death. Not much of a choice is it?Recommend

  • REEarl

    Does that go for women too?Recommend

  • rukhsana shama

    Only if we could agree to disagree peacefully, only if we could understand that religion is PERSONAL CHOICE and should not be enforced by anyone outside of you who has power over you…Alas…
    Very well put Noman Ansari. Keep it up.Recommend

  • Barius Pelagic

    What wisdom it is to give up wisdom for mythology /sRecommend

  • Chitral wala

    Your language, wb, your language.Recommend

  • Bibloo

    Wrong. Burqa has been around for more than a 100 years.Recommend

  • Oxy Moron

    Yeah right.Recommend

  • Farah Samuel

    Well put. Thank you!Recommend

  • Zexter

    Dear Noman,

    I do not quite want a reputation, so I hope this doesn’t get published. It’s just to explain I do not want to be a part of this argument.

    The thing is that in Saudi it is a rule from the kingship, if you have any issues against it please don’t enter the country. It is as simple as that.

    like in every religion, weather Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, there is a properly defined way of going to the Mosque, Church or Temple and in normal cases we fulfill our minimal requirements and go for prayers. Similarly, if the government of a country is defining some rules, I think the person entering the country should follow them. in terms of Saudi (no drugs/alcohol, Modest defined dressing for both genders, National men should wear Toob or Kandoora, no weapons, etc..).

    I am still surprised that some governments allow smoking weed, while others don’t, may be they are oppressing the weed smokers, or probably effecting the art of singing in many cases.Recommend

  • summaira khan

    well, Noman! I read ur article , I am muslim girl and by choice i want to wear burqa and naqab by my own choice. Not forced by family…..I am nurse by profession…. In pakistan nurses are discouraged to wear naqab…. I am facing critisim and job issues due to following this value by my own choice….
    After reading your article ….I am thinking is it your own biased voice or really u have raised it on muslim women voice…..where i stand in your point of view of naqab in islamRecommend