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Niqab

July 2008

The niqāb (the full-face veil, related to the burqa) has always distressed me a bit, but recently I've been feeling more strongly about it.

My thinking used to be that, while I don't like it, it can be a valid expression of someone's morals and faith, and I can see their thinking even while I disagree.

Now I find myself feeling that it's entirely dehumanising. How can you treat a person as a fellow human being when you can't see their face at all? How do you respect a faith that requires women to completely hide themselves inside a fabric tent?

Jim Bier commented:

"How can you treat a person as a fellow human being when you can’t see their face at all?" - not just a problem with niqabs, but also the internet - See xkcd number 438

Matt commented:

That's true, but people aren't intentionally hiding their faces on the internet.

Christina commented:

And on the interwebs you can view each other's faces through youtube, skype, profile pics etc, so the option of having that face-to-face element is always there. Although I suppose people would argue that women who wear the niqab choose to?

Matt commented:

I think the 'choice' argument is largely a fallacy, because no-one outside of Islamic culture makes that 'choice.' It's a choice in the sense of 'you can choose to wear it, or you can choose to be demonised.'

Jim Bier commented:

Would other cultures look at us and ask how we can treat each other as human beings when we cover so much of our bodies?

I don't know if they would or not— but it begs the question of degree I guess— It's one thing to bare all your skin, one to cover it all — but most cultures' acceptable clothing falls somewhere in the middle — what makes where one culture puts the line better or worse than where another does? — perhaps the intentions behind it? Would you find niqabs offensive if both males and females had to wear them? is it the hiding of a person's face, or the inequitable treatment of females in cultures that wear them that is the problem?

there we go- there are some thoughts/ questions beyond smart alec references to webcomics

kelly commented:

Along similar lines to Jim - if all members of a society were to wear the niqab it wouldn't be so bad, but when your society dictates that only members of a particular group within it should not show any skin in public, then it becomes an issue - particularly if that group also enjoy less rights/power in that society! It brings to mind that caste in India that only scurry around at night because they aren't allowed to let anyone else see them. Niqab can be a personal choice (I've seen an interesting documentary on this), but if you create a culture where you can be stigmatised or harassed for not doing so, then you're creating a freaky situation where the people in power can't even see the people they may well be oppressing.

Nato commented:

Regarding why we deem it appropriate to cover our mid-areas, but not to cover our face, I'd point to the fact that our faces are designed/evolved as a big component of non-verbal communication. So when people cover their faces, you lose a lot of bandwidth. And the more bandwidth people have when communicating, the better.

So I'd be against Niqabs for males as well as females.

Another thing I'd like to point out: Is it a valid expression of ones faith and morals to kill anyone who doesn't agree with you? Quite definitely not - some expressions are inappropriate, and so, no matter how post modern we may want to be, we can't just give people a 'oh that's your religion, that's ok' to everything they try to pull on us.

Jim commented:

what about face coverings for ninjas?

(facetious comment I thought of before any of yesterday's comments, and just had to make- sorry)

Matt commented:

Interesting thoughts. I should also clarify that I don't feel quite so strongly about the niqāb being worn in predominantly Muslim countries; this post was more in response to seeing them around town a couple of times this week. In the same way we wouldn't go shirtless in Saudi Arabia, is it appropriate for the niqāb to be worn in New Zealand?

Jim Bier commented:

I wonder if you are allowed to wear them into banks— I'm guessing not.

I remember seeing signs in banks in rotorua as a kid that you weren't allowed to wear motorbike helmets into them - presumably it wasn't some prejudice against people who ride motorbikes, but about faces being visible on security cameras for security reasons.

(they may still have those signs in banks, I just haven't consciously observed one for years)

Christina commented:

I think there's an equal quandary with that one for passport photos as well. I remember there was a court case up in Auckland about that a few years back (can't remember the conclusion though).

I'm almost as concerned with them being worn in predominantly Muslim countries as I am here, simply because location shouldn't dictate whether someone is treated as a human or not. I mean, yes, it's part of the culture/religion over there (insert other arguments here), but it seems a bit harsh that such unequal treatment only becomes visible or unacceptable when someone wearing a niqab turns up in a non-Muslim country. Mrgh.

Amy commented:

I agree that the issue is that it is not a choice. In certain religious groups women are made to wear them or be subject to beatings by religious police. A defiant woman can earn herself a beating, a hand cut off or a drowning to name a few possibilities. If it was a cultural choice and not all women had to wear them it may be a different story altogether...