Residing in the West, I probably have different experiences with the niqaab than women would in the East. I have probably had more opposition to the niqaab from other Muslims than from non-Muslims! I am in the mood for recollecting a few of these more positive encounters.
Exhibit A: As an undergraduate Muslim female in technology (rare in the States), I was checking out IEEE Journals on Software Engineering and the like from the University library. Standing in line at the check-out desk, there was a young blond, blue-eyed white man in front of me, who kept turning around to check me out. (Haraam…you know what I mean!). After a minute or so, he says to me, “You know, I would never expect someone dressed in traditional garb to be reading such 20th century literature. Its a great contradiction you make, standing there like that.” So, that was a relatively accepting impression this person had: he had an initial bias of me being from another century, and quite rapidly, when faced with opposing evidence (the books in hand), he overcame this bias to realize that I am definitely from this century after all.
Exhibit B: When I was filing for graduation (many moons ago!), the woman who served me at the Admissions counter needed to see ID, and to confirm that I am the person on the picture, I needed to lift my niqaab. Of course, not a problem. Then she asked me, very tentatively, “Is there anyone who is making you wear this?” I, of course, said “No, I do this because I want to. My dad, perhaps to suss out the truth as to whether I am veiled out of my own conviction, always told me that I don’t have to wear it if I find it to be difficult, and he never wants me to wear it when I am with him in public anywhere. So, no, I am not wearing it for anyone else. I just love the privacy it gives me!” This woman was relieved, as she thought I was some oppressed woman, and said, “I am so happy that you do it of your own free will. I can tell from your face that you are happy so, don’t ever change—you help make our country richer in culture!”
Exhibit C: At the end of my first semester of graduate school, the chair of the Department (whom I did not know), came up to me while I was hanging out at the Department office waiting for some paperwork to be finalized. He said to me the following: “I just wanted you to know how pleased I am that you have added to the diversity of this already diverse campus. Having someone like you in our department really makes us stand out in a wonderful way.” Needless to say, I was quite surprised and am still quite touched. My Muslim friends (who are not obviously Muslim–in dressing, etc.) have told me that Muslim professors in the College of Engineering make the following comments when they see me: “What does she think she is doing? Why is dressed like this? Is she trying to make us look backward?!” And here is this elderly Caucasian male–stereotyped to be as intolerant as they come–telling me that I am welcome here! He went on to ask my name, ask what the appropriate way would be to address a Muslim woman, ask if shaking hands is appropriate. I wished him a Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and thought surely he would forget me. Two months later, he was walking in the hallway, saw me in the computer lab, and stopped to say, “Hello, Miss DigiN, I hope you had a nice winter break! Study hard! :)” My shock was staggering, in that he not only remembered my name, but pronounced it correctly!
Its quite shocking to me when Muslims can say to me:
- You don’t have to wear that!
- You scare people when you are dressed that way!
- Your father/brother/husband (take your pick) has no right to make you wear that.
- Do you think you are better than all of us girls who don’t wear it?
Its almost as if Muslims believe the Orientalist stereotypes even more than the Westerners who originated these labels!
The upshot of these stories is to say: those in the West can and do accept us niqaabis to be thinking, non-submissive, non-dogmatic, un-scary women, who are entitled to hold on to our convictions just as much as they are. Surely, those in the East should not have too much trouble following their lead–especially since our Muslims do seem to love the idea of following the leader!
Final thought: the niqaab can be a symbol of the many adversities Muslim women face and overcome. It does not have to a symbol of oppression or dogma. Lets show the world the true face of the niqaab!