Niqabis in the British mass media

Anna PielaAnna Piela

This article is part of a series on Muslim women in Britain.

Controversies over the niqab have erupted cyclically in Britain, with public ‘debates’ about the face veil taking place in 2006, 2010, 2011 and, most recently, September 2013. In each of these cases the portrayal of niqabis had been the same: they are regarded as religious fanatics, or worse, dangerous Islamists. Why is it that, even when Muslim women state that they wear a face veil out of their own choice and for personal and spiritual – rather than political – reasons their choice cannot be accepted, even in countries that claim to prize personal choice above all else?

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September 2013 brought about another of the cyclically emerging ‘niqab controversies’. The usual suspects were dragged onto the scene: some niqabi women, represented almost farcically as the antagonists; wronged respectable institutions, painted as the last bastions of ‘British values’; and the indignant public, including journalists and politicians from across the political spectrum, as well as every Tom, Dick, and Harry who could participate via various sites hosting comments online.

This last controversy was similar to many past ones, for example in 2006, following the now infamous statement made by Jack Straw that he preferred his constituents in Burnley to not wear the veil during appointments at his surgery. In 2010 and 2011, the British considered whether it would be feasible to introduce a ban on face coverings similar to the French and Belgian ones; the Orientalist French argument about women allegedly forced into a niqab by their menfolk was also ruminated across the Channel. In 2013, two issues arose simultaneously: in Birmingham, two niqabi students protested against a new prohibition of face coverings issued by their college, and in London, a woman on trial refused to take off her niqab when ordered to do so by the judge. In both cases the women were eventually allowed to keep their niqabs on, and that reignited the simmering wrath of many commentators and members of the public. I pointedly do not use the word ‘debate’, as this indicates a balanced discussion in which those involved in some way have an equal opportunity to voice their views. As I started researching the question of the niqab in 2012, I was surprised that niqabis themselves were conspicuously absent from what is often called the ‘niqab debate’.

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“As the niqabi is seen as voiceless, she is not expected to actually take up any position; she is expected to remain a discursive black hole.”

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Yasmin_Alibhai-Brown_in_2009
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

The witch hunt was led by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown of The Independent[1] who stated emphatically that the views allegedly encapsulated by the niqab were ‘enforced violently by Taliban, Saudi and Iranian oppressors’ and therefore neither they, nor the niqab itself, should be allowed in ‘our society’. In this example of the classic ‘us versus them’ Orientalist argument, oppression of women in Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia (which, incidentally, are three different countries where the status of women varies wildly and cannot be simply described as blanket victimhood) justifies paternalistic regulation of Muslim women who happen to live thousands of miles away in the UK. Thus she indicates that oppression of Muslim women is all-enveloping, regardless of their location, and, more importantly, personal circumstances. In other words, they are either simply victims, or, as in the case of niqabis who have the tenacity to claim that they have chosen to wear the niqab, misguided, brain-washed victims. Alibhai-Brown does not pull her punches: ‘[T]here are those vacuous females who argue that it is their right to be objectified’. Who belongs, then, in ‘our society’? Clearly, not those who dare to wear a square of material over their faces and claim they do not have ulterior motives for it. To me, this seems an awfully convenient manner of excluding the ‘undesirables’. And undesirables they are, as the way they are described does not stop short of discursively positioning them as common criminals. She states: ‘[O]ur state must not aid and abet them’. Alibhai-Brown does, however, produce a recipe for ‘good Muslim women’ who are, in her view, acceptable: embracing secular models of governance; being ‘idealist’ and ‘progressive’; most importantly, those who do not ‘hide their faces’. She produces as an example people from an organisation she herself founded; that is, her acquaintances. We can only surmise that Alibhai-Brown sees herself also as one of the good bunch. What is irritating and misleading is that she, apparently being a (good) Muslim woman, assumes the right to act as the judge of who hits the mark and who does not. And so the niqabis are further alienated as now they have to stand their ground against fellow Muslims.

Interested in alternative voices, I was only able to find a handful of articles that introduced niqabis’ comments: this is poignant, as it demonstrates that views such as Alibhai-Brown’s are reinforced and normalised while alternative views are silenced. This is especially significant as the number of niqabis is likely to be very low[2] and they are unlikely to be able to produce such strong mass media narratives as Alibhai-Brown and other journalists do.

In the articles that I have found that did include niqabis’ comments, the women were trying to stake their claims to personal freedom. Even these articles, however, are often framed by charges directed at niqabis and commentary from other people and organisations voicing their protest against the niqab. Thus, even those articles that included niqabis, went only as far as portraying the conflict over the niqab, rather than looking at these women’s choices without preconceptions. For example, Iqbal asks in her piece: ‘[D]oes [the growing popularity of the niqab] really mean the city is becoming more “radicalised”?’[3] The information about the niqabi in the picture is thus immediately packaged in the recognisable discursive trope (Islamic extremism); she introduces niqabis’ comments only after providing commentary from other people, in this case, Shaista Gohir, the chair of Muslim Women’s Network, and the think tank Civitas (who do not think it does).

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“There is a general consensus that the niqab is not a religious obligation, but some wish to go beyond this – in the same way becoming a nun is not obligatory in Christianity, but some women choose to take vows.”

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Fatima Barktulla, a high-profile activist and lecturer in Arabic makes a statement that immediately repositions the entire discourse about niqab. Whilst it is impossible to say that her views are representative of all British niqabis, similar views have been expressed by the 12 niqabis that I have interviewed for my research project[4]:

It isn’t a rejection of society, or an attempt to be different. It’s not a political statement either […]. No woman I know who wears a niqab is doing it to make a huge point. It’s a personal, spiritual conviction. And I know that the niqab is a virtuous option and it is not obligatory.[5]

So the niqab for Barktulla and some other niqabis, the niqab is an outward, personal expression of a religious, not political identity. It is a matter between her and God, even though there is a general consensus that the niqab is not a religious obligation; the point being that some people may wish to go beyond the obligatory for the sake of their relationship with God, in a similar way that becoming a nun is not obligatory in order to be a pious Christian, but some women choose to take vows.

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A woman wearing the niqab on Parliament Hill, London.

Amoola Ismail, a niqabi who works as a care worker, also interviewed by Iqbal, makes two important points: that taking away the freedom of choice in relation to dress code from a marginalised group is equally oppressive whether a certain type of dress is enforced or prohibited; and that the discussion of the niqab without including niqabis is patronising and chauvinistic as it silences the women who wear it.

Noorjahan, a samosa stall owner interviewed for the Leicester Mercury, says simply: ‘I wear it because it gives me independence’.[6] In this sense, the niqab is not a barrier, as Alibhai-Brown would see it; it is a convenience, because it makes it possible for her to go out and interact with the community, since she had decided that she would cover her face in the presence of unrelated men. And many of the women I interviewed, when asked how their lives would change were a niqab ban introduced in the UK, said that they would stay at home rather than break the law. So in practical terms, the niqab ban would not make women’s lives any easier, as instead of going out to work and engaging with the community they would be effectively imprisoned by policy makers. The only benefit of the ban would be for those who dislike the niqab: they would no longer have to see or tolerate it. The article in the Mercury is a rare example of a piece about a niqabi that does not begin with a charge against her that is left for her to fight off (although some criticism is voiced by a second Muslim woman interviewed for the article; she does, however, support the right of women to wear it, if they wish to).

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“Many of the women I interviewed, when asked how they would respond to a niqab ban, said that they would stay at home rather than break the law. So it would not make women’s lives any easier.”

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Sahar Al-Faifi, a molecular biologist, agrees with Amoola Ismail in her article in the Independent that the voice of niqabis is missing from the wider public discussion. She introduces herself as a ‘proud Welsh and British citizen’, thus trying to demonstrate that the choice to wear the niqab does not connote the intention to reject or undermine values underpinning the state. On the contrary, she is attempting to illustrate that one may be Welsh/British and chose to wear a niqab. She expresses appreciation of the UK by contrasting it with countries that do impose a certain dress code on women, whether enforcing (Saudi Arabia, Iran) or banning (France, Turkey) the hijab and/or the niqab.

However, it seems that once in the public domain, these views are immediately subject to discrediting and delegimitisation. Al Faifi and Barktulla, who participated in a televised panel discussion on the niqab transmitted by Channel 4, were almost immediately denounced by media outlets as Islamists due to links with religio-political Islamic organisations. Their views on the niqab (as personally and spirituallly-oriented) were dismissed as ‘not moderate, not mainstream’,[7] thus neatly categorising all women who share Al Faifi and Barktulla’s stated motivations to wear the niqab (whatever their political leanings may be) as an aberrant minority amongst Muslims, and the wider society.

The Daily Mail’s Julie Bindel meanwhile calls out for her ‘fellow feminists’ to join her in the protest against the niqab,[8] assuming that any feminist would rally behind her cause. Leaving aside the obvious legacy of secularist feminism entangled in Western military actions – critiqued forcefully by Leila Abu-Lughod[9] – one needs to ask: what is the real purpose of these attempts to mobilise, on the surface of it, Bindel’s ‘fellow feminists’? It is hard to believe in the sincerity of Bindel’s call for help for the women ‘bullied by extremists into anonymised submission and treated as sexless chattels’,[10] in particular as the Daily Mail itself is hardly a publication promoting sisterhood on its pages obsessed with current celebrities’ plastic surgeries and body weight gains and losses. This echoes the views of Jeremy Browne MP who calls for ‘protection’ of the right of young Muslim women to decide what they want to wear by proposing a ban on niqab.[11] What her text does is try to build an alliance of one group of women against another group of women on the basis that what the latter group says (i.e. that they chose to wear the niqab) simply cannot be true, therefore may only be a result of patriarchal coercion. In other words, to join Bindel’s supposedly feminist rally, one must first disregard and silence voices of niqabis by denying them their own agenda. I think feminism has moved from such narrow perceptions of shared interest; postcolonial and Third Wave feminisms have led most feminists to reject elitist and exclusivist alliances and recognise that women are of ‘many colors, ethnicities, nationalities, religions and cultural backgrounds’.[12]

What discursive positions are then available to niqabis in the British media? Mainly that of a subjugated victim of patriarchy. As she is seen as voiceless, she will not be expected to actually take up any position; she will be expected to remain a discursive black hole. If she is not content with that, she may speak her mind, but her discourse of freedom of choice will be rejected nevertheless. Either she will be dismissed as a brainwashed religious lunatic, or, even worse, she will be branded as an Islamist extremist, trying to push the niqab as part of an Islamist agenda. So for the time being, perhaps the best way to find out about niqabis’ experiences is to talk to them personally; mainstream mass media are not a trustworthy communication platform in this case.

Anna Piela is Lecturer in Religious Studies, Department of Humanities, Leeds Trinity University. Her PhD, completed at the University of York, focused on Islamic knowledge production in Muslim women’s online groups. She has published a monograph titled Muslim Women Online: Faith and Identity Online and articles in academic journals, most recently in The Muslim World. Currently she is working on a research project that examines identities and experiences of niqab-wearing Muslim women in the UK.

Contact: a.piela@leedstrinity.ac.uk


[1] Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, ‘Fully veiled women hinder progressive Islam’, The Independent, 15 September 2013. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/fully-veiled-women-hinder-progressive-islam-8817963.html

[2] Mona Chalabi, ‘How many women wear the niqab in the UK?’, The Guardian, 20 September 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/reality-check/2013/sep/20/how-many-wear-niqab-uk

[3] Nosheen Iqbal, ‘Beyond the veil: London’s burka wearers go on the defensive’, The Evening Standard, 5 November 2010, http://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/beyond-the-veil-londons-burka-wearers-go-on-the-defensive-6532864.html

[4] Anna Piela (2014), ‘British niqabis’ identities in the context of policy and media discourses on Islam’, The Open University, an unpublished MSc thesis; also Anna Piela, ‘I am just doing my bit to promote modesty: Niqabis’ self-portraits on photo-sharing websites’, Feminist Media Studies 13, no. 5 (2013): 781-790.

[5] Nosheen Iqbal (2010), ‘Beyond the veil: London’s burka wearers go on the defensive’, The Evening Standard, 5 November 2010, http://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/beyond-the-veil-londons-burka-wearers-go-on-the-defensive-6532864.html

[6] Adam Wakelin, ‘What do Leicester’s Muslim women thin of the face veil, or niqab?’, Leicester Mercury, 2 February 2010. http://www.leicestermercury.co.uk/Leicester-s-Muslim-women-think-face-veil-niqab/story-12091501-detail/story.html

[7] Trending Central, ‘EXCLUSIVE: Channel 4 fails to disclose Islamist connections of niqab debate guests’, 26 October, 2013. http://www.trendingcentral.com/channel-4-fails-to-disclose-islamist-connections-of-niqab-debate-guests/

[8] Julie Bindel, ‘Why are my fellow feminists shamefully silent over the tyranny of the veil’, The Daily Mail, 17 September. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2424073/Why-fellow-feminists-shamefully-silent-tyranny-veil-Asks-JULIE-BINDEL.html

[9] Leila Abu-Lughod, ‘Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others’, American Anthropologist 104, no. 3 (2002): 783-790.

[10] Julie Bindel, ‘Why are my fellow feminists shamefully silent over the tyranny of the veil’, The Daily Mail, 17 September. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2424073/Why-fellow-feminists-shamefully-silent-tyranny-veil-Asks-JULIE-BINDEL.html

[11] BBC News Online, ‘Debate needed on veils in some public places, says minister’, 16 September 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-24104811

[12] Rosemarie Tong, Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction (Boulder: Westview Press. 2009): 284–285, 289.

The image of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown at Durham Book Festival is included courtesy of New Writing North and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. The image of Zaynab Khadr on Parliament Hill is included courtesy of the Khadr family and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. All referenced URLs referenced were functional on 13 December 2013.

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