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Behind the veil


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WHEN Saima, my late mother’s maid, first joined our staff, she used to wear the full burqa.

But after a bit, when she saw that neither my mother, nor her relatives and friends who visited the house covered themselves, she felt relaxed enough to take her black, all-encompassing garb off when she was indoors.

When I got to know her better, I teased her about this: “Saima, why don’t you cover yourself in the house when men often visit? And other members of the staff are male, so how come you cover yourself outside the house, but not inside?”

Her reply was entirely sensible: “I don’t wear the burqa for religious reasons; but if I don’t wear it outside, men say lewd things and stare at me.” This says less about her faith than it does about our society, with all its difficulties and dangers for women.

Just how dangerous was made clear in the recent Human Rights Commission report that highlighted the violence, rapes and honour killings rampant in Pakistan. Instead of improving, things are getting worse, largely because perpetrators of crimes against women almost invariably get away unpunished.

I was reminded of Saima by two recent cases involving the full niqab in the UK.

In the first, a college in Birmingham first banned the full, face-covering veil, and then backed down in the face of protests. In another, a judge barred a young woman from covering her face in court, but then relented with the proviso that she must allow the jury to see her face while she was giving evidence.

While the full burqa has been banned in public places in France and Belgium, Britain has resisted calls to follow suit. Even the Conservative-led coalition government is against the state getting involved in this debate.

Teresa May, the home secretary, declared that women should be free to decide what they want to wear. This statement followed a call for a national debate on the subject by a junior minister in her department.

The entire discussion has put liberals and feminists on the spot: on the one hand, they defend the right of women to dress as they please. But they also deplore Muslim women being forced to cover themselves up by family and social pressure.

However, the reality is that in most cases, many young Muslim women born and raised in the UK choose to wear the hijab or headscarf, and more rarely, the niqab or the full burqa.

In most cases, this attire is worn more as a badge of identity than a religious duty.

In fact, Islamic texts call upon women to dress modestly, but not to envelop themselves from head to toe, leaving only the eyes visible. This is why burqas and niqabs are relatively rare across the Muslim world. Working women, especially in the fields, simply could not function in them.

When writing about the subject at the time the French debate on the full veil was going on, I thought I should try this garb myself. Accordingly, I donned a black burqa that had a mesh over the eyes, and covered my entire body.

My whole world shrank to a small rectangle; my movements were restricted; and I felt hot and claustrophobic. As I wrote at the time, any man who makes his wife, daughter or sister wear this attire should put it on himself first.

But wearing the full veil in male-dominated, violent countries like Pakistan is very different from putting it on in liberal societies like the UK.

In the former case, the garment is for self-protection, while in the latter, it is mostly about identity. And even though the number of women wearing the full burqa in the UK is tiny, the outfit does arouse irrational anger. As Maleiha Malik, a professor of law, wrote recently in the Guardian:

“Today’s debates about, and treatment of, veiled Muslim women are akin to the way heretics, lepers and Jews were treated in mediaeval Europe… [In the post 9/11 era] Political elites have exaggerated, rather than alleviated, understandable popular anxieties about Muslim religious differences in ways that often make reasonable debates impossible…”

While political correctness makes it difficult for my British friends to be openly critical about veils when discussing the issue with me, they do express one reasonable concern. Why should many young Muslim girls at school be deprived of pursuits like games, swimming and dramatics due to their constraining outfits?

Apart from depriving them of healthy activities, their parents also prevent them from sharing these experiences with non-Muslim friends, and thus diminishing the benefits of a liberal education. So while young women from other migrant groups are represented on the stage and the sports fields across Britain, few Muslims are.

Does this matter? Yes, if you are born and brought up in a country that you now call your own, and where you would like to be gainfully employed.

Maleiha Malik proposes an internal debate on the veil within Muslim communities. However, given the divisions that exist among Britain’s three million or so Muslims, it is hard to see how a consensus can be developed on this, or any other, subject.

I often wonder why this is not a political issue in the United States which also has a substantial Muslim population. I suspect one reason could be that the unemployed there do not enjoy the same benefits they do in much of Europe.

Here, if you can’t get a job because you insist on wearing the full veil or an unkempt beard, you can go on the dole.

For a liberal like me, this is a lose-lose debate: on the one hand, all my instincts say women should be free to dress as they choose; on the other, I don’t want to see young Muslim women being marginalised and stigmatised because they insist on antagonising the mainstream by their extreme attire.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (35) Closed

BRR Sep 21, 2013 07:58am

What about being able to assimilate in society. How can women stay veiled all day, refuse to interact with men, and still hope society will accept them and that they can assimilate? How realistic is their hope for assimilation when muslim women in UK live in ghettos and walk around wearing a shroud? How will that help their cause? How will their children get accepted when they refuse to let their young female children play games, play sports at school, do anything that requires outdoors activities? is it a surprise their lifestyle is looked down upon? Wouldn't they be better off back in their home country where they can do just that?

kamran Sep 21, 2013 08:38am

Salam Irfan sahib,my wife was born and brought up and educated here she wears niqab where as my two daughters they don't so it's not about identity or choice as my wife is doing on religious reason where as with my daughters although at the moment it's their choice but they know their religious requirement and in Europe and specially in U.K. there are many people who with beard they are doing all sort of job i.e.stores,shops,N.H.S.,police,council,D,W.P.and list goes on and at these places prayer room has also been provided and there are people who with their choice by not having beard they don't want to work or out of job and claiming benefit/dole.

ss Sep 21, 2013 09:55am

The more troubling question that the liberals need to confront is if they have the right to impose their values ( mainly the Christian - western values of equality, freedom, individual will) over a non western, non christian population. The idea that there can be a different people with a different set of values needs to be accepted. So while gender equality is an eminently desirable thing in western societies, conformity to Sharia or traditional Hindu caste considerations may be paramount in other cultures. For the Jains, for instance, there is no greater sin than non vegetarianism. Would they be justified in holding the rest of the world in abhorrence merely because the rest of us like our fish and fowl ? There is no rational way in which one set of moral values ( equality, freedom, individualism) can be shown to be superior to another set of values emanating from the collective social experience of a different people. This is th enduring dilemma that liberals face.

Asif Ali Sep 21, 2013 11:03am

The consequence of not wearing hijab is before us. Whatever is happening in India and Pakistan as well is the result of our atitude towards our customes. Plz don't compare Pakistan with Europe becz we r totally different in every aspect.

Kahn Sep 21, 2013 11:11am

I don't agree with you on some, although I am complete agreement over some points.First, Islam does not forces to wear burqa as an outfit nor Islam recommend any specific attire. Islam recommends any cloth of any type which is just enough to hide body to wrists and ankles, and cover head(face is not necessary). But I guess, both liberal and conservatives are on the extremes. Liberals want to be clothed more openly crossing Islamic barrings, to self satisfaction. While conservatives wanted to cloth their women more than Islamic line, mostly attributed to cultural and social trends. So both are on the extremes of their thinking. Islam gives a simple command of covering head and body, thats what I think is not outdated trend as many opines it is antiquated idea and doesnot match with the modern world. Secondly its totally individual's right to wear what suits or favourable. Laws making in this regard is total coercion and suppressive act to sublime religious rights.

graham Sep 21, 2013 12:50pm

Does this matter? Yes, if you are born and brought up in a country that you now call your own, and where you would like to be gainfully employed..........

Most Muslims do not call UK as their own country, and they teach their children accordingly. As far as employment goes, majority are on the dole and they take it as a matter of pride that they are taking revenge on the west.

To take advantage of the humanitarian rules of the west for the poor, most Muslims take it as a religious duty to exploit the benefit system of the west. Two thirds of the taxi drivers in UK are Muslims. Why? They get the money in cash and at the same time get the maximum benefit as they also have large families.

The author should write another article why crime rates among UK Muslims are so high. This is also true in all Europe. Muslims are far more religious than any other people and hence their criminality is a puzzle.

I doubt whether Dawn would publish my letter but everything I said here is true. Bitter, yes.

K G Surendran Sep 21, 2013 01:05pm

Wonderful conclusion, individual rights should be and must respected as long as one does not break the law of the land. A woman should have the right to dress the way she likes but that is not always the case in many countries.

Saher Sep 21, 2013 01:49pm

My dear sorry to say this these lines seems just a waist of time. Firstly You need to update your encyclopedia before you comparison among European countries or with U.K, Pakistan is more civilized society than the said countries .the only problem which we are facing is with our economy so Mr.liberal man you should not again consider Pakistan's society under any stigma.this is taboo but liberalization which west is enjoying that is worst they just throw their crying ladies in front of wrestler just to amuse the public and fit making money(can visit wwf :)

Secondly and finally,the concept of burqa is directly related to ones inner feeling what we called (NIEAt) whether she wear it to save herself from society's devils or in compliance with her God you are no one to consider it a parameter for liberal and biased society that is one's oven choice as we wether to wear it or not.So have your stigmatized feelings with you and use your energies for the improvement of society that how to bring educational revolution .

Women in Pakistan are flying aero planes with wearing Burqa so your logic is not accurate that it restricts to perform healthy or social activities.

You also look very impressed from west liberalization so there is no completion on you to Live here in Pakistan and behave Like a black sheep you'd better go there ,live and enjoy your life there.

(Criticism is necessary for improvement)

ahmed Sep 21, 2013 03:25pm

I think the writer lacks religious knowledge. I am also liberal but i don't deny the grounds upon which religion wants women to wear all these things. It's a personal decision. Its the basic right of a person to have freedom. Maybe, girls wearing hijab feels more comfortable in it. It's people like you and me, who are debating over issues as we feel wearing it will restrict our lives. But reality is the people who wear it are happy to have it and they feel blessed to follow something which religion wants from them.

Jannat Hussain Nekokara Sep 21, 2013 03:52pm

It's a personal choice. One ought to equally give reverence to those who wear it and who choose not to wear it. Who are we to judge others? And that too for their attire.

Roxana R Sep 21, 2013 04:33pm

Interesting article. When I was young and living in Karachi, I, too, tried wearing a burqa one afternoon out of curiosity. I came to understand that it was overbearingly confining, but also understood a possible sense of protection against molestation by men. The sense was false as I learned after one giggle. I was subsequently chased by some men until I found sanctuary. Even a burqa is no protection against molestation.

kumar Sep 21, 2013 04:47pm

As usual a very thoughtful column. As a liberal in US, I agree with the conclusion that dole while needed at times is also encouraging such extreme attire which is though a right of women, is not needed in West and is not required by their religion.

Ravi Sep 21, 2013 05:34pm

Religion and Politics are required for the mass and completely unnecessary for an individual. The cult behavior is good to improve group competence in healthy environments. But when unhealthy practices are followed, the group will be shunned by the general public

Faqir Ahmad Paracha Sep 21, 2013 06:01pm

Islam specifies a modest dress and behaviour for both men and women. Nowhere does it prescribe burqa or the so-called hijab, which covers the hair but reveals other parts that should be covered. Burqa in any case is a sign of oppression in the man-dominated societies. Both men and women are required to lower their gazes when going out. If the woman is covered in a burqa, why should the men's gazes be lowered and why should she lower her gaze.

mansoor Sep 21, 2013 06:17pm

In the compound of holy Kabba women are forbidden to cover their face and hands. Men and women pray next to each other. That rests the case for me. In Pakistan women feel each and every part of their bodies being scanned when in public by lust filled sexrays, which can be deflected by Burqa, chadder or abaya. In UK it may be an identity badge but in Pakland a totally different matter altogether. Mr Irfan your 20 year old daughter would beg for some sort of cover to protect her from peirecing and peneterating gazes to walk only a few hundred yards in any market place.

Mamataz Sep 21, 2013 09:03pm

I wasted 15 minutes reading this useless article. What is the point? Does the author support full veil or not? Sounds like he is not fully supportive. But his arguments are weak. Why should self-styled liberals think that they can second guess the Islamic prescriptions?

G.A. Sep 21, 2013 09:17pm

Is hijab the only major invention coming from the Muslim world in the last 500 or so years? By 'hijab', I mean the headgear that is increasingly worn by women. I really can't think of anything else Muslim world has invented.

Chaman Sep 21, 2013 09:48pm

One of the best articles I have read in Dawn or elsewhere on this subject. Children deprived of exposure and growth in various sectors of development face the possibilities of a stifled growth in life. Rather than making the environment safe for women to live in, we use the option of covering them from head to tow using religion as a pretext.

Thoughtful Sep 22, 2013 12:22am

As usual a thought provoking article. I always wonder why culturally backward Muslims (irrespective of their educational background) go to the Western countries. They refuse to blend in and criticize the Western culture they live in. Some of them even openly say that they want to change the western culture and bring their own. This certainly does not sit well with the locals and no wonder many westerners do not want to see the Muslims in their societies. Something very seriously wrong with the Muslims and their thinking round the globe. Psychological and identity crisis? May be it is time to think in terms of being a human rather than in terms of sect, ethnicity, and religion. Muslims will do a better job by recognizing their own shortcomings and backwardness rather than criticizing other cultures and religions.

Shahbaz Asif Tahir Sep 22, 2013 01:13am

The author does not understand the Arabic language. This is the reason he makes an incorrect analysis about the hijab. In Surah ahzab, Allah Subhana, commands the azwaj e mutaharat, (wives of the last Prophet SAWS), and the believing women to put on the jilbab when they leave their homes. Besides there are some 70 authentic ahadith, (sayings of our beloved Prophet), about the jilbab, and hijab, as obligatory for women. May Allah Subhana, guide us all and teach us the best.

Parvez Sep 22, 2013 02:38am

In Pakistan the woman covers herself as a means to protect herself. In the West ( say England ) women cover themselves as a gesture of ' wearing your religion on your sleeve ...... an in your face statement '. Both really have nothing to do with religion.........but then with us Pakistanis everything has to do with religion..........and religion is the worse off for it.

DB Sep 22, 2013 03:56am

I am a liberal, and a convert who resides in the USA. I too feel as though what a woman chooses to wear should be based upon HER own decision. I have absolutely no problem with that. There is no compulsion in Islam. However, there should be some sense of safety for all those women who choose niqab or burqa. I live in a diverse community with many Islamic countries represented. Some women wear hijab, some niqab, some burqa, and some with dupatta. Fine. Her choice. I have no problem. What I DO HAVE a problem with is women who choose to drive a la burqa or niqab. I'm not just talking about vehicles here, I am also talking about shopping carts too. If one wants to increase their purdah...GREAT! Just quit running into my legs with your trolleys because your niqab prevents proper visual/spacial ability, running over your toddlers because you can't readily see them, and to the 2 burqa clad women who nearly drove over me in the parking lot and took out my car's side mirror because you "couldn't see"...please I beg you...decrease your purdah while driving/shopping. PLEASE!!!!

Addy Sep 22, 2013 05:29am

Here's a solution: enforce the concept of "age of consent". Parents should not be able to impose a religious dress code before a prescribed age limit.

SiddharthaShastri Sep 22, 2013 06:38am

"In most cases, this attire is worn more as a badge of identity than a religious duty."
Husain Sahib, you know I am an admirer of your wisdom and balanced perspectives. But this statement of yours really stumped me. This garment obscures the wearer's identity and makes her hard to identify as an individual from similarly dressed women. I suppose you did not mean individual identity but a generic Muslim identity, but in that case are you not talking in a predominantly religious context? Anybody who accepts the stifling cover (as you personally experienced) due to her need to belong to and be literally "lost" in a specific group loses any arguments on based on the importance of identity; no? Hope you do not consider this hair-splitting.

SiddharthaShastri Sep 22, 2013 06:38am

"In most cases, this attire is worn more as a badge of identity than a religious duty."
Husain Sahib, you know I am an admirer of your wisdom and balanced perspectives. But this statement of yours really stumped me. This garment obscures the wearer's identity and makes her hard to identify as an individual from similarly dressed women. I suppose you did not mean individual identity but a generic Muslim identity, but in that case are you not talking in a predominantly religious context? Anybody who accepts the stifling cover (as you personally experienced) due to her need to belong to and be literally "lost" in a specific group loses any arguments on based on the importance of identity; no? Hope you do not consider this hair-splitting.

john Sep 22, 2013 01:54pm

For a liberal like me, this is a lose-lose debate: on the one hand, all my instincts say women should be free to dress as they choose; on the other, I don

G.A. Sep 23, 2013 12:24am

@john: Why are you generalizing a diverse community of over a billion people inhabiting over 100 countries? By your logic, are all Christians responsible for starting two world wars - the worst events in human history?

Roxana R Sep 23, 2013 05:44am

Unfortunately, it is the most conservative of Muslims residing in more Western countries who try their hardest to remain as they were in the country of origin and who simultaneously hate and reject all that is represented by their host country. And some even plot against their host country. If you are going to raise your children in a non-Muslim country, you must expect those children to espouse more modern ideals and ideas. Sadly, too many DIshonor Killings are occurring in families who refuse to adapt. Murder is murder and will be treated as such.

illawarrior Sep 23, 2013 07:06am

@john: Whilst I do not necessarily agree with the choices made, I nevertheless agree with the right to make that choice however she sees fit. I always find it curious that those who protest most ardently tend not to be in favour of reciprocal freedoms - if muslim women want the freedom to cover their heads and faces in western countries, fine, but then western women should not be forced to do so in muslim countries. It goes both ways.

illawarrior Sep 23, 2013 07:15am

@Roxana R: Yet in most western countries, a woman can wear jeans and a T shirt, or a mini skirt, or shorts etc without raising so much as a glance, and without any fear of harassment, because the males have different attitudes.

s.khan Sep 23, 2013 07:25am

@G.A.: You will discover large number of inventions by the Muslims if you ever care to read on the subject. May I suggest " 1001 Inventions-The enduring Legacy of Muslim civilization" by Salim T.S. Al Hassani, professor of engineering at University of Manchester, England. You will be amazed. Try your library or google it. I always find it unacceptable when people take the present and extrapolate into future or backward with no allowance for cyclical ups and downs. No doubt Muslims at present are on a down cycle. All civilizations throughout history have experienced the changes. I can't think of a Western or Eastern country that has been continuously on upward trajectory.

s.khan Sep 23, 2013 07:41am

I was in Turkey and didn't see many women in niqab or burqa. May be a few wearing hijab. On the other hand many were as fashionable as their western counterpart in London or Paris.Even with hijab I noticed women carrying guitar and others driving the car. Are we to say that Turkish women are not as Islamic as their sisters in Pakistan? There is a need for debate within Islam if religion really prescribe a particular dress code for women. If Muslims men can wear western style clothes in Pakistan or Europe why not allow same freedom to women?

M.Hanif Khan Sep 23, 2013 10:42am

Mr. Irfan

Iram Sep 23, 2013 12:55pm

@Saher: "Pakistan is a more civilised society than the countries you mentioned"????!!! To me that sentence discredits anything else you could say as hysterical non-sense.

SHAFIQ KHAN Sep 23, 2013 02:11pm

I am glad that you injected some sense into a very emotive subject . I am no expert on the Islamic religion but my interest in Islam is long standing and there is relatively little I have not read about Islam . One of my daughters did her degree in Arabic from a British university and a part of that degree involved livinging in Egypt to study. Please note non of the Pakistani university graduates in Arabic language have the ability to converse with the native speakers of the language. In the holy book of Islam where modesty is a subject there is no distinction between men and women. It is the misinterpretations of the holy text which imposes veil on women and not on men. My mother and grandmother used full cover using " turky burka" my daughters working professional lawyers in the uk do not use veil at all. I am absolutely sure my daughters are as virtuous as my mother and grandmother. Of course the village where I was born and brought up women apart from a few educated and thereby well off, all farming women never thought it to betheir religious duty. This debate is only feuled by one section of the oil rich governments most of the Mullah promoted mudrassas feul this concept and get their finances from the oil rich governments. Pakistani middle class who never worked where physical eendeavour is required , are trying to establish their religiosity. Nothing to do with honesty and truth. Pakistani governments since the partition have developed their ethos and the mullah has got more of an influence. Growing up before the second ww2 in west Punjab I never saw women in our village wear burka apart from the ones I mentioned earlier. There were many scholars from the famous sunny institution of muslim religious teaching in our village their women never use d veil . As it was patently silly to work in the fields with such garments. They carried heavy loads on their head while exposing their mid - rib in the process. I challenge any snooty Mullah to wear what they say re. Burka and carry about 40 kilo of hay or grass on their head. It will show the absurdity of their preachings. Shafiq