Across Europe, one country after another is discussing the "burqa", the "niqab" and the possibility of banning both. Women who wear the niqab are surprisingly absent from this public discourse. Stephanie Doetzer recently met a dozen of them in Doha and relates their way of talking about the facial veil
Nada is in a bit of a dilemma. She would like Western journalists to report differently. She would like them to stop seeing the facial veil as a symbol of oppression. Most of all, she would like them to listen to niqabi women themselves. But telling her own story in an interview is a big deal for her. She does not want her real name to be found on the internet, nor does she want her voice recorded, let alone to be photographed.
The world out there, in her eyes, is a jungle full of traps and temptations. She doesn't want to please people, only God. Everything, she says, ought to have a higher purpose, she does not take any decisions without an Istikhara prayer, i.e. a prayer asking God for guidance. Secular Europeans might call her obsessed by her beliefs, but Nada sees her faith as a moral guide at every moment of her life.
A protective shield that gives confidence
She first donned the veil at the age of 19, despite the protests of her Egyptian parents. Today, 11 years later, she considers this decision one of "the best in her life", but she keeps the details of her decision-making process private. What she wants people to know is this: that the niqab makes her feel much more relaxed and secure. That it's a protective shield that gives her confidence. And more freedom than most Westerners will ever understand.
Anyone who speaks to women wearing the niqab is likely to hear similar words. In many ways, Nada's story is typical – but still, it cannot be generalized. Just as there is no prototype of a woman wearing hijab, there is no such thing as a typical niqabi. With their black abayas and black headscarfs, with just a small slot for the eyes, most look so similar from the outside that it's tempting to think they are all cut from the same cloth. In the case of niqabis, sweeping generalisations happen even among Muslims, many of whom favour the hijab, but at the same time ferociously oppose the full-face veil.
A cloaked diversity
However, there's no pigeonhole that fits them all. There are women like Nada, who think of the facial veil as their personal shield and a symbol of piety, just as there are those who combine it with Gucci bags, high heels and heavy make-up. While some use it to deter male attention and spurn male advances, others have perfected its use in the art of seduction, confirming the clichéd image of the mysterious oriental princess who must hide her beauty from the world.
At the same time, the meaning of the veil changes from one geographical context to another: Syrian or Egyptian niqabis tend to see it as a "further step" in their religious practice, beyond what is considered necessary in their society. Nada, for one, is Egyptian and her decision to cover her face came as a shock to the rest of the family. In the Gulf, however, it often is a practice handed down from one generation to the next.
"It's our tradition. We don't think much about it. We don't speak much about it. We just wear it," says Nashwa Ibrahim, a mother of five who works for the Qatari foreign ministry. In Doha, not only do many Qatari women choose to wear the niqab, it is also widespread among Western converts. "Here in Qatar, it's comfortable to wear it. It feels good," says Kathleen Toomey, a sports trainer from Australia who converted to Islam 15 years ago. Her friend Aisha Stacey adds that she appreciates "the feeling of being in a place, and still somehow separate from it."
In conversations with niqabis, most insist that it has been their choice to wear the veil, often despite protests from their families. But where is the line between independent decision making and social conventions or even coercion?
"Of course some women are forced to wear it," says Aisha. "But it's the same kind of pressure that you also have in the West: when a father doesn't want his daughter to study this or that or when a husband pushes his wife to do something she doesn't really want to do. In local families it may often be the result of social conventions, but women are generally comfortable with it. And among converts, it's a personal choice in 90% of all cases."
That percentage is obviously a subjective estimate, but conversations among Doha's niqabi women tend to confirm it. However, they also confirm that tendencies don't tell us anything about individual cases. Just half an hour after the conversation with Aisha I receive an e-mail with just three sentences: "Thanks for your interview request. I'm not a good person to talk to, I only wear niqab because my husband wants me to. I hate it. Best regards."
"He should be jealous!"
Nashwa Ibrahim's husband also prefers his wife to wear a facial veil. But in her case, this is much to her delight. In Nashwa's eyes, a husband who doesn't mind if other men see his wife's face doesn't sufficiently value and respect his wife. "I would be very hurt if he did not insist on my wearing niqab," she says. "He should care about who gets to see my face! The face is a woman's beauty and a source of attraction for other men. He should be jealous!"
If there's one thing that most women wearing the niqab share, it may be the belief that encounters between men and women lead to problems that they think a veil can contain. "If Europeans deny that men and women are different, then they are lying to themselves," says Nashwa. Kathleen adds: "Of course you can say: It's men who have to change, they shouldn't stare at women anymore, they should stop harassing them. But God has created men in such a way that they are easily attracted by women. That’s not going to change, just because some women say they don't like it. The Islamic dress code is a way of dealing with this reality. Men have to do their part, but women can help them if they cover themselves."
The more women in Qatar enter the workforce, the more start wearing niqab. Up until the 1990s, working in a mixed environment was almost unheard of. Today, it has become standard practice, but this doesn't mean people find it normal. The niqab has become a coping mechanism, a portable separation device between men and women that allows both to feel at ease in each others' presence.
A bit of privacy in public places
Specifically religious reasons for the niqab are not nearly as prominent as one might think. None of the women I spoke to thought of the veil as a religious duty. Both Nada and Nashwa do agree that it's "preferable" to wear one, but they invariably end up talking about reasons that are very much down-to-earth: "When I'm with my husband in a shopping mall and we meet some of his friends... if I didn’t wear niqab I’d feel uncomfortable if they could see me," says Nashaw, while Nada states with a sigh: "In Doha everybody knows everybody, I don't want to be recognized all the time and have people talk about what I did yesterday!"
Especially in the Gulf region, the niqab symbolises a bit of privacy in societies that can be highly invasive. As long as many Arab capitals function like small European villages, with every movement registered by the extended family, with people putting seemingly endless energy into observing and judging others, the veil is not perceived as a restriction on personal space. On the contrary, many feel it opens up space and think of their niqab as a kind of sanctuary.
But how does it feel to wear a facial veil in the West, where the line between public and private is drawn with much different contours? When outside of the Middle East, Kathleen and Aisha only wear hijab. Niqab, they say, doesn't seem to fit elsewhere. Nashwa regularly flies to Paris, London or Munich to shop and adapts her style to the context: "Over there, I wear my black abaya and a headscarf. I know that Europeans don't like the black, but I don't want to change the colour." And how about men looking at her face? "In Europe, nobody knows me. And... how can I explain this?... The men over there are different. I feel like they don't see me at all."
Only one of the four would never trade her niqab for a simple hijab, not even in Europe. Nada says she'd feel uncomfortable and unprotected without it – a bit like a German woman wearing a bikini in the middle of the city. "I would like to come to Germany. I'd like to meet the people and to explain why I'm wearing this," she says. "But I'm afraid they wouldn't like me. That they would see only my niqab, not me."
© Qantara.de 2010
Stefanie Doetzer is a journalist specializing in issues relating to Islam and the Middle East. From 2008–2010 she worked for the news channel Al Jazeera in Doha.
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de