x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

‘My niqab, and why I wear it’: Women in the UAE state their case as global debate rages

The full face veil - or niqab - seems to be something of a red flag to both the public and politicians around the world. But what do Muslim women make of all the fuss? Mitya Underwood reports

Many who wear the niqab say most of the confusion surrounding it comes from a lack of understanding. “Most people wear it by choice and making people take it off, that is the oppression,” says one UAE wearer. Anthony Behar/ Sipa USA
Many who wear the niqab say most of the confusion surrounding it comes from a lack of understanding. “Most people wear it by choice and making people take it off, that is the oppression,” says one UAE wearer. Anthony Behar/ Sipa USA

Hamna Ahmed, born and raised in the UAE, has been wearing the full face veil for seven years.

Ms Ahmed made the decision entirely on her own after attending religion and spirituality classes that she says gave her a greater understanding of Islam.

Her mother remains uncovered, as do three of her four sisters.

“In Islam, there are two opinions on the face veil,” says Ms Ahmed, 24. “One is that it is recommended but not necessary, the other valid opinion is that it is necessary.

“I wear it believing it is necessary, but someone else can be wearing it believing that she is doing something extra.”

The niqab has become such an issue, Ms Ahmed says, because very few people interact with women who wear it, and ignorance breeds fear and even worse, contempt.

When she made the decision to wear it even her father questioned her choice, warning her it would not be an easy change.

But she has never regretted her decision and is able to go about her business as well as anyone who is not veiled.

“If you’re in a situation where you can’t obey what the religion tells you, it’s OK to relax,” Ms Ahmed says. “If you go for a medical checkup and the only doctor is male, it’s OK to uncover because it’s for medical reasons.

“In the airport I have to show my face. It’s uncomfortable but there’s no harm in that. It is for security, I understand that.”

Ms Ahmed plans to visit the United States next year and says she has every intention of wearing her niqab, unless she asked to remove it for security purposes.

Her attitude is markedly different from that of the young British Muslim who has been at the centre of a legal dispute after refusing to remove her face veil in a London court when men were present.

The woman, 22, who is referred to as “D” in the subsequent ruling, is facing trial for allegedly intimidating a witness and pleaded not guilty at a previous hearing.

Her refusal to show her face prompted judge Peter Murphy to make a 36-page ruling at Blackfriars crown court, which decided she can stand trial wearing the full veil but must remove it while giving evidence.

It was the first time an official ruling had been made, possibly setting the precedent for future cases.

Judge Murphy’s report explores the role of the niqab in Islam and whether it is a religious duty or personal choice. The former, of course, would make an overall ban much more complex because faith is so intertwined with British culture and identity.

Judge Murphy ultimately decided the woman can remain veiled while in court providing there is another female to verify her identity. But when it comes to giving evidence her face must be visible to others involved in the proceedings.

It states: “If a fair trial is to take place, the jury [and for some limited purposes, the judge] must be able to assess the credibility of the witnesses – to judge how they react to being questioned, particularly, though by no means exclusively, during cross-examination.

“If the defendant gives evidence, this observation applies equally to her evidence.”

Ms Ahmed says she understands the decision.

“If someone believes they are covering for religious reasons it’s going to be an issue for them to be forced to take it off. But Islam is pretty flexible when it comes to these things.

“It is much more of an issue when it comes to banning the niqab in public places. To me this doesn’t make sense.

“It’s such a minority of women that actually choose to wear it [in other countries]. In France, for example, the majority who wear it are converts and wearing it out of choice.

“I’ve been following this topic for eight years and in all the arguments and conversations, you never hear from a woman wearing the niqab voicing her opinion. It’s kind of sad.”

Minority issue or not, the full veil has become a political tool, with legislators around the world introducing the issue into parliaments.

This summer a Conservative MP, Peter Hollobone, put forward the Face Coverings (Prohibition) Bill. It is due to have its second reading debate on February 28 next year.

It states: “Subject to the exemptions in subsection (3), a person wearing a garment or other object intended by the wearer as its primary purpose to obscure the face in a public place shall be guilty of an offence.”

This would push the UK in the same direction as France, which banned the burqa in public in 2011. The French law also applies to balaclavas, masks, helmets and any other veils covering the face.

Shelina Janmohamed, a Muslim in the UK who wrote Love in a Headscarf, says since Judge Murphy’s ruling, the issue of the niqab is one everyone is talking about.

“To me it suggests that it’s not necessarily about this woman and her rights,” she says. “The ruling is very detailed and meticulous and I feel he has come to a very reasonable outcome.

“What that tells me about the wider discussion is that this isn’t a discussion about this particular case. It’s the debate about ‘do Muslims have a place in the UK?’, and the focus is always on women and the veil.”

Ms Janmohamed, who is also a columnist for The National, does not wear the niqab but covers her hair with a hijab, or shayla.

“Personally I don’t think, from a religious perspective, that a Muslim woman needs to cover her face otherwise I would do it. But I understand that other women do think that’s the case.”

The veil debate has spread as far as Canada, where the ruling party in the Quebec government this month announced proposals to “prohibit the wearing of overt and conspicuous religious symbols by state personnel carrying out their duties”.

The ban, if introduced, would include personnel working in ministries, universities, public health facilities, social services and municipal staff.

The Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, which has been met with heavy criticism, is intended to “entrench the religious neutrality of the state”.

Clothing that would fall under the ban includes necklaces with large crosses, the hijab, turbans, the burqa and the yarmulka.

Inconspicuous religious symbols on jewellery would still be allowed. It also calls to make it mandatory to have one’s face uncovered when providing or receiving state services.

Critics of the proposal say it is forcing people to choose between work and religion.

Reham Fouda, an Australian Muslim living in the UAE, says one of the most common arguments is that people think women who wear the veil are oppressed in some way.

“Most people wear it by choice, and making people take it off, that is the oppression,” says Ms Fouda, 26.

A software engineer who moved to the UAE six months ago, she wore the niqab for one month when she was living in Melbourne.

“When I decided to start wearing it there was a protest in Australia against it,” Ms Fouda says. “I wanted to see how these women live.

“I didn’t feel like I fully integrated in the community. People sometimes looked worried but no one at all was offensive, nobody said anything or did anything to me.”

Like Ms Ahmed, she blames a lot of the arguments on ignorance of the niqab and what it symbolises. The media should also take responsibility for adding fuel to an already burning fire, she says.

But there have been cases where media attention has led to the reversal of a ban.

When Birmingham Metropolitan College announced last week a ban on face veils for security reasons, the city’s local paper picked up the story.

Within 48 hours, 8,000 signatures were collected on a petition against the ban. City councillors and MPs also spoke out against the decision.

Two days later, in a statement carried in the Birmingham Mail, a college spokesman said: “We are concerned that recent media attention is detracting from our core mission of providing high-quality learning.

“As a consequence, we will modify our policies to allow individuals to wear specific items of personal clothing to reflect their cultural values.”

Ms Fouda, who was born in Saudi Arabia but grew up in Australia, says the niqab issue will always be contentious because it is often seen as an attack on one’s religion.

“I don’t believe this discussion will ever end, especially when religion is in the subject. Religion will never be a topic where people agree or forget.

“Why? It touches on belief and when people start talking about belief in their hearts, people take it very personally.

“When a total ban is introduced, it isn’t just women affected. The entire Islamic population is asked ‘what are you doing?’ It is a much bigger problem than that very small minority.”