The meaning of the niqab or veil is currently the subject of great debate throughout the Islamic world, including the US and European countries where Muslims make up a substantial minority population. Arab News carries two articles furthering the debate, one from the The Los Angeles Times, the other from the UK’s The Guardian. Both are worth reading, of course…
Women and the Veil: Hidden in Plain Sight
Zaiba Malik, LA Times
Thereâ€™s a poster on the wall of an Islamic dress shop in East London showing a young woman in a black â€œhijab.â€ Above her is the word â€œPure.â€ The saleswoman who is helping me also has a scarf covering her head.
Iâ€™m here to buy a â€œhijabâ€ too â€” but thatâ€™s not all. Iâ€™m here for the full Islamic covering, the complete three-piece suit: The â€œhijabâ€ that I will wrap around my head, the shapeless robe known as an â€œabaya,â€ and the now-terribly-controversial â€œniqabâ€ â€” a square of material that goes over oneâ€™s face with a slit of about five inches for my eyes.
I buy it for $73 and take it all home, but I donâ€™t put it on until the next morning. When I do, I see myself for the first time in full Islamic dress â€” and Iâ€™m horrified. I have disappeared, and somebody I donâ€™t recognize is looking back at me. I cannot tell how old she is, how much she weighs, whether she has a kind face or a sad face. Even my own mother couldnâ€™t recognize me.
Iâ€™ve seen this shrouded figure in news reports from the mountains of Afghanistan and the cities of Saudi Arabia, but she looks out of place here in my bedroom in West London. In fact, I feel so dissociated from my own reflection that it takes me over an hour to pluck up the courage to leave the house.
Muslim Veil as a Symbol of Cultural Identity
Karen Armstrong, The Guardian
LONDON, 28 October 2006 â€” I spent seven years of my girlhood heavily veiled â€” not in a Muslim niqab but in a nunâ€™s habit. We wore voluminous black robes, large rosaries and crucifixes, and an elaborate headdress: You could see a small slice of my face from the front, but from the side I was entirely shielded from view. We must have looked very odd indeed, walking dourly through the colorful carnival of London during the swinging 1960s, but nobody ever asked us to exchange our habits for more conventional attire.
When my order was founded in the 1840s, not long after Catholic emancipation, people were so enraged to see nuns brazenly wearing their habits in the streets that they pelted them with rotten fruit and horse dung. Nuns had been banned from Britain since the Reformation; their return seemed to herald the resurgence of barbarism. Two hundred and fifty years after the gunpowder plot which sought to blow up the Westminster Parliament and kill the king, Catholicism was still feared as unassimilable, irredeemably alien to the British ethos, fanatically opposed to democracy and freedom, and a fifth column allied to dangerous enemies abroad.
Today the veiled Muslim woman appears to symbolize the perceived Islamic threat, as nuns once epitomized the evils of popery. She seems a barbaric affront to hard-won values that are essential to our cultural identity: gender equality, freedom, transparency and openness. But in the Muslim world the veil has also acquired a new symbolism. If government ministers really want to debate the issue fruitfully, they must become familiar with the bitterly ironic history of veiling during the last hundred years.