The burqa and niqab: can travelers get used to anything? Should they?

burqa, burka, niqab, Somaliland, somaliland
Travel broadens the mind, at least for most people. As we explore different cultures and beliefs we see that for the most part they’re OK. While there are always local customs we just can’t follow, in general the more we travel, the more accepting we become.

But how accepting should we get? I’ve traveled extensively in the Muslim world and I’ve yet to figure out exactly how I feel about the burqa and niqab, two types of female Islamic clothing that cover the face. For the vast majority of the world’s population, the face is a key to identity. We look at the face to tell what a person is thinking and feeling. It’s how we spot friends and enemies at a distance. To see a covered face makes many people suspicious. In most cultures, it means the person has something to hide.

Here in Europe a debate is raging over whether the face veil should be banned. Some politicians say it’s oppressive and against Western values, while others defend it as part of a cultural heritage that needs to be tolerated in a free society. One thing these pundits have in common is that they talk about women who cover their faces, but very few actually talk with them. Regarding the burqa ban in France, one female friend quipped, “It’s just another case of men telling women what to wear.” Here’s a video from the BBC program Newsnight that interviews Muslim women both for and against veils.

This video makes two important points: that opinion is divided in the Muslim community over face covering, and that there are thinking, educated people under those veils.As a Western man I haven’t had many opportunities to talk with covered women, but when traveling in Somaliland I got to talk to a few niqabis. While talking with them I discovered that their personalities began to emerge. I also kept a lot of eye contact since there was nothing else to look at. The eyes are always expressive. Among niqabis they’re even more so.

Fellow travel writer Lara Dunston taught in Abu Dhabi for many years and noticed the same thing. The veil didn’t stop her from getting to know people as individuals. She even became able to recognize people just from their eyes. She says the vast majority of her students cover by choice. In the book From My Sisters’ Lips, Muslim convert Na’ima bint Robert talks about why she chose to cover her face, and interviews others who made the same choice. Central to their decision was the desire to be known for what they think, not how they look. They see the veil as accentuating a person’s identity rather than hiding it.

burqaIf only it were that straightforward. In many places it’s not individual choice but social pressure or even force of law that makes women cover their faces. Saudi Arabia, which is our ally because we need their oil and they need our weapons, has been instrumental in the global spread of radical Islam. For example, they’re building beautiful mosques and madrasas in the Muslim regions of Ethiopia in order to change what has been a bastion of liberal Islam. I’ll never forget passing through one village where the only stone building, and the only one that had more than one storey, was a Saudi-built mosque. Walking along the road in the noonday sun was a woman in a niqab with a huge bundle of firewood over her back. I was hot just standing there. I can’t imagine how she must have felt.

Take this woman: uneducated, almost certainly illiterate, who’s probably never been outside her own region, and introduce her to a Saudi cleric with his nice car and clothes and education, and he tells her she needs to cover her face or Allah will be angry and her neighbors will think she’s a slut. What’s she going to do? That’s not a choice; that’s oppression pure and simple.

In a response to the controversial “Just Say No To Burqas” mural in Australia, a Muslim activist friend of mine Asra Nomani said, “‘Say No To Burqas,’ says ‘no’ to not only burqas but the interpretation of Islam that says that women are too sexy for their faces and have to cover up to be ‘good Muslims.’ It’s important that we reject the interpretation of Islam that sanctions burqas. One girl who had to wear a burqa in my village in India asked me, ‘What’s it like to feel the sun shine on your face?’”

Asra makes a good point that the burqa is only one interpretation of Islam. The Koran and Hadith say that both men and women should dress modestly. They say nothing about women bundling themselves up from head to toe in yards of cloth.

An educated debate about this issue is becoming increasingly important as Western society becomes more multicultural. It’s becoming more important to me personally. I spend every summer in Oxford. Among the many Muslims there, most women wear headscarves, something that I barely notice anymore. A small minority of women wear the niqab, including a local pharmacist. Last year we were in the park and my son, then four years old, saw one of the mothers wearing a niqab.

“Why is she hiding her face?” he asked.

“Because she wants to for her religion,” I said.

“SHE SHOULD TAKE IT OFF!” he said in that typical child voice that carries for miles.

“Only if she wants to,” I replied rather lamely.

I couldn’t think of a better answer. I still can’t.