Dec 20th 2014
COVERING a woman’s face (as well as her body) is said by some devout Muslims to protect her virtue. But the full veil has long lent itself to other purposes. In one tale of “One Thousand and One Nights”, a tome of traditional Arabic stories, Prince Ardashir is slipped into the bedroom of Princess Hayat al-Nufus by her nurse, who veils him and teaches him a female gait; in another story King Shah Zaman catches the wife of his brother, King Shahryar, cavorting with 20 slave girls, ten of whom prove, when disrobed, to be well-endowed males.
Of late the Niqab, or full veil, has been used less cheerfully. On December 13th Yemeni authorities said its police had shot dead several al-Qaeda militants who were disguised as fully veiled women. On December 1st a black-veiled woman stabbed to death an American teacher in an Abu Dhabi shopping centre.
The incident provoked a rare flutter of debate in the Gulf, mostly on Twitter and other social media, over whether the Niqab should be restricted as a security threat. Separately a Saudi sheikh, Ahmed al-Ghamdi, was criticised and threatened with death after declaring on television that Islam does not require women to cover their faces (his wife was interviewed, bare-faced, alongside him).
The use and abuse of the Niqab is nothing new. Nuri al-Said, a former Iraqi prime minister, tried to escape Baghdad after the 1958 revolution by donning one, but was caught and killed. Western journalists have at times availed themselves of the garment to slip in to difficult places.
Some countries have restricted the Niqab as a symbol of the repression of women (or a security measure). France and Belgium have banned the full veil in public. Muslim-majority Turkey prevents women from wearing it in some places. Some women claim the Niqab sets them free and say that the prohibitions infringe their rights. But in July the European Court of Human Rights upheld the ban introduced by France in 2011.
As in the Arabian Nights, full veiling can be a means of getting around conservative social conventions. Saudi women, for instance, recount how they use the Niqab to meet boyfriends or lovers incognito. Still, on the whole, the Niqab gives men the edge in cross-dressing. On December 15th a Saudi woman dressed as a man to watch a football game in Jeddah; she was spotted and arrested.