Recently we have been engulfed by the news of various ‘Burqa’ or ‘Niqab’ bans across Europe, from the outlawing of the full-face Niqab in Germany from late 2016, to the Burkini bans started in the seaside town of Cannes, which garnered a storm of media attention. Mayor Lisnard justified the ban by suggesting that symbols of religious affiliation were challenging to the public order, thereby allowing women’s bodies to be policed. At least, this was the view of those who likened Saudi Arabia and Iran’s compulsory female dress codes to the recent wave of Right-wing politicians’ support of the banning of the Niqab and Burkini.
With the recent ban of the Niqab in Denmark- joining the ranks of Belgium and France- the act of legislating against a minority of Muslim women seemed illogical and deliberately dehumanising. How can Western democratic values undercut the choice of Muslim women towards their appearance by imposing bans when the very foundations of such societies rest of the values of freedom and liberty?
My main concern is the interchangeable use of the words ‘Niqab’, ‘Burqa’ and ‘Hijab’ in debates here in the West. ‘Hijab’ is an Arabic word meaning ‘barrier’ or ‘curtain’, pertaining to the overall protective and modest outlook both Muslim men and women should adopt. It does not specifically attach its meaning to a headscarf, though it has come to be understood as a headscarf. Meanwhile, a ‘Niqab’ refers to a face veil, whilst a ‘Burqa’ is a full body covering, usually a dress. Therefore, ‘hjiab’ can encompass both the ‘Niqab’ and the ‘Burqa’, as its meaning derives from covering up. Nonetheless, the headscarf is the most common form of veil donned by Muslim women in the West and only a tiny minority even wear the Niqab or Burqa, which is why the Danish ban in particular demonises a small percentage of women and dictates their dress code. The confusion between the names of these different garments also hints to a bigger problem; if we are unable to differ between a ‘Burqa’ and a ‘Hijab’, Muslim women are indiscriminately painted with the same broad stroke; deemed a threat to Western values of secularism. Muslim women are not a monolithic group, and the dangerous rhetoric and confusion surrounding bans only further ostracises Muslims living in the West.
That is why I feel the need to reclaim the Hijab from the recesses of increasingly polarising debates about religion and secularism and keep it in my private life. My personal choice should not compel others who have the need to save me from a garment that I choose to don. The power does not rest with the cloth, but with choice. This is the ultimate problem with discussions about Muslim women: they rarely include or value their judgements.
Sister Samia Majid is an Imams Online Writer. She is a third year English and History university student and British Muslim who enjoy dissecting politics and it’s relation to Islam.