This is the question that the always stimulating Organic Muslimah is asking of women in the West who wear the niqab. Since my writings tend to get a bit lengthy, I decided to answer the question on my own blog. Also, while this was triggered by Organica’s post, this is more of a response to a variety of questions by others on the opposite end of the niqab spectrum. So, it’s not personal to any particular blogger at all.
First of all, I take a bit of an issue with the question, for it appears to imply that whatever good there is in the niqab, it is so negligible that the bad surely outweighs it. The reason I feel the weight of such an implication, real or imagined, is because I generally feel offended when I hear any Muslim ask, “What is the good in doing such and such Islamically ordained deed?” Mainly, I feel this way because the good is fairly obvious: it (whatever it is) is (supposed to be) pleasing to Allah. Regardless of whether or not that implication is my own interpretation, it is a good question, and as a muntaqiba in America, I feel compelled to address it.
The idea of children being scared after seeing a woman all covered up is definitely an issue. Indeed, adults do also gasp in shock, horror, whatever upon seeing a niqabi. These reactions, however, are far from the norm, for Americans of non-Muslim inclination are no more monolithic than Muslims are. There are a good deal of Americans, children and adult alike, who display absolutely no amount of fear when confronted by a niqabi. For me, as a Muslim woman, to base my mode of dressing on how others might respond is both unrealistic and impossible. Where I to shed my niqab, and only go forth with hijab and abaya, I would be then asked to remove one more layer: my abaya, for perhaps the abaya makes me look dowdy and oppressed. Once I remove my abaya, I might then be asked to remove my hijab, or wear it in a way that is more fashionable, more attractive, more whatever. At what point do we say, “Enough. I am not shedding any more of my self for you. It is about time for you to accept what you see and hear of me?” It invites a domino effect to the manipulation of our values, and it assumes that the vast majority of Americans are shallow enough to not accept us for who we are. This, I have found, is definitely not the case.
Do we have a responsibility to make sure that people not feel threatened by us? Sure, we do, to an extent. I will be the first to wave hello to a child, and smile at their mother to make her comfortable and not think that I’m trying to sweet-talk their kid into a kidnapping. It’s a tenuous balance, indeed, but not anything that any niqabi is incapable of achieving. Walking along in a bubble and pretending that it doesn’t matter that 1 out of 10 children is going to be scared of us is naive, unproductive, and downright selfish. So, niqabis, make the effort to make your surroundings comfortable with you, as much as you expect them to be comfortable with you. For the kids, it’s worth it. And who the heck wants to scare a kid into screaming for hours just coz he saw a thing in black? Humanizing ourselves with a wave and a cheery, “Hi!” usually goes a long way to avoid such a screaming situation. Also, there was a time when the entire United States feared black men, and while today there are pockets of resistance, they are small enough that a black man, one generation removed from Africa not only ran for President, but actually won. People will be scared of millions of things; changing ourselves to “help” them overcome their irrational fears is not a solution…it’s a band-aid.
The other issue that was brought up in the blog post was that of doing effective da’wah, and that most non-Muslims are familiar with the niqab as an Islamic construct, but not with the fact that Islam preaches belief in One God, the most basic and fundamental of Islamic principles. This is unfortunate, but it is way too simple to think that removing our niqaab is the solution to effectively teach those around us about Islam. If we were to shed every physical, outward difference between ourselves and the dominant culture, why would anyone be interested in Islam? Who would know that Muslims walk among us? I would assume that more da’wah has been conveyed since Muslims in the West assumed Islamic garb in the past 10-20 years than in all decades before in which Muslim were a completely invisible minority. The niqab is more of a springboard to da’wah than one would assume…or maybe that’s just specific to my own location in the United States. The ones who are freaked out at the sight of a muntaqibah are not usually the ones who are all that open to da’wah.
Another aspect of da’wah is this: how do I convey the teachings of Islam if I find reasons to avoid practicing some teachings that may be inconvenient/difficult/impractical? When I dispose of the niqab, in the same way and for the same reasons that some dispose of hijab, or the beard, for the sake of my own insecurities, am I not in effect saying that Islam is full of disposable requirements? Islam is an easy and flexible religion, but to dispense with things rather than confronting the obstacles they present is simply making it all way too easy. Many niqabis prefer to take the path less traveled, because someone has to do it…and if we’re able to handle the risks and responsibilities of it all, then we might as well seize the moment. We all keep different sunnahs alive; that is part of the diversity of Islam, no matter where we are. How will anyone ever know an unoppressed, fully covered Muslim woman if we all just ditched the niqab, and simply talked the talk without walking the walk?
Are there times when a woman in niqab is not going to be able to participate in certain aspects of life? You bet. It’s virtually impossible to obtain a professional job in this country while fully covered. This is a compromise that any muntaqibah who needs a job (and there are many of us) will acknowledge. Perhaps this will mean being a part-time niqabi, and that is something some of us do grapple with in order to get by in this world.
Ultimately, I keep coming back to the idea of limits and boundaries. When we give one thing up, and then another, and then another, when do we stop? Do we finally just give it all up, call ourselves Muslims, and that’s it? All because everyone is too scared of us, or because we’re afraid to take the risk that someone might spit in the face of our faith? When we’ve given up everything, and all that’s left is “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammed is His final Messenger,” will someone come along and ask us, “Why say Allah, when God is the same thing, and is less scary to me as a non-Muslim?” And then what will we say? Will we say “ok, for the greater good of making you comfortable?” When do we stand our ground and demand that others be comfortable with us on our terms, in the same way that we, the majority of Muslims, are comfortable with them on their own terms? Do we demand it once we’ve given it all up, and it no longer even matters? It’s a subtle and silent form of activism, and I really don’t see it as a form of tarnishing the image of Islam. Indeed, I am rather disturbed when I hear people proclaim that adhering to one aspect or another of Islamic teachings tarnishes the message of Islam.
And finally, where I always differ with other Muslims is on the premise of Islam needing a makeover to make it more palatable to the eyes of the world. Muslims need a makeover, not Islam. We can rearrange the pieces of the Islam puzzle till it’s a shadow of itself, but it will be of no use to us or the world. The Qur’an exhorts us to change our condition, precisely because it’s so much more tempting to change the tenets of the faith. We can be kind, we can be good, we can be dignified, and we can do it with a veil or a beard…or not. One demands a makeover of ourselves, which is what Islam demands of us anyway…the other option is a makeover of our faith.