Arab Feminist Perspective on the Burqa, Niqab & Hijab

Before this article delves into its substance, I want to clarify what the Burqa, the Niqab and the Hijab are because the terms are incorrectly used interchangeably. It is uncomfortable as a conversation participant to follow what one’s specific argument is when the terminology is confused, inaccurate and therefore ambiguous. With that said, later I quote someone who interchangeably uses niqab and burqa, and I hope the reader is able to recognize the importance of quoting them properly even though their terminology is confused.

  • Niqab is a veil that covers a woman’s hair and face, leaving only eyes clearly visible.
  • Hijab is the Arabic word for curtain or cover. It is a piece of cloth worn by observant Muslim women to cover the hair, ears, and neck, leaving the face uncovered.
  • Seetar, sitar, a similar garment to the burqa/burkha, includes a niqab with a second tier screening the eyes with mesh. It covers the woman’s whole body and is usually black in color. In other words, the burqa essentially refers to a face and head covering that begins at the top of the head and drapes as long as the body. The burqa is generally associated to Aghanistan, the seetar to Saudi Arabia and the Middle East1.

Since the recent “ban” on the full face veil, the Niqab, in France on 11 April, 2011, there has been a burst of interest to “protect” and “liberate” the Muslim woman from this type of dress. Many all-of-a-sudden experts piped up in the news media regarding the subject, either in opposition of its representation of right wing Islamic ideology or that the niqab is the pinnacle of piety and is chosen, not imposed, on women. Many of the arguments supporting the ban on wearing niqab are sound, and its intent is to eliminate sexist and misogynist practices. However that status of the French niqabiah (one who wears niqab), her interest in wearing the niqab, and how she perceives oppression and the sources of those oppressing her, were left unexplored- in that, only one fully veiled French woman was heard by the Commission.

The Long View, by Hanna Ali Khliefat

Kenza Drider, the woman heard by the commission was heard only because of her persistence and contacts in the media. Even then, she was only cited in one paragraph of the 658 page Parliamentary report.[1] So, even if you believe that the French parliament had every good intention in mind to protect the niqabiat in France, they failed to empower Muslim French women by involving them in laws dictating their fate. This is hypocritical in that, if a government was to “liberate” a group of people from what the government perceived as oppressive, and the group of people did not perceive as oppressive – is it still a liberation? I think not.

A recent study by Open Society Foundations, who examines the position of minority groups in Europe to better inform policies, looked at the experience of 32 randomly selected and fully veiled women in France. Supposedly there are almost 2,000 women out of 4-6 million French Muslims who wear the face veil. This random sample of 32 women proportionately represents the overall French Muslim population in that nearly 85% were under the age of 40. Twenty-nine of the respondents were born in France, and 60% have an Arab background1. The report concluded that the choice to wear a full face veil was made independently by the women, despite reservations by their husbands and none of the women started wearing it as a result of direct or indirect persuasion from religious figures at the Mosque or Muslim groups. Thirty women reported that they had suffered verbal abuse from members of the public, and some were physically assaulted. The typical profile of the assaulter was between 30-50 years old, mostly female and white French.

This begs the question, is wearing the niqab really an issue that is propagated by the patriarchal radical right wing of Islam, or is this simply a problem that the French has and are outlawing it in the name of Muslim women liberation?

Fellow Arab feminist, Mona El Tahawy recently shared

“An argument I had on the Cairo subway with a woman who wore a burqa helped seal for good my refusal to defend [the face covering]. Dressed in black from head to toe, the woman asked me why I did not wear the burqa. I pointed to my headscarf and asked her ‘is this not enough?’ ‘If you wanted a piece of candy, would you choose an unwrapped piece or one that came in a wrapper?’ she asked. ‘I am not candy,’ I answered. ‘Women are not candy’. .. unless we challenge it, the burqa – and by extension the erasure of women – becomes the pinnacle of piety.[2]

I couldn’t agree more with Ms. Mona, in that I too detest the face veil, would never wear it and cannot begin to imagine ways to defend it. However, I am also avidly against domestic violence and sexual assault – and as my 70 hour training on trauma and abuse against women for a local Women’s Crisis Line and numerous studies on sexism emphasized, you cannot rescue the survivor based on your own judgments of “what is right”. The vigilante-minded means well but will instead marginalize the survivor from engaging in the law themselves, making decisions to change their own lives and allow them to assume the power they have over their own lives – thus inadvertently educating the survivor in how to help themselves.
You must empower a survivor to decide their own fate; otherwise you are doing to the survivor what has been done to them through abuse – you are controlling them, and therefore degrading their perception of freewill and personal choice. The outlawing of the niqab in France has caused more marginalization of French Muslim women – it has forced the niqabiah to choose between participating in French society with access to school, social services and employment – or to stay at home because they prefer not to remove the niqab in public. Empowerment involves law and social structure, but only to the extent in which it allows a survivor freedom to decide and protect themselves from oppression, force and coercion to do things they do not want to do.

[1] At Home in Europe Project, Open Society Foundations, “Unveiling the Truth: Why 32 Muslim Women Wear the Full Face Veil in France”, 2011.

[2] ElTahawy, Mona. “Ban the Burqa” International Herald Tribune, July 2, 2009.