by Hebah Ahmed
This article originally appeared on Silent Heroes, Invisible Bridges, an Istanbul-based not-for-profit media organization that promotes peaceful co-existence amongst nations, cultures, and religions. WIP Contributor Alia Turki Al-Rabeo is a founding member of the website which offers exclusive content in English, Arabic, Turkish and Urdu languages. By republishing Hebah’s opinion piece, we support Silent Heroes’ objective to add healthy debate and discourse about hurdles in cross-cultural, cross-religion integration such as the niqab ban in France. – Ed.
Studies have shown that the majority of the 2,000 women in France wearing niqab are converts, who voluntarily chose to don it. Despite being very vocal about their choices, the media and the politicians continue to ignore them and pass legislation, such as the French niqab ban, in isolation from the ground realities. Such laws are widely based on misconceptions that Islam is inherently oppressive to women.
Unfortunately, Muslims are partially to blame for these misconceptions. Many a time women in Muslim-majority countries are abused or mistreated in adherence to sexist cultural practices that are actually in violation of Islamic teachings. Muslim men need to understand and apply correct Islamic principles and root out these unjust and oppressive practices. Their female counterparts need more awareness about their rights and their implementation.
Additionally, Muslims in the West need to do more to explain the true teachings of Islam and differences between backwards cultural practices and religious rituals. A significant portion of Europeans supports some type of ban and cannot understand why a woman would ever choose to cover herself. It is likely they see the practice as something foreign, backwards, and forcibly imposed. However, for me and many other western niqabis (women who wear the niqab), this could not be further from the truth.
Legislation banning the full-face veil is presented under the auspice of protecting Muslim women and liberating them. For me, this comes down to the freedom of choice.
Born in Tennessee to Egyptian immigrant parents, I have never lived outside of the United States. I entered college at 15 with the full support and encouragement of my Muslim father. At 22, I completed my Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, one of the top engineering universities in the world.
After a stint in the corporate world - where I experienced firsthand sexual harassment and intimidation - I left to discover my spirituality, my femininity, and my true self-worth. As a result of this journey of self-discovery, I started to wear the niqab. I began to choose jobs that allowed me to work on my terms rather than in an environment that compromised my values.
In fact, I started my own engineering research firm and opened an Islamic clothing store. It was then that I realized how extremely fortunate I am to live in the United States where freedom of religion and expression are vehemently defended and valued.
I daresay there are few women in the West who do not question their image or have concerns about their weight, body measurements, skin texture, and coloring. A woman’s body can easily become a commodity, either for her own vanity or someone else’s objectification. These are societal pressures that are imposed on women, but the majority of women really seek security, respect, love, and commitment.
I have found that modesty and Islamic dress gives me that sense of value, control, and security. Wearing a full-face veil for the first time gave me an unexpected self-confidence because I no longer cared what others thought of me, only how I thought of myself. For a Muslim woman who covers, her sexuality is under her control and expressed in the confines of her marriage in an atmosphere of commitment and respect. In this way, modesty becomes a liberator and a source of empowerment.
The policy-makers who pass legislation banning the niqab are not recognizing these facts. In their attempt to protect women, some European countries are taking away the freedom of choice they claim to promote. Legislators need to confer with a range of Muslim women in an attempt to understand the reasons behind the choice to wear the niqab. This will ensure that diversity is embraced rather than outlawed.
We must move forward into a new discourse that is neither gender nor religiously exclusive. If legislation is based on the grounds of protecting the rights of Muslim women, their voices must be a vital part of the debate. Books such as I Speak for Myself are an effort to finally give Muslim women such a voice. Otherwise, the current debates have, in fact, lost sight of the real issues: a woman’s right to freedom of choice and religious expression.
About the Author:
Hebah Ahmed lives in New Mexico with her husband and two children. She is an Associate writer of MuslimMatters, and a contributor to I Speak for Myself. She has been featured on NPR, CNN, 20/20 with Diane Sawyer, and was profiled in the New York Times article Behind the Veil.