For me, niqab is a feminist statement.
by Zainab bint Younus
I’m a writer, a feminist, and an orthodox Muslim (Salafi, to be precise).
I have a fondness for all that is goth, (steam)punk, and Batman. I’m obsessed with leather biker jackets. I’m loud, somewhat annoying, and absent-minded.
And I wear niqab.
To me, niqab is a very feminist statement. By covering my face, by obscuring my physical features from those around me, I am saying: “I alone own my body, and you have no right to me.” My words, my actions, and my mind take precedence over my body, and no one can coerce me otherwise. Wearing niqab does not erase me from society. Rather, it gives me the freedom to engage in it on my own terms, without being bound by others’ demands.
It is the ultimate act of ownership and empowerment.
And I’m fiercely proud of it.
But living in Canada, I get questioned a lot about my choice to wear niqab. My dad grew up in Canada, and my grandparents have lived here for more than 40 years. I’m as Canadian as they come—not despite the fact that I wear niqab, but because of it. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees me the right to dress the way I please, was taught to me at a young age. It’s ingrained in me. Knowing about it gave me the extra boost of confidence I needed when I chose to wear the niqab seven years ago. I felt secure in the knowledge that no one could ever accuse me of breaking the law, or that I didn’t know what it meant to be Canadian.
“You know you’re in Canada now,” people still say to me in a patronizing tone.
“I know,” I reply coolly. “That’s precisely why I’m wearing what I want to.”
One woman grimaced with distaste at me recently, asking,
“But why do you have to wear all that black?”
“Because I’m goth,” I deadpanned.
No, my entire identity doesn’t rest on the fact that I cover my face and body when I go out. I prefer not to focus on the way I dress, but find myself speaking and writing about it often. I usually end up talking about the legal and social repercussions of niqab, but it’s about a lot more than that for me.
I grew up watching my mother wearing niqab. But my parents didn’t allow me to wear it until I did my own research and considered the meaning and consequences of wearing it. When I put one on, it was with utter conviction that it was something I not only wanted, but needed. It was a reflection and extension of my identity, without being the sum of my existence.
The niqab is more than just a piece of cloth or a political claim. It’s a spiritual statement, an act of worship that I hold between myself and God. It’s not that I consider myself superior to others by wearing it– just the opposite. There are numerous others whose acts of worship may supersede my own. Wearing niqab is one act that I can consistently carry out, and I pray that it brings me at least a little bit closer to God, and to Jannah (paradise).
There are those who ask: “Why, if it’s an act of worship, don’t Muslim men wear it?” And, “Don’t you know that it’s not even a part of Islam?” And there are those who say that I am further sexualizing myself by shrouding.
To them I say: If you really care about my religiosity, research it. But don’t you dare assume I am ignorant about my own faith or that I don’t know what I’m doing or why. As for my sexuality, that’s my own damn business.
The lives of niqabi women do not revolve around our niqabs… and we are not all that mysterious. Some of us are quite open about our activities and even our dress on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. On social media I joke about the difficulties of “matching all my blacks” (the elements of my clothing: abayah, hijab and niqab); the horror of realizing that I wore my niqab backwards (yes, there really is a right way and a wrong way to wear it!); and that very Canadian problem of getting powdered sugar from my Timbits (a bit like doughnut holes) all over myself and my 5-year-old daughter.
Most of my time is spent doing what I love most, reading and writing about women in Islam. I study historical female figures and challenge cultural Muslim ideas about female sexuality and gender roles. I care deeply about the Muslim community and I’m troubled by the many issues we are plagued with. I strive to put my ideas into action by in my local community, including a series of workshops I’ve developed titled #MuslimSexEd.
I can also be found wandering around downtown taking too many pictures and spending too much money on accessories I buy solely because they make my niqabi outfit look awesome:
In contrast to all this, media and pop culture portray a very different image of what a niqabi woman is, or looks like. Stock photos of “Muslim women” and “niqab” yield a plethora of images that are neither realistic nor practical. The one thing these images have in common is they are almost always taken by non-Muslim photographers, or solely of women in Eastern countries.
AP photographer Hassan Ammar is the latest in a series of lazy efforts to capitalize on niqab-wearing Muslim women… without having to actually engage those women. For others, like Khloe Kardashian, “dressing up” in niqab is a way to up the hypersexual ante. The appropriation of niqab for “artistic purposes” is offensive. We’ve had enough. In France we face steep fines for covering our faces in public. Elsewhere in Europe, the UK, and North America, niqabis face verbal and physical abuse from strangers.
We do not all wear the same black uniform or exaggerated eyeliner. We are not oppressed victims, or brainwashed “Islamists.” We do not need others to speak for us or over us, pretending to tell our stories when we have our own voices and our own cameras, and are fully capable of documenting our lives.
And we are doing so.