2020: The Niqab Revisited

The pandemic has given rise to a new wave of interest in niqab wearing, a practice at the center of a string of public controversies. While it has previously been dissected from various cultural and religious perspectives (is it compatible with national cultures, security interests, secular sensibilities? Is it religious? Is it authentic? Is it absolutely necessary in Islam, or a sign of extremism?), 2020 is a year when the perceptions of the niqab became, perhaps, less outwardly antagonistic in the West.

Many media pieces discuss how increasingly mask-wearing societies are developing new modes of communication, and note the striking parallels between the logics of mask- and niqab-wearing. Realizing that women who wear the niqab have functioned and communicated in public with covered faces for a long time, commentators became interested in their insights. Niqab wearers’ insights, previously largely dismissed by the mainstream media, were suddenly rendered valuable, as they could inform new communication practices that have emerged during the pandemic. Simultaneously, countries that introduced legislation that banned face coverings pre-pandemic, and now instituted mask requirements, such as France, provoked widespread criticisms and scorn. Consider this: a woman who goes in public in France wearing a niqab risks a 125 euro fine; if she doesn’t cover her face, she risks a 150 euro fine. This inevitably gives rise to questions about the logic of such mutually exclusive decrees. For example, The New York Times ran an article headlined “Will mandatory face masks end the burqa bans?”

The interviews pointed to a rich fabric of interwoven meanings, practices, ethical frameworks, affective discontinuities, and ongoing theological reflection.”

These swings of public opinion and paradoxes pertaining to the politics of niqab wearing indicate it continues to be a hot button issue. When the niqab was discussed in the British media on the heels of a 2013 legal ruling regarding wearing the niqab in the courtroom, only one newspaper printed an opinion piece written by a niqab wearer during that time, titled “I wear the niqab, let me speak on my own behalf.” Inspired by that appeal, I conducted a research project that involved interviewing 40 women who wore the niqab (my book communicating the findings from the project, Wearing the Niqab: Muslim Women in the UK and the US, will be published in February 2021 by Bloomsbury).

A Rich Fabric of Meaning

The interviews revealed that the popular framings of the niqab (religious requirement – or not – patriarchal oppression, extremism, separatism) are often incompatible with or irrelevant to these women’s experiences. They instead pointed to a rich fabric of interwoven meanings, practices, ethical frameworks, affective discontinuities, and ongoing theological reflection. The participants described having made the personal choice to embrace a particular set of religious and ethical commitments that involved face covering.

Women’s narratives of their motivations for niqab wearing were varied; some were fairly mundane, comparing this practice to everyday prosaic acts that may nevertheless be imbued with deeper meaning located in relationships:

So it’s a simple thing in everyday life, if we want to please our loved ones we do things for them, we cook for them, or we go places for them, things like that. Why not if we really love God, why not follow Him . . . And what He had asked us to do. This is what I believe. (Sidrah, 27, Pakistani living in the UK)

Others ascribed a spiritual and often a mystical quality to the act:

[W]hen you’re dressed in a particular way, spiritually it connects me back to God, it’s a kind of boost, I guess. It makes you, it connects you more to erm, God’s path, to your religion, to your holy book, to your guidance, and you study a lot more, and you practise a lot more…I think the connection between the veil erm and the spirituality is, is amazing in itself. (Sumayah, 39, British Pakistani)

The niqab was often understood as a strategy of cultivation of an “ethical disposition”:

For me, this is just one of the physical manifestations of me trying to get better, because it’s something I know, I can do better. if I perfect, perfect this, maybe this will lead to me doing better in other ways. Cuz I’ll also, in a way, also a conscious reminder in my face, you know how to be and how to act and like, what kind of person I’m trying to aspire to be, even though I’m not that person yet. (Sadiqa, 25, Somali American)

Regardless of the rhetorical framing, a vast majority of the participants emphasized the religious core of the practice:

[O]nce you believe in Islam, once you believe that the message of Islam comes from the Creator, then whatever the Creator tells you to do, you would do because you believe that he’s your Creator. And so everything we do is to say, you know, it says in the Qur’an say, I have heard and I obey, whenever you, you learn something, and you hear, say, I hear and I obey. And then you can understand the reasons why . . . And it’s the reasons that Allah gives in the Qur’an. And it says, where, you know, cover yourself so that you can be known as a believing woman. (Halima, 44, Arab American)

Wearing the niqab connects these women to God. This connection is a concept underpinned by the notion of interiority, personal experience of the transcendent, and to “God’s path” framed by exteriority, that is, external religious practices: the study of the holy book, prayers, fasting. Thus, it is the covered body that connects the interior and the exterior, or, in other words, the spiritual and the (traditionally-understood) religious aspects of piety.

Switching Registers When Discussing the Niqab

Simultaneously, many women recognized that religious rhetoric, not to mention religious motivations, beliefs, and dispositions, may simply be unintelligible to non-religious individuals. During the interviews, they described strategies they employed to conceptually translate the practice to others, at the same time recognizing that “pragmatist” explanations are, necessarily, reductivist. For example, they used the language of rights and freedoms: freedom of religion, conscience, and bodily integrity to explain why the niqab was a legitimate choice of dress in a society where many non-mainstream appearances were tolerated. Many talked about the niqab as an indicator of diversity and cosmopolitanism in communities. Several mentioned health benefits, such as experiencing fewer respiratory infections and, jokingly, protection from the elements. One of the participants who struggled with some mental health difficulties believed the niqab helped her with managing panic attacks. The variety of discourses the participants mobilized suggests both willingness to demystify the niqab for their non-Muslim interlocutors and excellent communication skills evident in the ability to tailor the message to the type of audience. Here is an example of a participant referencing feminist arguments related to resisting and subverting the male gaze and sexual objectification /commodification of the female body:

When I put the niqab on it was totally about what I’m saying. For the first time, because up until then, being in the music business, everything was about the way that I looked . . . because you realise at this point how much this society affects us in how . . . we are being oppressed by society because we’re being told how to look. (Semaab, 29, British Pakistani)

Semaab’s observation that bodily display is expected in Western societies, with agency habitually linked to the freedom to reveal; this is also noted by the literature and defined as “post-feminist forms of sexual liberation” (MacDonald 2006). However, the reverse freedom, freedom to conceal one’s body, is increasingly curtailed by liberal democratic states. The argument mobilized by the majority participants in this research was based on communicating predominantly religious motivations for wearing the niqab, but the effects were described in variously religions or secular language. Unsurprisingly, the niqab shaped their interactions with others, but its effect was different depending on the wearer’s race, “born Muslim”/convert status, language, location, and the extent of supportive social networks.

“It is difficult to pigeonhole niqab wearers, as usually they are politically and theologically separate from groups that have recently come to symbolically “represent” Islam. This has been a problem for politicians, community leaders, and journalists who attempt to pin their own agendas on women who wear the niqab.”

For example, African American participants often stressed that it multiplied the intersectional challenges that they were facing. For Sadiqa, anti-Black racism was persistent enough on its own so that the adoption of the niqab, and the resultant experience of anti-Muslim racism, did not make much difference in terms of her overall social vulnerability, unavoidable one way or another:

even if we were to take off the niqab or take off hijab, we’re still Black. Like, we’re still, you know, African Americans, we’re still have dark skin complexion. So even if they weren’t judging on this [niqab] they could be judging us on our skin color . . . we’re going to get something from somewhere, you know. So it’s like, it’s, I guess, in a way, so it’s already been something very ingrained in us, not just as Muslim but as African Americans. (Sadiqa, 25, Somali American)

Sadiqa’s case shows very clearly how prejudice and discrimination are anticipated; they sometimes shift between anti-Black racism and Islamophobia, but she expects at least one of these sentiments to play out against her in public spaces. Building on Mauleón’s idea that Black Muslims are “Black twice,” because their religion is considered antithetical to Christianity and hence to Whiteness, I argue that Black niqabis are “triply Black.” The predominantly black niqab multiplies challenges, including the hegemonic resentment of the niqab’s challenge to the predominantly White, sexually active, and secular model of femininity.

The Niqab and Racialization of Women Who Wear It

Sometimes the niqab, and particularly the styles that provide more coverage, was appreciated by women, because it obscured their phenotypical features. One of them said:

It [the niqab] gave me confidence, my skin is quite dark, I had a lot of racism, I was always called “crocodile skin,” “Your skin is very dark and it’s tough.” I was called “darky,” “blacky,” “n***** this, n****** that.” . . . When I wore the niqab I wasn’t seen as a “Black” sister [anymore]. They judged me according to how I treated them. They saw me as a person. (X, a niqab-wearing woman cited in the Open Society Foundations report).

Anti-Black racism she experienced at an interpersonal level may have been reduced once she adopted the niqab, but evidence suggests this may be an exception, rather than the rule. Other Black niqabis report that they were often excluded from the community despite wearing a niqab, a powerful signifier of Islam, as the woman quoted in the Black Muslim Forum report: “They had the audacity to ask me if I was Muslim, when they saw me – a black woman in niqab.” She described her experience in corner store where she was followed and eventually questioned by an employee, who, in her words, appeared to be South Asian.

Malika (30, White British convert) reported that her interactions with non-Muslims were much more negative before she replaced her hijab with a niqab. As a hijabi, she was called a “race traitor” by White British people. When her niqab concealed her phenotypical features, this kind of abuse ceased. Racialized constructions of Islam become clear here—White converts “cross the boundary of Whiteness” and become “non-normatively” White, but when they adopt the niqab, they are usually racialized as non-White altogether.

Importantly, although the effect may be perceived as similar, it would be a mistake to assume that racialization through the niqab operates similarly for Black and White women who wear the niqab”

Malika’s and X’s cases show how the niqab may change the type of racialization by either obscuring phenotypically dark skin or concealing the racialized religious transgression “out of ” normative Whiteness. Both women conditionally shift out of the Black or White racial categories into the racialized category of a Muslim. Importantly, although the effect may be perceived as similar, it would be a mistake to assume that racialization operated similarly in these two cases. For Black Muslim women, either Islamophobia or anti-Black racism (from both Muslims and non-Muslims) are unavoidable. They approach niqab-wearing and resultant prejudice already socialized into coping with racism. White converts’ experiences are different, as anti-Muslim sentiment and racialization they face is a new and often shocking experience. On the whole, their Whiteness has an ambiguous effect within American and European Muslim communities. Literature describes how they are variously celebrated and alienated. Being celebrated because of their Whiteness certainly does not promote some White niqabis’ recognition of their own racial privilege, as seen in the following extract: “I have been pretty shocked this year though at all the arising issues in the news. Didn’t know racial problems were still a thing.” (Alana, USA). This perspective stands in sharp contrast to accounts of racism and silencing of Black voices in Muslim spaces given by Black niqabis I interviewed.

Additionally, it is possible for White converts to mitigate racialization by simply adjusting their clothing; they can become racially “unmarked” (as normative Whiteness is seen as invisible), an operation unattainable for Black Muslims. Black niqabis also wear the niqab dynamically to reduce risk of harassment, but are never able to avoid it entirely:

There was a time when I actually did take it off to go into a convenience store, and forgive me, but the area is a predominantly White area, a minimum African American [presence]. . . Hmm, so I just [thought] ‘Okay, this is a double negative.’ Hmm, and I actually took the niqab off [but] I left my khimar on and hijab on. (Asma, 46, African American)

Asma is a healthcare worker and visits clients in different neighborhoods, so she feels she has to be highly attuned to her surroundings. Such constant scrutiny of urban spaces, with a particular focus on the racial/ethnic composition and perceived risks it carries becomes second nature especially for women who, like Asma, are highly mobile.

Racialization of Islam is possible through construction of a visible archetype of a “Muslim” utilizing symbolic markers such as name, dress, phenotype, and language (Naber 2008). In the case of the niqab wearers I interviewed, and the interactions they narrated, symbolic markers of the archetype were mostly limited to dress, while their phenotype was largely obscured by dress and face veil. The immediate consequence of it is that it is no longer easy to designate them as Black or White, Arab or Asian. However, the concealment of phenotypical features does not mean that racialization ceases; it is still inscribed on the women in a myriad of other, socially-constructed ways as noted by critical race theory scholars. “To be Muslim in America . . . means to claim a faith tradition marked by both African American and immigrant struggles,” asserts Jamilah Karim in her excellent ethnography of American Muslim women’s communities.

Women who choose to wear the niqab make up a “new form of Islam”. This new form of Islam involves a degree of individualism that is often based on women’s rejection of historically embedded cultural norms. It is difficult to pigeonhole niqab wearers, as usually they are politically and theologically separate from groups that have recently come to symbolically “represent” Islam. This has been a problem for politicians, community leaders, and journalists who attempt to pin their own agendas on women who wear the niqab, with little understanding of how the niqab may be interpreted at theological and social levels by its wearers. The controversy over the niqab poignantly illustrates the cultural reality in which women’s bodies are conceptualized as ideological battlefields.

The multimodality of the niqab is encapsulated by Inglis’s observation that “both masks and veils have been thoroughly bound up with imaginings of what constitutes sound social order and chaotic disorder. Both have made possible and potentially undo bodily regimes of control in general and facial ones in particular.” My study demonstrates that the niqab becomes the focal point for a wider conflict that affects both the British and American contexts: a disagreement over what constitutes a political community, social contract, and democracy at large. The niqab controversies, as well as the pushback against “Shari’a law” in the United States, highlight the conflict between an understanding based on “the normative dimension of constitutional rights that guarantee the equality of citizens,” and the opposing vision which draws from populist interpretations of foundational legal acts and a normativity of behaviors and affect.

Anna Piela is a visiting scholar of gender and religion at Northwestern University. She has written about Muslim women’s activism in online settings. She has published in the Journal of American Academy of Religion, The Muslim World, and New Media and Society. Her current research involves research with women who wear the niqab in the UK and the US. Her new book, Wearing the Niqab: Muslim Women in the UK and the US, will be published in February 2021 by Bloomsbury Academic. Her personal website is www.annapiela.com  and she is on Twitter @annapiela999.