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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 30 Sept 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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My Day Wearing a Niqab



By Radhika Sanghani

23 Sep 2013

How do you react when you see a woman walking down the street in a Niqab? Be honest.

Do you:

a) Feel intimidated and avert your eyes?

b) Stare?

c) React as you would to any other woman?

I used to aim for c, but in reality, I've always looked away.

I looked away because I felt uncomfortable. My intention was to be respectful and not stare. But the outcome? Well, I didn’t really think about it - until I decided to cover myself in a Niqab last week during a national debate on the veil and take a flight from Brussels to London.

I am a British Indian so when I was dressed in the Niqab, I looked like a typical Muslim woman. Sitting on the tube in London, people looked at me – and then immediately turned away. There were no shared smiles of consolation when I dropped my iPhone or sympathetic glances when a teenager playing blaring music sat next to me. With my face covered, nobody knew if I was smiling or frowning. They all assumed I wanted to be left totally alone, without the usual public interactions you can expect on public transport. I didn’t.

The Other Side of the Niqab Doesn't Feel Good

Their reactions made me feel like I didn’t exist. Perhaps it was an attempt on their parts to try and respect my veil and perceived religion, but in reality it came across as coldness. Without any input from me, the veil quickly converted itself into a ‘do not disturb’ sign hanging from my face.

It also took at least a couple of hours to get used to the physical restrictions of wearing such a heavy garment over my face. I found it difficult to breathe at first, but soon learned to readjust to having a piece of material over my mouth. I also found wearing a Niqab pretty hot, as you might imagine – even with just a dress and tights on underneath.

Britain Is Better Than Brussels

When I arrived in Brussels, the public reaction was even worse. The security man at border control took one look at me and rolled his eyes. “People like you, people with your religion, need to respect our laws. If you don’t want to show your face, don’t come to our country. Take your… [he gestured to my face] off now or get out of this airport,” he said, pointing to the exit with his finger. I hadn’t yet uttered a single word.

He refused to let me take off my veil privately or with a female officer. He forced me to remove it publicly. I stared at him defiantly as he identified me, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of showing how much his words had upset me, but I can only imagine how hard it would have been for a Muslim woman.

This insensitive treatment at the hands of the Brussels guards was starkly different to the British border control's approach. Our guards directed me to a woman who politely asked me if I preferred to remove the Niqab on the spot or in private. I opted for the private option, grateful for the choice. She duly took me to a secluded corner and there I showed her my face.

The Logistics

There were other less serious issues with wearing the Niqab. Logistically, I had no idea what shoes to wear with it – could I wear my favourite heeled ankle boots? In the end I wore ballet flats with tights, but I was constantly checking my skirt wasn’t riding up as I walked, and I found myself struggling with my handbag as it caught on my veil.

When I drank a smoothie in Starbucks, several businessmen stared at me. They were transfixed by how I managed to use the ‘flap’ of the veil to cover my mouth as I drank. I felt self-conscious. Their stares weren’t malicious but it was uncomfortable being watched so closely – especially when some juice dribbled down my Niqab.

At times my natural confidence seemed to juxtapose my covered body. People stared when I laughed and talked loudly with an unveiled friend. I felt like people were thinking, ‘why is she so loud and confident when she is covering herself head-to-toe?’ Perhaps that thought was just an extension of my subconscious prejudices of what people were thinking about me. However, train commuters did look shocked when I had an animated chat on phone on the way home about Game of Thrones.

Some Unexpected Perks

In other ways, it was liberating. Once I had got used to people either ignoring me or staring at me, I felt a sense of calmness. They weren’t looking at me – they were looking at the Niqab. Once I finally accepted all of this, I was able to enjoy the benefits.

I yawned widely and didn’t have to automatically raise my hand to cover my mouth. I pulled it over my eyes and used it as a blindfold on the plane. I walked down my high street and no one knew who I was. If people looked at me and made judgements, it was always a judgement about the Niqab. It wasn’t personal, because they couldn’t see my clothes, my body, or my facial expressions. I was hidden.

The Reality

Although these small things were liberating, they are also the reasons why I believe women should not wear the Niqab when giving evidence in court. Facial expressions are important and the veil definitely acts as a barrier. I don’t think girls should be veiled at school either, but I would never say we should ban the Niqab. We don’t have the right to. It is an individual choice and religious freedom of expression.

Instead, we should be discussing how we can change our attitudes to the Niqab and its owner. There is always a real, breathing woman beneath the veil and she doesn’t deserve to be ignored. I will never look at a veiled woman and just see a Niqab again. I’ll try and see the person beneath it and if she drops her phone, I’ll hand it back with a smile.




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Total Comments (5)

  • 5 .
    decency - as applied to matters of dress is entirely an issue of the leisure class.

    but for those laboring hard, dresses that leave the limbs free and not hinder free movement while at the same time providing for a free evaporation of sweat as well as preventing it from entering the eyes - is more important.

    if one observes rice transplanting in may rural areas, it is women who are predominantly engaged in this.

    for these woman if decency required them to cover their bodies, they might not be able to effectively transplant rice.

    also legislation without a corresponding change in the social mores is more detrimental than useful. examples are anti-dowry legislation and the prohibition of pre natal sex determination.

    people want to take and give dowry, they do not want girl children. while legislation only provides for punishment for the breach of law, it rarely produces any change in the social outlook. education has better and longer lasting effects on social mores. but education is not for the impatient.

    and law makers are notoriously impatient. see how impatient ms jayalalitha is for instantaneous bail!
    By hats off! 03/10/2014 05:17:34
  • 4 .
    Decency - not  exposing one's  Flesh- body  is very important.A man covers his body from neck to heels.But many women wear scanty dresses. which must be banned by legislation
    By Dr.A.Anburaj 03/10/2014 04:48:29
  • 3 .
    in dar ul harb, all women have rights to cover themselves, or even to expose themselves, except for the pudenda and mammry glands. even about exposure of mammary glands, courts have ruled that as long as the nipples and areolea are covered, no charge of obscenity or undress can be brought against them.

    but does a muslim woman have any right to expose her body, or her her legs or hands or any other part that another woman has a right to hide?

    any ideas?

    what is so obscene in a muslim woman's face that she has to cover it like she has to cover her genitals?

    why does she ever emigrate to the dar ul harb from dar ul islam? in dar ul harb, women are loose, debauched and worthless. so why does a pious muslimah have to emigrate to the kuffar lands?

    why does she beg to be allowed, even while knowin g that in dar ul harb there is free sex, free alcohol, freedom and everyuthing that is anathema to islam? why are muslims so enamoured of kufr that they beg to be allowed into kuffaristan?

    why cannot she be in her own dar ul islam, where no one will ask her to remove her mask?
    By hats off! 01/10/2014 10:56:06
  • 2 .
    Dear Mr. Suri: I failed to understand your approach towards "Niqab" and its users. You are calling Radhika a traitor for what reasons is better known to you only. She has simply tried to explore the feelings behind the veil when any Burqa-clad Muslim woman is abused, banished from a place or disrespected unethically. 
    By Raihan Nezami 01/10/2014 10:46:05
  • 1 .

    Dear Radhika,

    You are a traitor to our religion for writing the piece of rubbish what you have written,

    Women like you are the first to raise a hue and cry when a police officer says women should not dress provocatively.

    Now you write this as an apologist for Islamism and Islamists.


    If you do come back alive then I will debate with you anytime anywhere about what political Islam is.

    God will punish you for this and when he does do remember I told you so.

    People we must be aware of traitors like her, who in their vain glory will not be afraid to stab us in the back.

    Islamists and their apologists have to be defeated.

    Jai Shri Ram


    P.S. Rasool Allah's family was also tortured by the Islamists. The true reason for the Arab attack on Sind was to exterminate the last vestiges of Rasool Allah's family. Please read and see Tarek Fatah. The same people also recently destroyed the Holy Prophet's house.

    May Rab ul Al Ameen rot all Islamists and

    Jai Shri Nabi-e-Karim

    By Hemant Suri 01/10/2014 07:43:03