By Radhika Sanghani
23 Sep 2013
How do you react when you see a woman walking down the street in a Niqab? Be honest.
a) Feel intimidated and avert your eyes?
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.
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.
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.