Burka ban: Why must I cast off the veil?
By Nesrine Malik
The first time I had to wear a niqab was a thoroughly unpleasant experience. My parents, originally from Sudan but living in London, had just moved to Saudi Arabia. Before we joined them, four black abayas (full-length cloaks) and niqabs (full face-veil) were dispatched to me and my three sisters.
At the age of 18, the thought of covering my body in a shapeless black gown and hiding my face so that only my eyes would show was inconceivable. It was humiliating, violating, dehumanising. Upon donning the headpiece, my body language immediately changed, becoming apologetic, withdrawn and subdued. Wearing it seemed to empower all the men around me and put me firmly in my place as inferior.
On landing in Saudi Arabia, women – all of whom were wearing the veil – were channelled into a separate line for processing. My eyes stung with tears of rage and shame. Most of all, I felt infantilised, stripped of the right to dress how I pleased due simply to the fact that I was a woman, and hence, purely a sexual object to be concealed lest it should inflame desire.
For the first few days, it felt almost comical, like some absurd game of macabre fancy dress.
On a practical level, it was cumbersome, hot and uncomfortable. Eating or drinking in public became a chore
, as food has to be manoeuvred gingerly under the veil or taken abruptly in small bites. InSaudi’s overwhelming heat, temperatures regularly reach 45C and any physical outdoor activity, even walking, is out of the question. I became anti-social,
hardly able to wait until I got home before tearing off the ghastly garb.
The niqab and the burka are a particularly extreme interpretation of the Islamic requirement for modest dress, and were never part of my Muslim upbringing in London.
Because of this, I did not feel particularly pious wearing them in Saudi. If anything, it seemed like a throwback to tribal, pre-Islamic times.
Over the next three years, however, my opposition gradually eroded.
Initially an ugly burden, the abaya and niqab became a comfort and, eventually, a delight. It was a relief not to have to think about what to wear.
The burka can be the most versatile of capsule wardrobes. The uniform black costume has a charming egalitarianism about it, and is both a social and physical leveller. Once social status or physical beauty cannot be established, all sorts of hierarchies are flattened.
Fashion-wise, it was not as insipid a garment as I had feared. When there is little option in what you can wear, the smallest details start to count. I realised upon closer inspection that there was a plethora of abayas for me to choose from. Subtly embellished gowns and veils could be found in Riyadh’s glamorous malls. If none suited, bespoke tailors executed your particular design and preference beautifully. Light fabrics and slim-line empire silhouettes rendered the uniform elegant and feminine – regal, even.
Eye make-up and footwear took on extra significance. As the feet were the only part of the body one could legitimately flaunt, a good pedicure was not only necessary, it was an integral part of the ensemble. All of a woman’s sexuality resided in how she carried herself, and how groomed her extremities were. In that context, the outfit became empowering, enabling a reclamation of one’s sexuality by not fulfilling modern commercialised definitions of what makes a woman attractive.
Ironically, Saudi Arabia did not feel a more chaste place. Indeed, imposing the niqab may have had the opposite effect, so starved were the two sexes of the flirtatious attention that we all take for granted in the West. I have never been so indiscriminately pursued by men.
And I was therefore thankful for the anonymity the attire gave me – a privilege the men did not share. The niqab appeals to the voyeur in all of us, cosily secreted away behind a veil, but still able to view the world go by.
In contrast to my earlier eagerness to rip off the abaya whenever in sanctum, I began to wear it when I did not have to. Now I live in the UK again and work for a private equity firm, I would never wear it to the office. But, as a fashionable 29-year-old, I sometimes pop it on to go to the corner shop rather than show the world my tracksuit bottoms.
I’m not alone in finding the abaya a comfortable garment. On my return from Saudi Arabia, other women on my plane left it until a few minutes before landing to remove their cloaks and emerge from the washrooms without their niqab. Now when I fly back from seeing my parents in Saudi Arabia, I keep on the uniform for as long as is convenient. Immigration staff in the UK are so much more hostile to those who wear it.
Given the choice, I would never have embraced the niqab.
My initial teenage revulsion was inspired by the fact that it was mandatory. Implicit in any law that proscribes women’s dress lies the most sinister, ideologically myopic assumption that a woman cannot be trusted not to succumb to pressure to dress a certain way. In the same way that Muslim countries accuse the hyper-sexualised West of corrupting their women, European societies cannot fathom that a woman would want to wear a niqab or burka unless it is attributable to some brute influence either by a man or general social coercion. In that sense, I do not see a potential ban on the burka in the UK as any different to the oppression in Saudi Arabia in terms of how it assumes that the way a woman dresses is never really down to her.
The French National Assembly’s vote to ban Islamic veils in public is the latest such measure taken by governments across Europe. Days after the Belgian parliament became the first in Europe to pass a bill banning Islamic veils, police in northern Italy fined a Muslim woman for wearing a niqab on her way to a mosque.
In Britain, Conservative backbencher Philip Hollobone last week called for a burka ban, tabling a Private Members’ Bill that would make it illegal for anyone to cover their face in public.
There is a deeply disturbing discourse developing in Europe, one that equates the niqab with Islamic radicalism, and which facilitates a witch-hunt of Muslims under the cover of concern for women – or “racism veiled as liberation”, as the writer Madeleine Bunting put it. There are indeed several ways in which Muslim women are oppressed, not best interpreted by what they wear.
A mix of Islamophobia, busy-bodying feminism and resurgent nationalist sentiment has contributed to this demonisation of a minority of Muslim women. The niqab and burka are indeed powerful symbols and reminders of the ongoing fissures between the West and Islam. Indeed, it is understandable that something as final and ostensibly exclusionary as a face veil would be alienating. But surely that lies more in the realm of social inappropriateness? I would never permanently cover my face in the UK, but by the same token nor would I wear a mini-skirt in Dubai.
Most people, men and women, self-regulate and dress in a way to conform to convention. To legislate against the extremes would be a highly intrusive extension of authority. To mobilise the mechanism of the state to tackle Islamic fundamentalism via cracking down on the face veil is not the answer. To force a female to remove her veil is just as subjugating as forcing her to cover.
There is depressing similarity in the way different cultures view changes in women’s dress as the first harbinger of national invasion and subsumation. It is a heavy burden for women to bear. I sincerely hope that no 18-year-old Muslim girl will ever arrive in the UK and be forced to take off her niqab.