Re-examining the place of textuality in Islamic Studies

Reading the Niqab: A Shifting Signifier?

Natasha Bakht

February 16, 2021

Niqab-wearing women in liberal democracies have for some time been “read” in very particular ways that do not tend to coincide with their lived realities. Many people assume that by wearing the niqab, these women accept subordinate status to men, that they are forced into this attire, that they do not or cannot work in the paid labour force, that they are boring and that they prefer to withdraw from society. The niqab-wearing woman is simultaneously read as in need of our protection from the sexual subordination she endures and one from whom we need protection for the offence that her clothing expresses. Beliefs of this kind have permitted politicians and policy makers to feel justified in legally prohibiting the niqab in a variety of public venues. Islamophobia has constructed the niqab as necessarily a symbol of extremism and terrorism, suggesting the impossibility of functioning in society with one’s face covered.  

A more thoughtful and nuanced reading of niqab-wearing women might take into account their views and ideas in order to refocus understandings of the niqab from the perspective of the wearer.[1]Eva Brems, ed, The Experiences of Veil Wearers in Europe and the Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).  My interviews with niqab-wearing women in Ontario and Quebec revealed, contrary to popular beliefs, that women made the decision to wear the niqab after thoughtful and protracted decision-making. No family member or other person compelled or coerced them to wear the niqab. And interestingly, they were often niqab-pioneers, or the first in their families or communities to wear a face veil. They associated the niqab with highly positive connotations describing an embodied spiritual practice [2]Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). that kept them feeling closer and connected to God. One can imagine that wearing the niqab, as a sustained bodily practice in public, is a constant reminder of the profound spiritual journey one has committed to. For some, this personal decision meant acting in defiance of their loved ones, suggesting a great deal of courage and determination to live life as they see best.   

People who do not wear the niqab will often speak of their subjective fear of the niqab, the threat it represents, and niqab-wearing women as untrustworthy and potential perpetrators of crime. Yet the empirical research conducted in Canada and Europe demonstrates that women who wear the niqab are frequently the targets of violent acts by others. Niqab-wearing women have stated that their experiences of harassment and assault in public worsened during controversial episodes in which the niqab received specific political and media attention. Thus, the promotion of exclusionary laws and policies aimed at a despised or feared minority prompts outcomes that go beyond the legislated text. In other words, because of the concerted efforts by political elites to frame niqab-wearing women as troublesome, offensive and exasperating, xenophobic comments and violent actions against them by members of the public are tolerated.  

Before the global health pandemic that we find ourselves in, many people had never meaningfully engaged with anyone who covered their face. Most Canadians have not met or had a conversation with a niqab-wearing woman. The niqab was something foreign or unknown and even made some people feel uncomfortable. With several governments spending over a decade demonizing niqab-wearing women and calling for bans to face veils, it is not surprising that it has been difficult for many people to move past their initial visceral reactions to the niqab.  

Since COVID-19 however, there has been a shift in how we view faces being covered. Covering one’s face is now read as something one does out of a sense of courtesy and care for others. It has become very normal to have conversations, shop in grocery stores, receive public services and simply see people going about their daily lives with their faces covered. The pandemic has revealed rather poignantly that the justifications for legal prohibitions of the niqab, which include the need to be identified at all times, to be able to properly communicate and to have a sense of security, among other explanations, are simply disingenuous. Society is not falling apart because we are unable to see parts of people’s faces. 

Politicians in Canada and abroad have played a particularly shameful role in exacerbating the otherness of women who wear the niqab and the anxiety they produce in non-niqab-wearers. In several inflammatory debates, politicians have insisted that niqab-wearing women do not belong to the nation-state. They remain entrenched in their positions regarding the need for niqab bans, leading to the absurd situation of fining people for not wearing face masks publicly while also fining women for wearing niqabs in public. What becomes clear is that logic and rationality are not required when it comes to reading Muslim women. It is simply taken for granted that covering one’s face is an affront to national values, despite repeated expressions by niqab-wearing women that they very much belong to the nation and that part of this belonging includes dissent from the contrived national narratives promoted by politicians. 

When law abandons logic, and coercive power is used for the purpose of preserving majoritarian values, a range of appalling consequences are legitimized. Niqab bans of the kind in Quebec and France have devastating repercussions, inhibiting niqab-wearing women’s ability to work, travel, testify in courtrooms, be free from violence on the streets, access healthcare and other public services, and simply move about in the clothing that they choose to wear. Niqab bans also indicate a worrisome view of our societies; we risk organizing ourselves according to the simple binaries of good versus bad and civilized versus backward, leaving no room for self-criticism and no way to think about how we might open ourselves to the rich diversity that others can offer.  

One of the possible silver linings of the COVID-19 health pandemic is that it might change ordinary people’s ideas about face coverings and in turn niqab-wearing women. With millions of people now wearing medical and non-medical face masks, we might see more acceptance of multiple ways of living. Rather than being alarmed by difference, perhaps these strange times will prompt us to be more accepting and willing to understand how others might live, shifting the emphasis from difference to similarity. It might allow for empathy and an ability to put oneself in the shoes of another such that our reading of the niqab and the women who wear it alters and is more nuanced. Being open to such change is critical if we wish to live meaningfully and peacefully together.  

Notes / References

1 Eva Brems, ed, The Experiences of Veil Wearers in Europe and the Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). 
2 Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

Natasha Bakht

Natasha Bakht is professor of law at the University of Ottawa and the Shirley Greenberg Chair for Women and the Legal Profession. Her book “In Your Face: Law, Justice, and Niqab-Wearing Women in Canada” (Toronto: Irwin Law, 2020) analyzes niqab bans while also drawing on interviews with niqab-wearing women.