What life is like behind the niqab
A day in the life ... Shelina Begum walks around Rochdale wearing a niqab
SHELINA Begum, chief reporter on our sister paper the Asian News, spent the day wearing a full veil - the niqab. Here she tells us her experiences ...
WHAT do you see when you look at a Muslim woman wearing the veil?
Something oppressed, weak, illiterate, subjugated?
Though these are just some of the stereotyped labels associated with women who wear the niqab, the women who do wear it say it isn’t so.
Even though their own mothers did not wear the veil, in the post 9/11 era many young Muslim women in Europe see covering their faces as an act of power and freedom.
Recently one young Muslim woman told me she was refused service at a post office – the assistant remarked to a colleague that she was ‘not serving that thing’. Another told me how she had been in a Manchester city centre to shop when a bunch of yobs threw alcohol over her calling her a ‘terrorist bitch’. She said being drenched in alcohol offended her more than the words.
So, how hard is it to wear the veil and does donning the niqab engender positive feelings?
My first contact was with my neighbour who was putting his rubbish out.
“Hiya Brian,” I shouted at him. He looked back at me and then past my shoulder, I presumed looking for me, so I said, “It’s me, Brian.” He looked puzzled.
“What are you doing wearing that thing for?” he asked. Feeling automatically defensive, I told him it wasn’t a ‘thing’ and explained my experiment.
He said he hoped I wouldn’t make it a permanent item in my wardrobe, smiled and walked back into the house. He obviously was not keen on my transformation.
I got into my car and headed towards the Trafford Centre. Retail therapy is always fun and it was a place where I knew I would meet people from different communities and cultures.
I found my vision was fine while driving, but it was hard to breath with my nose and mouth both covered. I wondered how Muslim women in places like Bangladesh, Saudi or Pakistan managed in baking temperatures.
Normally, I walk straight into the shopping area without thinking but with the veil on I felt strangely uneasy. My pace slowed and I began moving without confidence. I noticed a girl hand in hand with her mum looking in my direction.
Her mother pulled her away and told her off for staring at other people. I wondered if the mum was really sympathetic or just fearful that I might do something?
My friend Noreen was waiting in the food court. She is a scientist, has always worn the hijab, which covers the hair, but took up wearing the niqab, which covers most of the face, a year ago – a decision she says she wished she had made earlier. As soon as I joined her I felt a bit more comfortable.
Noreen had suffered weeks of verbal abuse after 7/7. It came mainly from white men in their 20s and elderly white people.
She has been called Batman, ninja, was chased off a bus by yobs who threw beer on her and was once asked which terrorist organisation she belonged to.
Most of the time she said she didn’t feel like a victim, but was sorry for the people causing the offence for being so ignorant and uneducated.
People didn’t seem hostile. I guessed they felt sorry for me thinking why on earth would someone choose be covered up? I asked Noreen for her opinion. “I don’t judge girls who hardly wear any clothes and go round showing their bare legs, so why should people judge me for covering up?” she asked.
“It serves as a reminder that I’m Muslim and it helps me get close to God. Since wearing the niqab, I’ve become a lot more confident. Once you’re covered up, people are forced to judge you not as you look as a woman, but on your character.”
Later I noticed a contact of mine, a Muslim Pakistani, walking by.
I called out to her and when she turned back and saw two women dressed in the niqab, she thought she had misheard her name and started walking away.
So I called her again and this time she realised it was me, but her first thought was that I had been brainwashed. I explained this was a one-day outing and she seemed relieved yet nervous of talking to us in public.
This made me angry, why should she be embarrassed?
It was mid-afternoon when we walked past a pub. A group of middle-aged men who had clearly had a heavy session came out. They saw us and started shouting ‘watch out there’s terrorists about’.
I was very mad. Immediately after 7/7 I remember walking by a pub. I was wearing western clothes and the young men standing outside just ignored me completely.
But when an Asian woman wearing a hijab and shalwar kameez walked past they sniggered at her asking if she was related to the bombers. I felt terribly guilty because she was harassed and I wasn’t.
Back at Noreen’s house I took the niqab and felt relief I was able to breathe easily again. Noreen seemed pleased with my effort and asked if I would do it again?
My honest answer was no, though I felt much empathy for the women who do wear the veil. These women are brave enough to step out of the house everyday and face a world full of people who do not understand them and are constantly judging them. The constant stares, verbal and even physical abuse is something they just cope with.
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