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On Faces and Veils

After the jump, a thoughtful email I received in response to this column. My response follows.
Hi Dan,
While reading your column "The Canvas of Emotion," I felt the annoyance that usually comes over me whenever people start talking about how the niqab (veil) is this, that, or the other.
That annoyance has not faded. Though I appreciate your honesty about how you really feel about the veil, and what you think it really is, I remain frustrated that you have not taken the time to research more deeply why some Muslim women wear the veil, and the reasons given for its practice within Islamic Law. At the very least, could you not have contacted a Muslim woman who wears the veil? After all, you do live in Ottawa, where the veil isn't entirely uncommon.
In any case, since you didn't take the time to learn more about the veil from someone who wears one, I have taken the time to come to you.
First of all, let me tell you a little about myself. My name is Zainab. I'm 21 years old, and although I currently live overseas, I was born a Canadian citizen and spent every year of my life there (except for the last two). I am a passionate believer in social justice and a fierce feminist. I've been writing since I was 14 - fiction, poetry, and articles for newspapers, blogs, and magazines. I am both independent and outspoken.
I am a Muslim woman, and I started wearing the veil when I turned 17, after years of begging my mom (who also wears it) to let me (shocking, huh? A teenage girl being forbidden from wearing the veil, not being forced into it!).
I do not wear the veil to segregate myself from society; I do not wear it to "smother my identity"; I do not wear it to remain aloof from others or assume that I'm better than them, or any of the other theories that so many journalists have been sharing within the last two days.
No. I wear it because first of all, I believe that God commanded it. In the Qur'an, the veil has three purposes: to test just how far you'll go to obey God; to identify yourself as a Muslim woman; and for the sake of modesty. (Specific Qur'anic verse: http://quran.com/33/59)
To expand a little upon the last point, it has nothing to do with Islam considering all women to be wicked seductresses bent on luring innocent men into frenzies of lust. Instead, it has to do with Islam's concern for societal welfare. Men and women are allowed to interact in any number of settings, whether it be for business, education, or otherwise, but there are certain limits placed on those interactions. By restricting men's ability to physically assess a woman's face or body and treat her according to how attractive he considers her (a human-nature practice studied and proven extensively in psychology), they are forced to deal with the woman on purely intellectual terms: her ideas and her actions.
In this kind of setting, no man can ever make judgments about a woman based on her physical features (like, oh, I don't know... how about promoting a woman just because she's got bigger boobs than the competition? Don't tell me this doesn't happen in the corporate world.)
Now, with regards to the claims you make about the veil - that it cuts off one's identity; that communication is hindered and restricted; that the ability to emotionally connect disappears - I can say with full confidence that while it might make sense theoretically, in reality none of those things take place.
I went to school, to the mall, to the park, to every place imaginable while wearing the veil. I hiked, I debated, I studied, I smiled and said "good morning" to passers-by... and they were all able to recognize that I was interacting with them and reaching out emotionally. My teachers, classmates, and neighbours never saw my face, but that didn't mean that they didn't trust me less; that they felt cut off from me or separated from me.
I built both short-term and long-term relationships - whether with the librarian or the grocery store clerk; my favourite teacher or the mailman.
Identity, emotions, and expressions of the two are not limited to facial features. In a society which is no longer tribal but cyber-connected, this is evidenced in the popularity of web forums, text messaging and more, we have effectively proven that there are practically no more barriers that hinder communication. When walking around veiled, people could easily tell if I was happy or sad, smiling or frowning. That's because body language involves more than just facial expressions (which, by the way, you can detect on a veiled woman because you can still see her eyes).
Muslim women may cover their faces; but that doesn't stop us from talking or taking action. And as I was taught in kindergarten, we deal with people based on how they act, not how they look.
You may be interested in taking a look at thiese webpage (video, article, and comments) to get a better idea of the issue of veiling amongst Muslims (and especially how it does not stop us from being normal, functional, friendly human beings!):
(Yes, I wrote this one.)

I sincerely hope that you are able to consider the reality of veiled Muslim women over psychological hypotheses (which might sound fancy and all, but don't actually translate into real life), and realize that there's more going on behind the veil (as though this pun isn't overused already... *sigh*) than what you think.


Zainab bint Younus


Musings of a Muslim Mouse: The Original Ramblings of AnonyMouse al-Majnoonah

Sisters: The Magazine fo Fabulous Muslim Women!




With respect, I did not assume that any women who wears a veil does so involuntarily. What I argued is that, due to the nature of human psychology and communication, any woman who wears a veil will find her ability to interact with others severely limited. Not entirely truncated, please note. But severely limited.

You say that's not so because you interacted and developed familiar relationships. I'm sure you did. But to what extent was the veil a barrier you had to overcome in doing so? How many people were disturbed by their inability to see your face and engage in the non-verbal communication that is an inherent part of any human interaction? What was lost in your communication and interaction? How much richer might it have been if you had the face-to-face contact that human nature craves? How many contacts and relationships never occurred? I'm afraid that last one is a rhetorical question. You cannot possibly know the answer. This is why your personal experience, though interesting, hardly settles the matter.

I also take your point about body language. You're quite right that it's communicative and important. But it's not nearly as critical as the face. That is just a fact of universal human nature. (I also take your point about the eyes.The niqab is certainly less odious than the burka. But frankly, this point only supports my position.)

Now, all that aside, thank you for taking the time to write this. I don't agree in the least. But it's interesting, intelligent, and wonderfully put. Would you mind if I posted it on my website and tweeted a link? I could do that with your name attached or without, whichever you prefer.




#41 Blair 2012-07-11 12:55
Having lived in the Middle East and dealt on a daily basis with veiled women I can assure you that the absence of physical cues makes full communication virtually impossible. The wry smile that indicates a straight comment is actually meant to be ironic. The downward turn of a lip while assuring you that all is okay that tells you that all is not okay. Put simply, as described, humans have evolved with a tremendous number of non-verbal cues that aid in communication. Veiling is a deliberate attempt to mask those cues and while it can be an acceptable practice, it cannot be considered anything other than a hindrance to full communication.
#40 Blair 2012-07-11 12:54
Ms. Bint Younus makes the claim that wearing the veil does not hinder communication but her claim is wrong-headed since she, the woman who is veiled, is making a claim for that others were not hindered in their communications with her. Unless she quizzes each person on a daily basis all she can say is that the people with whom she interacted responded politely. Not that they felt comfortable or felt fully involved in the communication.
#39 MattK 2011-12-21 00:19
Part 2: Since laws were passed against the process in 2007 and in 1995, "only" 50% of 10-18 year old girls had been circumcized by 2008 ( http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/86/4/07-042093/en/index.html ). It's true that many muslim clerics (including the Grand Mufti of Egypt) have spoken out against the procedure, however many have also supported it and the primary source opposition to anti-FGM laws in Egypt were Islamic groups ( http://gulfnews.com/news/region/egypt/egypt-s-child-law-is-greeted-with-stiff-opposition-1.111169 ).
#38 MattK 2011-12-20 23:35
Now, to take the bait a little bit, you said that "FGM is rarely practiced and it is generally frowned upon" which is a bizare statement given that "100 to 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM" (from WHO: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/ ). Up to 2003 over 90% of married Egyptian women (Egypt has a population of over 81 million) had been genitally mutilated. The primary reason participants gave for FGM was religion (althouth several other reasons were also commonly cited).
#37 MattK 2011-12-20 23:33
Noorah, why don't you try to answer my question instead of flinging insinuations of prejudice at everyone with whom you disagree. Read what I wrote again. It does not matter to my point whether or not FGM is associated with Islam whatsoever. What really matters is that your argument works just as well as a defence of clitoridectomy as it does for the niqab. For the sake of argument, just assume that I am talking about Ethiopian Catholics (~70% of Ethiopean Catholics practiced FGM as of around 10 years ago) rather than Muslims. The point is the same.
#36 Stan 2011-12-20 07:07
If you were writing as satire I am not sure you could do better.

Your theme on seeing the other side is a great idea. But you seem to go out of your way to misinterpert what others have written.

In your respone to me about Helen Keller you provide a quote. If I wasn't able to check what I had written what you say might be worthwhile. But I can and your quote is nothing like what I wrote.

If you really can't see the irony of wishing for more understanding by others while you misquote people or misrepresent what they write I feel bad for you.

But ever the optimist I will assume you are just writing clever satire and remark on how clever and amusing it is.
#35 Stan 2011-12-19 19:28

My point about not seeing you families is just to illustrate that there is something lost by hiding ones face. No where did I say that I think that is what people do. Quite the opposite, I expect niquab wearers remove them whenever they are feel comfortable doing so.
The point is they would do this because contrary to your assertion wearing it does have a negative impact on communication.

I hope that makes the point unambiguously clear.
Just in case. My question is if hypothetically your parents wore a face covering at all times and you had never seen their faces do you think you would miss out on something compared to the current situation where as you say you do get to see them?
If your answer is yes then you must agree that some communication is lost when the face is covered.
#34 Noorah 2011-12-19 12:15

Wow, you seem to be really well-read on all the MISINFORMED STEREOTYPES about Muslims/Islamic culture that routinely do the rounds in Western media! FYI, FGM, is definitely not something that Muslim women are required to do! Unlike circumcision for men, FGM is rarely practiced and it is generally frowned upon -a bit like extreme body piercing in Western culture- it is tolerated (unless proven to injurious to ones health or well-being, in which case it would be STRONGLY PROHIBITED), but definitely not recommended!
For your own sake, I strongly recommend that you try and broaden your perspective and get a more balanced and accurate picture about what Muslims ACTUALLY believe and practice- after all, we're sharing this planet with over a billion of them!
#33 MattK 2011-12-18 17:35
A take from an (ex?)muslim girl (at least that is the claim - I cannot indep. verify) about the freedom disgarding her hijab: (http://www.reddit.com/r/atheism/comments/nhl8u/today_i_went_outside_for_the_first_time_without_a/
#32 Noorah 2011-12-18 13:32
@Stan, there wasn't enough space to continue my last point, so what I wanted to add was:
As for Helen Keller, to me she is so much more than 'just a handicapped person who could communicate better than the rest'! She is an example of the greatness that is innate in every human being and a beautiful example of our ability to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles through our reliance on our humanity to help each other. Both Western and Islamic culture are rich and beautiful cultures and I think what is of dire need in our day and age is our ability to acknowledge that and make room for the 'other'. How can we ever hope to live in peace if our own hatred or pride will not allow us to acknowledge the 'good' that the other has to offer and always looks for the worst?
Helen Keller once said, 'The highest result of education is tolerance.' - I think in any multicultural society this is essential for peace.

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