jump to navigation

Naked Eyes: Reflections on Wearing Niqab 18 February 2007

Posted by EDITOR in GUESTS, Politics, Relationships, Spirituality.

Our guest contributor this week is Sahar Ullah, a Masters student in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Chicago.

There are reasons why we are placed in certain situations and make certain choices. If anything, experiences make for good stories.

Personal experience also has a way of rendering generalizations and the idea of objectivity problematic. In a room of vicious critics, it’s always interesting to observe the discomfort when the subject of study speaks. When the latest debate on face veils broke out (provoked by Jack Straw’s comments), my past experience gave me a story I needed to share.

My experimentation with the face veil for four years as an undergrad in Miami (beginning several weeks before 9/11) was eye-opening. Most people who had an opinion about niqab never asked me why I wore it although they were willing to express their opinion. They certainly did not ask about the prayers for guidance or my experiences as a young woman, but there were a thousand assumptions. It was ideology; adherence to law; a method of escape; entrapment; pretentiousness; performance of piety; heroism; fear of men; desire to seduce; covered ‘naughtiness’; anti-social behavior; a vain call for attention; an I’m-wife-material card; desire to be silent; an oppressive father; and the classic–anxiety of becoming ‘daark.’

I was 18, but I like to think I wasn’t a complete moron.

Moreover, some of the cruelest moments happened with Muslims. I learned quickly of the incredible anxiety our community has about public image. The daily barrage of news about “bad Muslims” and “bad Islam” took and continues to take a sad toll on the way we treat each other. I was able to see a different layer of the ugly reality that many care more about their own discomfort than another’s well-being. Often, the “advice” people gave generally entailed a way of defending her/his image rather than sincerely helping. The “public” felt they had to say something.

To be frank, that level of vulnerability in those who were sometimes much older was/is disconcerting. To illustrate: One “respected community leader” who I had not seen for a long time called me aside one day, in an Islamic center, to inform me how disappointed he was when he heard “others discussing what you have done,” that women who wear niqab are extremists, that he told the local interfaith groups and reporters so, that this was why I wasn’t married, that my college education and activism was useless because I should just stay inside. Furthermore, who did I think I was? Rabia al-Basri? At the very end, he decided he should ask me what I thought, so trying to be a smart ass and thick-skinned, I said he was a bitter old man. I ended up running out crying, a bit angry, very shaken.

I was 20. He was 70+. I like to think maybe he just had a bad day.

When Muslims insisted that niqab was wrong, I felt more defensive about having the right to make my own choices. I felt defensive about my power to control “the male gaze.” I also felt compelled to be consistent, check my intention, and not lose nerve until I was totally sure no one was deciding for me when I was and was not to wear it. When my non-Muslim friends would have the ability to “see” who I was and support me without defining me beforehand, imagine how confusing/revealing that was…

Because of those who simply loved and gave real advice, and because they did not feel compelled by their own needs to stick me in a box, they gave me courage and enough space to think things through about where I wanted to go and who I wanted to be. Thank God for sincere people and sincere advice.

Muslims are going through tough times and it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better, but we could work at making it easier for each other. Sometimes we worry so much about public image that we forget patience, trust, having a good opinion of others, that real humans are stumbling on their own path, celebrating and suffering, trying things out, asking God for guidance, and just need mercy and sincere guidance from sisters and brothers in faith. Not contempt, not ego driven policy prescriptions.

Knowing how quickly we forget the humans about whom we theorize, maybe this disclosure of personal experience will save a young woman from being suffocated by another’s misplaced anxieties. Although I no longer wear niqab, I am purposely leaving out my present views on it. Because it allowed me to learn a lot about my nafs and other humans, I don’t regret the choice. Alhamdulillah for being able to make choices.

Alhamdulillah for naked eyes.



1. Ibrahim - 18 February 2007

Nice, Sahar. Besides the obvious, “Thanks for sharining,” let me offer some advice (I think you, Nadia, and I talked about this): keep the narratives coming. Along with being edifying and sincere, they also break the abstraction, that is, they drop veils (the other kind). Thanks. – – Ibrahim.

2. jordan - 18 February 2007

Our visual culture is truly fascinating. So much baggage we are forced to carry, especially those of us who are young and forced to negotiate varied and sometimes seemingly contradictory identities. I’m 21 and have been through several phases with each being an internal maturation but outwardly to those around me a dangerous spiritual stasis.

In these times of personal development and transition, everyone has something to say, but not something to live. I hope we can get, as you said Sahar, beyond our “good Muslim, bad Muslim” dichotomization and just explore who we are, the spaces we inhabit and our relationships with people around us, be they Muslim or not. I appreciate guidance and wisdom more than direction and judgement. And surely to God is our return.

3. Samer - 19 February 2007

Salam Alaikum Sister and Jazaki Allah khair for the reflection. The disparage you’d experienced was merely a sign of how malnourished the Umma is from the lack of Islamic knowledge/guidance. May Allah guide us all in” remembering Him the way He wants to be remembered, and in worshinping Him in the way He wants to be worshiped.” (it’s a good hadith to quote) :-)

4. Irving - 20 February 2007

Salaam Dear Sister: Here are two other viewpoints for you to consider, from the Darvish blog:

Wearing Hijab in Mecca:

and Wearing Hijab: A Spiritual Concept:

I think you are brave and wise beyond your years :)

Ya Haqq,


5. Sahar - 20 February 2007

[Blog life is innnnteresting…]

Brotha-man Ibrahim: I advise you and Nadia to keep me in your prayers :)

Jordan: You said what’s been on my mind. In a perfect world, young people should have the time to be creative, transform, blossom, wilt and recover with gentle guidance from those more experienced.

But our imperfect world–where symbols provoke visceral reactions and concrete policies–wants hasty yet smooth self-development. I wonder what this means for youth culture, whether communities will afford Muslim youth needed space if/as our socio-political state deteriorates, and to whom/what our younger generation will turn. When I look back, I found strength in my safe university nest of teachers and nerdy friends where individuality was an intellectual, spiritual and social exercise–in that way, I was lucky and protected. At the same time in the messier world of communal drama, folks were getting antsy. Feds were knocking on doors, opportunists had their field days, locals were arrested, Muslim women were easy targets of harassment, and the regular mischief continued with lack of adab, gossip and suspicion circulating, media spinning, jealousies competing, etc.

(Mis)Perception is a powerful thing, but God is greater, wa lillahi l-Hamd.

6. Amir - 20 February 2007

In the name of Allah,

I must say Sahar, you continue to inspire us all. I am one of Sahar’s fellow classmates from Undergrad. I must be the first to admit and I think I owe it to myself to admit, that I did feel uncomfortable walking to class with Sahar. I always new that this was a weakness on my part, but I would try to come up with excuses in my head of why this feeling was not wrong. It’s amazing how I would become defensive trying to think of what is wrong with the person in front of me, when the truth is that I was too weak to face my own shortcoming. I apologize to you, Sahar, for my shortcomings and commend you on your bravery and I ask Allah to give me the strength to overcome my shortcomings.

7. Danya - 20 February 2007

Sahar, masha’Allah :)
I remember when I first met you and I thought you were the coolest niqabi ever. I was barely 17 when we met and I was so intrigued. I remember that one time (perhaps you don’t remember) when we were in New Mexico washing our clothes as though we lived in the 17th century and several girls and I were barraging you with questions.

Simply amazing, come back here, please :)

8. Che - 20 February 2007

Sahar, well stated. I believe its strong women like you who truly represent what our religion stands for in the modern world. I hope your courage and bravery will spread throughout the muslim world.

9. Afoo - 20 February 2007


10. Amad - 20 February 2007

asalamalikum, that was NICE…Sr. Sahr
Pls check out this article on Doha Debates on the Niqab… I have also asked readers to check out your article.

11. sisterinislam - 21 February 2007

As salaamu alaikum wa rahmatullaah

MashaAllah awesome article! May Allah reward you, ameen.

I’ve been really thinking about wearing niqab in college/university since it’s very tough in high school but this helped me to understand that we shouldn’t care at ALL what others think… it’s our intention that really counts.


12. jamilalighthouse - 21 February 2007

This is a great post, thank you! I have “experimented” with niqab too. I love to wear it although I don’t believe it’s an obligation. I stopped however because I got sick to death of the scrutiny and criticism of other Muslims and also because I was unsure about my intentions. At the shops it was always the non-Muslims who smiled, whilst the hijabi’s usually avoided eye contact totally. The thing that struck me was that it was inconceivable for most people to accept that my motivations were spiritual.

13. Sahar - 21 February 2007

Amir, Che, Danya, Afoo–I miss you all.

I don’t mean to discourage some of the enthusiasm, but please note that

1) I never stated why I wore the niqab and my current opinions about wearing niqab.
2) This is not about whether niqab is good/bad, religiously sanctioned/forbidden.
3) This is not about whether niqab is or is not a barrier to integration.

In a very selfish way, this is not about *you* and all about *me.* This is about others perceiving that my personal choice was a commentary about them, how their perception made them uncomfortable, and how they took it out on me. This is about coming to terms with a symbol that has a meaning for me, yet so many different meanings for so many different people. As a friend said, it reflects how the personal can become political.

Dear SisterinIslam, I pray whatever path you take, God protects your heart. Wearing niqab was difficult for me, but for others, it’s not a big deal. That’s why I waited before I took it off. I had to make sure I wasn’t doing anything on a whim.

I cannot and would not recommend or discourage a woman from wearing niqab without knowing the individual, her personality, her life circumstances, etc. Part of the reason why I wore it is because it was good for my ego. Part of the reason I took it off was that the increasing anxiety about how people reacted/would react was bad for my heart…and I knew it was my priority to care for my heart before it was beyond repair to the point of spite and spiritual rejection. It was important for me, especially, to know our Beloved Messenger made things easy, not difficult. As much as I wanted to be brave and not care what others think, I also wanted inner peace. Knowing he would make things easy for me–even if others did not–made things easy for me.

14. jamilalighthouse - 21 February 2007

The point of your post was clear, I guess it just makes some of us reflect on our own feelings about it :)

15. Sahar - 21 February 2007

Aww, I appreciate your post, Jamillah. I actually didn’t read it until I finished writing my last one (I’ll blame my blog amateurism), but when I saw it, it made me happy to know our shared experiences. Take care.

16. Sahar - 21 February 2007

*oops, I meant Jamila, not Jamillah…although Jamillah is very nice, too :)

17. Aaminah - 21 February 2007

Asalaamu alaikum sister,

Thank you for sharing this.

18. malai - 21 February 2007

i think this is such an important narrative to read for everyone. thanks to good ole Baraka for linking it. i have issues with hijab sometimes, too, and reading this makes me reflect on that. u r a brave woman, mashallah.


19. Baraka - 21 February 2007

Salaam & thank you for sharing your experiences.

20. Esharah - 23 February 2007

Assalamu Alaikum,
May Allah grant you peace in this world and peace in the hereafter. Each of us have our own issues to deal with but it is when we start criticizing and condemning others for what we lack in ourselves that the real damage is being done. Be at peace with yourself for the path you have chosen, knowing your reward is only from Allah.

21. juhah - 28 February 2007

Brilliant and well written!

22. Abdur Rahman - 1 March 2007

Salaams sister and thank you for sharing this excellent piece.

Abdur Rahman

23. Abdur Rahman’s Corner - 10 March 2007

[…] presents Naked Eyes: Reflections on Wearing Niqab posted at other|matters. Varangali posts her reflections on wearing the niqab (the face veil). An […]

24. peshe - 7 June 2007

As salamu alaykum lil bit – glad to know your doing well. You brought up good points. I often have wished people’s “misplaced anxieties” would render a reaction of reason, and not fear myself. If you have found a means to avoid such a reaction, please share….take care of u.

25. Alec Jibrab - 9 July 2007

i think that you people should not be alowed to wear your stupid scarf

26. me - 9 July 2007

That is so vey rude …. and if you had any intellegence you would shut up !!!!!!!!!

27. zoi - 14 August 2007

Everybody should have the right to wear what they want whether it be the hijab or something else. The hijab is a way of preserving modesty

28. non-Muslim wandering past - 19 August 2007

“You people”?

I’m not Muslim, but I wear hijab, niqab sometimes too (with gloves and gauntlets no less).

It began as an experiment, to see if the rumors about how it objectifies, oppresses, everything else are true. Some of us don’t believe everything we see on TV, whether it’s in color or not :)

I discovered something. Hijab (and niqab) is to the wearer the energy the wearer gives to it. If they wear it believing it to be oppressive, then yes, it is oppressive. if they believe it objectifies them, then it shall.

If, on the other hand, they wear it for positive reasons, it is a positive thing.

It’s a great way to avoid getting leered at by guys. Whether “enlightened” people like to claim otherwise or not, it’s a simple fact of life that society sees women as sex objects, and bases their opinions of us primarily on appearance.

Some people think niqab is obligatory, some think it’s voluntary. In either case, it’s a devotion to faith, and faith is a deeply personal and individual thing. Saying “you people should not be allowed to wear your stupid scarf” is the same as saying “Christians should not be allowed to wear crosses”, nuns should not be allowed to wear habits, or anything else that infringes in the ability of an individual to display their faith.

There was a huge stink when a woman working for British Airways was told to remove the crucifix she wore around her neck, and that was reversed – trying to enforce a similar restriction on *anyone* is equally as reprehensible.

Since I *don’t* have a religious basis that “might” influence my perspective of the difference in how people treat me when I wear hijab, I challenge anyone who cares to accept to explain in a rational manner why people treat me with more respect, don’t try to undress me on the street with their eyes, and listen when I say something if it’s *not* the result of the hijab, and the modesty implied in the wearing, that changes their approach?

I’m perfectly open about the fact I’m not a Muslim if anyone asks – Allah is no more likely to want me than any other deity (and no, that isn’t self-depreciation, just a statement of fact based on various things).

None of us “knows” for a “fact” what religion (if any) is “true” until we die. Perhaps it is that we go to the God we believe in, and they’re all valid. Perhaps they’re all the same one, just with different names. Perhaps none of them are real. The only thing we can do until we know is to rely on our faith, and if that faith is strong enough to believe, then it is strong enough for us to obey the dictates of that faith.

Hijab is a dictate of the Muslim faith, no-one disputes that. *I* believe that niqab, for Muslims, is a voluntary expression of devotion. I’m pretty sure no deity thought valid objects to their followers going beyond the “minimum” required. But my opinion is of no matter – it’s what they believe hijab, and niqab, means to them individually. My feelings, and yours Alec, are irrelevant, because people of faith don’t answer to us – they answer to something more.

I started it as an experiment, and I forgot to stop. Now, I feel very uncomfortable going outdoors without my hijab. If it wasn’t for the attitudes of people like you, Alec, I would prefer to wear niqab because it provides me with a shield from people *like* you. To *me*, niqab doesn’t keep women “in” – it keeps the bad things in the world *out*.

“and to display … only that which is apparent” – I think you’re covered Alec, and showed us only that which is apparent about you – your lack of manners and unwillingness to think before you post.

29. Islamic Products - 13 September 2007

I think the niqab should be discussed more and more in todays world. Wearing the niqab is a basic right of dressing the way one wants to

30. non-Muslim wandering past - 15 September 2007

What someone wears, of their own choice, is supposed to be a “freedom” … when it can be legislated that people can be naked in public, as has happened, then the reverse should likewise be a privilege permitted by choice – to be veiled to some degree or totally.

The difficulty is the association with “compulsory” veiling. People hear “Muslim”, and make the link with the obligation to being modest. To most, they assume that the veiling is a demand of the religion and ignore how the wearer views it.

So perhaps one of the things that needs to be addressed is “Yes, religion demands I be modest, but even if I did not have that religion, I would *still* be modest.” That, I believe, is something that might help to explain the feelings of those who *want* to be veiled.

Admittedly, that’s my specific perspective, since I do not have any religious motivation to cover myself. Modesty is *not* the sole preserve of any religion that supports it, it is part of us as humans who reject the “on display” concept practiced all over the world.

But as long as people see it as mandated by religion, they will *refuse* to believe that the wearer would cover even without religion being a reason. To them, they cannot understand it.

The irony is, people don’t realize that their objections to hijab and niqab, that to them veiling is a sign of oppression and objectification, is a condemnation of their own prejudice. They base their opinions on how *they* would feel veiled, and they see it as oppressive – if it were *they* veiled. They place their interpretation of veiling on to those of us who veil for modesty.

I doubt I will ever go anywhere without hijab any more. It has become a part of me, and allows me to feel much “safer” in society. It is my way of telling the world “I am a modest woman, I refuse to be judged on my appearance, I will force you to judge me on my words and actions instead”. If there was not so much fear and misunderstanding of niqab, I would wear that instead, for the same reasons.

When asked, by people who assume I am Muslim, I tell them my reasons, and they go away very confused. They do not understand why Muslims veil, and “blame” the religion as somehow having conditioned people to wear it. When faced with a non-Muslim who veils, and feels comfortable and secure, they are even less able to understand what it means.

I am told that when veiled, I appear graceful and beautiful. I believe that the veil forces me, my personality, my essence, to be seen without the trappings of “appearance”. People see *me* without the “wrappings”, and that it is a much more honest perception of who *I* am.

In many ways, veiling has made me stronger in myself, because I no longer am bound by appearance, I am outside of the “competition” of appearance, and on a much more honest playing field – to be judged for who I am, not how I look. I have a shield to defend me from those shallow enough to judge me on appearance. It is, to my mind, those who judge women on appearance above all else who are the ones who oppress us.

As long as the emphasis of the veil is explained in terms of the religious obligations, I think non-Muslims will continue to reject it. They ignore that their own religions place commands upon *them* when they decry Islam for placing commandments on Muslims – as far as they’re concerned, the religion itself is at fault.

So perhaps any discussion of the veil should be explained *without* Islam being introduced?

31. David - 27 September 2007

I know very little about Niqab,but have met a lady recently online who practices Purdah and has not been seen by human eyes in 7 years,she is a probably the most beautiful lady i have ever met and is helping me understand her lifestyle more.

I have always felt that anyone should be allowed to practice any non violent lifestyle they want without fear of being degraded,ridiculed or punished.

sorry if this isn’t a proper posting but i do find veiling and Purdah very beautiful

32. amatullah - 7 October 2007

Non-Muslim wandering past, I just wanted to comment on what you have said. First of all I find it very interesting that you wear hijab despite being non-muslim. This is part of our human nature (fitrah) to want to be covered up. It protects the dignity of a woman and the exalted status given to her by the complete religion of Islam. A lot of Muslims struggle with wearing hijab because of the way society views it, so I am surprised you are able to go through that struggle even without faith. I think you have a misconception about why Muslim women veil. Yes, we do like to be modest and there are many advantages to doing it as you know and spoke about. But that is not the reason we do it, the reason we do it is because we are seeking the reward of Allah. We do it because Allah commanded us to do it and we hope for our reward in the hereafter. Allah has gave the believer good in this life and in the hereafter so we do get the additional worldly benefits but if you took the religion out from it, I think most Muslims would agree that it is almost meaningless. The veil is a protection of modesty but it is also a symbol of Islam and part of the reason for us to do it is to identify ourselves as respectable Muslim women. I also think a big reason people are threatened by it is because of what it represents: a woman putting her faith above her culture.

33. Over sexualized Muslim men syndrome - Page 10 - Forums - Islamica Community - 21 December 2007

[…] seeing some of the reactions she received during her experiment, this world may be a far way off. Naked Eyes: Reflections on Wearing Niqab other|matters Moreover, some of the cruelest moments happened with Muslims. I learned quickly of the incredible […]

34. non-Muslim wandering past - 26 February 2008


Thank you for your explanation, and my apologies for the extremely late reply, I had forgotten this thread entirely :(

You say you’re surprised that I go through the struggle against misperceptions of the veil from society without faith. You’re right, I have little faith, I rejected catholicism as a child because of what I saw as total failures of logic and hypocrisy within the system. I grew up where christianity was used as an excuse for murders and much more, which also turned me against faith.

But I think that for me, it’s rejecting what I see as commercialization of women and the standards of “beauty” that work solely on external appearance than internal personality that gives me faith, not in a spiritual sense but in myself. Niqab forces people to either ignore me, or treat me as they find me. It’s still “appearance based” judgment, and yes I get comments and reactions that are based on the perception my dress gives others that I am Muslim … but …

If they judge me for my dress, they’d judge me for my appearance anyways. Since it wouldn’t change them, I don’t worry so much about them.

I do agree that it’s seen by many as threatening. The history of women’s rights in the west is still a young one, and not so long ago there was little choice for women. The idea, I believe, for many women of putting anything above “self” is somehow seen as a betrayal of the fight for rights in the past. There is a small but vociferous minority of feminists for example who are determined to “deconstruct the family”, that will literally despise any woman who *chooses* to be a “housewife” and have children, as one example.

If women’s rights fought for anything, it is for our right to make choices for ourselves, whether it be the manner I feel most comfortable dressing in, a muslimah’s right to put her faith and the commandments of Allah above the expectations of society as to “appropriate behaviour”, who a woman will vote for, or what she’s going to make for dinner.

If we can’t make choices, even if those choices go against the perceptions of the “majority”, then we didn’t get rights – we just changed overseers.

I have no idea how (or even if) the misperceptions could be addressed. People will always hate what they fear, and phobias by definition are irrational. But some things survive, and thrive, no matter what is thrown at them to destroy them.

I guess that’s one of the benefits you have of faith.

(With my apologies if I have offended anyone out of ignorance)

35. Foxy Chick - 1 January 2009

I was so heartened to read some of the responses to this posting. I’m also a non-Muslim, but I’ve worn a niqab for nearly two years (give or take a day here and there) and I find that my life has changed beyond recognition. Initially I tried it out of curiosity, as one of my friends from university had started wearing a niqab and I wanted to see what it was like. I thought it would probably last for a few days before the novelty wore off. Now, it’s become second nature for me to cover up before I leave the house.

My veil gives me a paradoxical sense of security and freedom at the same time. I don’t get leered at by guys in the street; I’m not drawn into pointless conversations with strangers on trains; I can choose to participate in proceedings as and when the mood when takes me. People have to judge me on my intellect, and not on my looks. (My signature line on my emails now reads “I’m not just a pretty face” !)
It’s been good for my state of mind as well. I’ve always been quite insecure about my looks, and now they don’t matter any more. My lifestyle has changed as well. I can’t just walk into a pub and get totally drunk (as I had a habit of doing!) so I feel a lot better physically and mentally as a result of making my choice.

My family thought it was a bit of a fad at first, of course (like so many of my experiments with fashion over the years) but now I think they know I’m committed to full-time veiling. We had a bit of an argument before my graduation, as Mum thought she should have some nice photos of me on the big day. I held onto my convictions, received my degree wearing a full veil – and caused some raised eyebrows when my very English-sounding name was called.

It’s New Year’s Day and I see no reason why I shouldn’t continue to wear my niqab for the rest of my life. Last year I had a couple of lapses, but this year I’m determined that nobody outside my family should see my face, even for a moment. It’s nothing to do with my religious faith or my politics. My veiling was a purely personal decision, and it’s nice to hear from someone else who feels the same way.

36. Mahasin - 29 April 2010

Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah wa barakatu

I want to tell everyone here, non-muslim and muslim, that yeah, Everything should be taken personally. Everything that pertains to YOUR person should be taken personally. What you wear, what you think, where you go and what you do are all to be taken personally.

Yeah, if what someone else is doing is bothering you while it is within what pertains to that person only, then you may have a problem. You non-muslim women are on the right track in taking your bodies personally, but also take your souls and your hearts personally to.

God created everything and He is in control and the creation has nothing to offer the human being who is relying on just it. I want everyone to remember Mr. Michael Jackson and then ask yourself if you really want to be spiritually naked or emotionally naked?

I double dare the two non-muslim women to read the Quran’s translation, then the bible, the torah, then any other religious texts in that order only and take what she reads personally. Then, I want them to tell what they think. I have to commend you both and Sahar and everyone else. You have just exposed the truth of hijab and niqab and debated in way that is accessible and with infallible arguments. You taught me a truth about the niqab that I felt, but didn’t see affirmed regularly.

I was just looking for Sahar Ullah because I grew up with her and I was missing her, so I thought I should do a google search and Mashallah all this popped up and pictures too!

It’s too bad that there isn’t a blog for a lot of the other issues people are struggling with.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: