Veiling doesn’t mean oppression

A veil-wearing college student argues the veil is a liberating choice for many Muslim women.

Lolla Mohammed Nur

Although the face veil is a simple piece of cloth worn by a minority of Muslim women, it has become a political symbol synonymous with oppression, patriarchy and servitude. At least, thatâÄôs the assumption most Americans have and the logic behind FranceâÄôs recent veil ban.

Last week, legislation came into effect in France making it illegal for Muslim women to publicly wear the niqab âÄî a piece of cloth worn on the face thatâÄôs sometimes referred to as a burka.

This ban follows a 2004 ban in the country that prevented students from wearing religious symbols at public schools.

Although the law doesnâÄôt specifically mention Islam, many argue it targets women who wear the face veil.

Indeed, one has to question why French President Nicolas SarkozyâÄôs government is targeting a minority within a minority: About 2,000 women from a total French Muslim population of about 5 million actually wear the veil.

The law would also impose a one-year prison term for anyone convicted of forcing women and girls to wear such veils, reflecting widespread convictions that Muslim women are forced to cover by male relatives.

Perhaps part of the motivation for the ban is a genuine concern that Muslim women who cover their faces are oppressed by patriarchal norms. Indeed, 74 percent of the French support the ban on these grounds.

However, many Muslim women feel the imposition of a ban is just as repressive as forcing women to cover. In both cases, a woman doesnâÄôt have a right to choose.

Sharifa Sheyba is a veil-wearing University of Minnesota student who said the niqab for her is a matter of personal choice.

“If someone asks me why I wear it, I make sure to explain to them and tell them itâÄôs a form of modesty and pleasing my god. Nobody forced me to wear it,” she said. “It doesnâÄôt mean that people who donâÄôt wear it are not modest. ItâÄôs just something you prefer.”

The psychology junior pointed out that her parents didnâÄôt pressure her to wear the veil and they were unhappy with her decision to begin with. She started wearing it before she married her husband last summer, who she said didnâÄôt force her to cover either.

Another misconception is that the niqab is politically motivated.

“I donâÄôt have any political affiliations, so you canâÄôt say that wearing niqab is a political or cultural affiliation,” she said. “WeâÄôre Muslim from all walks of life, with different cultures and political backgrounds; [veiling] is just another part of our identity.”

Often, the discourse about the niqab ends up being monolithic, assuming that the woman behind the veil has no unique identity or character. And sometimes she feels judged, even by Muslims, who have called her an extremist.

“It might be hard for people, but they see my personality. I say âÄòhiâÄô and I have a conversation [with them], so it doesnâÄôt matter,” she said. “They realize IâÄôm just a student, a friend, so they come to like me as a person and it goes beyond just the niqab.”

Sheyba first began covering her face as a teenager in Kenya. When she moved to the U.S. four years ago, she removed her veil at the airport after her mother and sister said it would be difficult to veil in America.

“I took it off because I was afraid I wouldnâÄôt be accepted,” she said. But Sheyba always had a longing to resume wearing the veil, especially after she began attending college. She researched the reasoning for the veil, and although she knew the veil is a “sunna,” or non-mandatory Islamic practice, she felt it was right for her.

“I started learning more and I realized I can do it; itâÄôs not that hard,” she said. “I felt like it would increase my faith.”

For her, the veil is like “extra credit;” itâÄôs not required, but it inspires her to do better and be a better person. “If I can make that one step forward, itâÄôll encourage me âĦ to do other things even better,” she said.

That means working harder to prove that she isnâÄôt oppressed or meek âÄî common stereotypes associated with the face veil.

“Anywhere I go they expect me to act a certain way, to fit their stereotype âĦ so I have to break their schema by presenting myself in the best way possible,” she said.

“If I have an opinion in class IâÄôm not going to sit down and be quiet, but they expect IâÄôm going to be quiet and shy because IâÄôm âÄòoppressed.âÄô I speak up just to show that I have that voice.”

In fact, Sheyba believes itâÄôs not the veil thatâÄôs problematic but the assumption that Muslim women donâÄôt have a voice. The idea that women are being oppressed is used to justify the bans.

“For people who think theyâÄôre helping us by freeing Muslim women from oppression: Who told you weâÄôre oppressed? That we want your help? That we donâÄôt have a voice?” she said. “Where did you get this perspective? Did you ask us?”

She believes there are double standards when comparing Muslim and non-Muslim women, pointing to cultural norms that find baring skin acceptable but covering up as something abhorrent.

“I might not like women wearing bikinis in public, but IâÄôm not going to ban that. Let them do it and IâÄôll have the freedom to do what I want to do,” she said. “Niqab is my culture and it becomes my identity. If you strip away my niqab, youâÄôre stripping away my identity as a person.”

She added that itâÄôs a human rights issue. “They say the ban is about human rights, but we can play that card,” she said. “We should defend the veil because itâÄôs a right to choose.”


Lolla Mohammed Nur welcomes comments at [email protected].