The New York Times has an article up about the trend of young Muslim women donning the niqab in the United Kingdom, the practice of wearing a veil and covering the body with a shapeless shift. The simple narrative is this: Muslim women are reasserting a particular part of their religious tradition which Westerners feel is illiberal and medieval. Normally I get tired of the anecdotal modus operandi which dominates newspaper reports, though I do understand that it makes for engaging prose. Nevertheless, in the articles about extreme veiling the assertions by Western born women who choose to cover themselves up are often quite indicative of the deeper issues at work and the cross-linked tensions.
… Sometimes, she said, she gets a kick out of the mocking.
” ‘All right gorgeous,’ ” she said she had heard men say as she walked along the street. “I feel empowered,” she said. “They’d like to see, and they can’t.”
I had a friend in college who was raised in a moderately conservative Catholic family. Her paternal grandparents were very conservative, and to a large extent they were funding her college education. To make a long story short she went from being a Catholic “seeker” in a steady long term relationship with her high school sweet heart her freshmen year to an atheist lesbian radical feminist by her senior year. At one point when her grandparents came to visit she introduced them to a female friend who was heavily pierced, sported a shaved head and regularly wore tank tops to show off her armpit hair. I think on the psychological level a large component of the flight to the niqab is driven by these sorts of considerations. There are conservative and traditional women who don’t venture out much, but the women profiled in the story are not retired from the society at large, nor do they wish to be. They hold jobs, drive to the supermarket, take public transport; all without a man in sight. In the social context where full body veiling was normative this sort of behavior wasn’t and isn’t typical. I think it is pretty clear that donning the niqab is a challenge to society, just as extensive body piercing is. The practice and attitudes of these modern adherents of the niqab is fundamentally satisfying a different impulse than the women who wear these garments to shield themselves from the eyes of society. We’ve all met people who challengingly respond, “What are you looking at?” One knows very well that the whole point is to be looked at, noted and counted.
The niqab, to her, is about identity. “If I dressed in a Western way I could be a Hindu, I could be anything,” she said. “This way I feel comfortable in my identity as a Muslim woman.”
I too could be Hindu. Or I could be Muslim. In the American society the fact that I’m brown-skinned and not Latin generally suggests to people that I am either Hindu or Muslim. I am neither (though my family background is Muslim). You are judged by how you look, more or less, and that’s just reality. I know of Christian South Asians who are assumed to be Hindu or Muslim as well. It is just part of life. That being said, I don’t find it that offensive that people would think I was Hindu or Muslim based on what I look like. Those are just the conditional probabilities. Without knowing someone in detail you take a few superficial cues and generate a construct of who and what they are so that you can interact with them appropriately. Should they invite me to go get some burgers & a beer? Obviously whether I was Hindu or Muslim would matter in that case! If I dressed like a traditional Sikh there wouldn’t be any such issue as those who dress like Sikhs are usually Sikhs (mostly brown, but some not).
Wearing the niqab is a pretty clear signal that one is a Muslim, there would be no confusion whether they were Hindu. I don’t need to exposit in detail the long history and tendency within our species of groups donning a distinctive garb so as to set themselves off as a people apart. In regards to being confused as a Hindu, most Muslims find Hinduism to be a repugnant and abominable religion, so it stands to reason that some would find the confusion distasteful. Of course the niqab is a mark of separation, it is a mark of distinctiveness. It tells the rest of society who you are, and reminds the individual of who they are. Just as a young woman with a shaved head and pierced nipples is a non-conformist above the restraints of the common herd, so a young Muslim woman is one of God’s very chosen people, special and above the kuffar she sees around her. It emphasizes the chasm between the clean and the unclean:
“For me it is not just a piece of clothing, it’s an act of faith, it’s solidarity,” said a 24-year-old program scheduler at a broadcasting company in London, who would allow only her last name, al-Shaikh, to be printed, saying she wanted to protect her privacy.
she said. “9/11 was a wake-up call for young Muslims,” she said.
Muslim men engage in an act of terror which results in the death of 3,000, but it seems that the primary focus of this young woman was the backlash and prejudice against Muslims. Obviously bigotry is nothing to sniff at, but young Muslims sometimes seem to speak of the period after 2001 living in the West as a reign of terror for their religion. It is as if there is no relevance to the fact that an international network of Islamic radicals has been attempting to incite a clash of civilizations (granted, a substantial minority, at least, of Muslims believe in conspiracy theories which absolve Islam of any role in Islamic terror). The fundamental concern is the state of the chosen people, not the kuffar amongst whom they reside.
When she is on the street, she often answers back. “A few weeks ago, a lady said, ‘I think you look crazy.’ I said, ‘How dare you go around telling people how to dress,’ and walked off. Sometimes I feel I have to reply. Islam does teach you that you must defend your religion.”
I can not but help find this a bit rich. Muslims who believe their religion entails a donning of the niqab for women tend to have very strong opinions about how people should dress. On the one hand these independent women use the rhetoric of empowerment, but interviews and discussions I have read or heard with many of them suggest that many (though not all!) do not believe that there is any choice in how Muslim women should dress. That is, any woman who is truly Muslim must necessarily dress as they do, because it is enjoined by God. Though they object to and scoff at the pressure and suasion society directs toward them, they are often themselves proponents of their fashion. Just as many “non-conformist” social groups, such as Goths or the S & M set, tend to be characterized by a within group uniformity of manner and style, so women who take up the niqab are not always individualists when it comes to their own perceived in group.
Throughout this post I have made analogies between young people who pierce and engage in other body modifications & adornments and women in niqabs. Both of them deviate from the bourgeois Western norm and simultaneously demand acceptance as well as reveling in negative attention. Though both groups couch their individual decision as a way to express who they truly are to the rest of the world, their poses strongly suggest that they wish to reinforce their own self-perception of their superiority in relation to the common herd. But, there is a difference between the two groups which is critical: the niqab covers the face. This is an essential functional point, the face transmits critical information, context and allows one to form an image of the person as an individual in one’s mind. For women who did not venture out into the wider world on a regular basis this was irrelevant since their circle of encounters with strangers would be minimal, but many of the women in Britain who cover their faces seem to want to engage the public sphere and interact with other human beings. As a child some of my parents’ Muslim acquaintances would joke that “they can see you, but you can’t see them!” There was a tacit understanding that there was advantage, power, when one individual can read the face of another but the return exchange of information is blocked. As a minority strategy donning of the niqab causes minimal social tension, because the normal transmission of information is not asymmetrical in most encounters. But in a society where everyone starts wearing masks so as not to be disadvantaged one can imagine that such a culture would be on the road to Solaria.