Yesterday, Heidi Anderson posted a link to this interview on her facebook:

Hijab, Niqab and Nothing

She commented that she was glad to hear their points of view, and I completely agree. It is important for us to see what is going on with some of these issues and that we are careful when we address them, so that we’re not stomping on the rights of others. I feel it is important, also, to address some of what was discussed in this interview, too, because there were opposing viewpoints and we need to analyze them so we can best form our ideas on how they relate to what is going on in the world. Right now, parts of Europe and Canada are dealing with political issues related to women wearing veils, with many people pressuring the government to make laws regarding things that cover the face. While the proposed laws are not specific, necessarily, to the nijab and hijab, it has been very clear throughout this movement that the purpose was to remove the veil from Muslim women. In order to offer the best insights and criticism that I can, I have transcribed the entire interview and included it in my response in the quote boxes. This allows you to see the context of what I am responding to.

From CBC television

Sumayyah: My name is Sumayyah Hussein, I’m 24 years old. I started wearing a hijab when I was a child, I can’t really remember when. And, uh, I wear it because I believe it is something that my creator wants for me and I also believe it is a benefit to myself.

Sonia: My name is Sonya Khan, I’m 32. I am originally from Botswana (?) and I don’t wear a nijab or a hijab.

Sheikha: Hello, my name is Sheikha El-Kathiri, I am 20 years old. I have been wearing the niqab for one year and I do it to please my creator and as part of completing my faith.

Throughout this post, I’m going to try not to address the religious aspect of this unless I feel it is important to the overall issue. I’m pretty open about being an atheist, so I naturally am going to disagree with their use of a headpiece in order to please a deity that I don’t think exists. Regardless, it is their right to do so and I will defend their right to do so as passionately as I would fight for my rights not to. Freedom is a two-way street and I don’t really mind if there’s a Ferrari or two going one way as I drive my Nash Rambler the other way. As long as they’re not running people over, we can share the road.

Reporter: Now, let me ask you, straight up, what most people would want to know is, why do you feel it’s necessary to hide your face?

Sheikha: By covering my face I’m honoring myself and I’m presenting myself to the world um, as a sum of my character, as a sum of my personality, my contribution toward society, and, um, it’s just a little bit that I’m doing to enable me to go through this pass, eh, path of spiritual discovery. And it’s something that I really feel glad and happy and I feel so wonderful for having done it. And it’s just a spiritual choice.

I can identify with this. Feeling wonderful is precisely why I do the things that I do as well.

Reporter: Why do you feel ‘wonderful’ for having done it?

Sheikha: It just exemplifies the fact that I’m an honored muslim woman, I am an honorable woman who has her own opinions, she has her own voice, I have my own personality, I have my character, I have everything that’s wonderful about me, the way I contribute to society, and, um, my beauty is a wonderful part of me, as well, but I don’t feel that I have to display it all for the world.

I think that we along with our peers decide if we are honorable or not. If I feel like I am an honorable person because I remembered to buy my friend a soda when I promised, then that’s good for me. This isn’t to say that we can’t mislabel ourselves as honorable, that does, apparently, happen. Many horrible people in history have considered themselves to be honorable when they were absolutely evil people. However, those examples don’t really take away from people who give themselves the label for other reasons. So, wearing her veil is a way that she tells the world that she is honorable. As long as her other actions are consistent, I have no problem with this.

I remember when I was growing up and we had to maintain a certain level of modesty because of our religion. I truly felt that if what I had been taught were true, then I was a better person for covering myself up. I did want to fit in with my peers, but I didn’t, because I wanted to be the best person I could be. I was sad when I discovered that what I once thought were true could not possibly be. I think the experience, though, allows me to understand where women come from when they adhere to dress codes brought about by religious ideas.

I think it is important that Sheikha’s perspective be shared with the world in a way that they understand, though, because I’m pretty sure most people don’t. You know how people chastise women for showing too much? In our culture, even now, we hold each other to a certain standard regarding our dress. We claim that showing one’s vulva is an act of intimacy that should only be done with certain people and that the more people we show our vulva to, the less of a person we are. It is a very silly thing to think, objectively, but people don’t really look at these things objectively. Furthermore, many women shy away from showing their bodies off. Many women refuse to show cleavage, even, much less breasts and vulva, because they’re simply not comfortable and they want to reserve those parts of themselves for someone more specific. Sheikha’s line of thinking is really not that much different, she’s just included more body parts.

Reporter: Is that the function of the hijab, when you wear it?

Sumayyah: It’s basically a message that says that ‘I would like you to judge me based on who I am and what I do and it’s not based on you know, the way, the way I look.’ And, uh, it’s, I mean people may not like that, but, it is a fact that men and women are perceived differently.

Sheikha and Sumayyah, I felt, were the ones with the best points to make in this discussion. If this is really their message with their attire, there is very little to even complain about.

I will say that I think this approach to addressing the problem of judgment is not very helpful. If my goal is to change the way people think about me, to get people to measure me by acts and not just looks, would it not be more helpful to help them learn to look past looks instead of hiding from them? That is my way of dealing with the same problem, but I can see how other people may take a different approach.

Sheikha: If I wasn’t wearing the veil, for example, to me, a-a-a, a man coming up to me and just chatting me up, ah, might be normal, but to me, I might not like that.

Out of all the reasons I have ever seen for someone covering themselves up, not wanting someone to talk to you has probably got to be the most rational. It probably helps, to an extent. I would guess that, given male sexual response patterns, some men will still get chatty and the veil isn’t going to stop them. I hope there is a back up plan for this girl.

Reporter: I’m interested in the concept of, of, it’s, it’s to make men behave better toward you. Is that what I’m hearing?

Sheikha: My covering does not exempt a man from his responsibility, as a man, to behave himself, as you say; to conduct himself in a morally befitting manner. Just because I cover myself doesn’t mean I’m doing it to make his job easier.

I like how, in the interview, the emotions of this woman are so effectively conveyed through what she says and her tone. The veil is there, but her communication is more effective at this moment than at any other time. She is entirely right, of course. Oftentimes, the veil is defended as something that is used to keep men at bay, but it is clear that none of these women feel that this is the case. I can also see how such an accusation would be harmful to women, overall. It is just as bad to consider that the niqab and hijab are factors with a relationship to sexual crime and aggression from men as it is to consider scantily clad women to be a factor with the same relationship. Just as a woman dressed in a bikini is not asking for someone to violate them, a hijab or niqab isn’t a man’s sexual babysitter.

Reporter: Let me put to you what Jack Straw actually said, he said, “Communities are bound together partly by informal chance meetings between strangers, people being able to acknowledge each other in the street or being able to pass the time of day together. That’s made more difficult if people are wearing a veil, that’s just a fact of life.”

I think the only thing that can be concluded from this is that Jack Straw is socially inept. People are very good at communication, in a variety of ways. We use body language and posture, tone of voice and word choices. If communication is restricted in one way, we are able to compensate. If Mr. Straw has a problem with communication in this context, he’s the one who needs to worry about coping.

Sheikha: Uh, I don’t agree with that, at all. I don’t feel that just because I cover my face, why is that a barrier for you to treat me as a human being? To, uh, relate to me as a human being, as somebody with opinions, with personality, with things that they can bring to the table?

I like Sheikha. I think her statement here applies universally. It doesn’t matter what you wear, your attire should not be a barrier to other people treating you like a human being. There is no reason for people to be treated poorly based on what they do or do not put on their faces or their bodies.

Sumayyah: You know, Muslim women who, who choose to dress this way, do that because they feel, you know, cover this way, first of all, because they believe that God wants that of them and they believe that God is, God knows better for them than they know.

Sonya: Does it say in the Quran that you’re suppsoed to wear a hijab? I, I don’t think …

Samayyah [talking over Sonya]: Yes, it does, it does, it does, she just read it.

Sonia: … it says, directly, you have to wear a hijab. I don’t think that is a clear statement or understanding but a lot of, uh, I think philosophers of Islam, Scholars, are saying, ‘this is exactly what you need to wear.’ There is no clear understanding on that matter. So, …

Samayyah [talking over Sonya]: I think there is a clear understanding, there’s a very clear understanding.

Sonia: if you rethink, there’s literally? You’ll read all scholars saying the same thing? I disagree.

Samayyah: No, I didn’t say that, I didn’t say that …

Sonia: A lot of scholars will say dress [unintelligible].

Samayyah: … but there is, there is, there is a majority and a minority.

I’m happy that, for all of the editing, this little exchange was left in the interview. Religions have a tendency to evolve and change within a culture, as does the interpretation of religious doctrine. I dislike that someone feels that they can’t know what is best for themselves or themselves in relation to those around them, I think that concept is a hindrance to human development. My opinion, though, shouldn’t matter to the bigger issue. Instead, each of these women’s rights is far more important than my stance on how they get there.

Reporter: But the face can be open, there’s nothing wrong with that?

Samayyah: The face is not necessary.

Reporter: Do you believe that?

Sheikha: Um, yeah, I wasn’t wearing it before and now I am. Um, other peep, there are people who do believe that the face is obligatory. But, I think that, it’s their choice, in the end.

Reporter: Sonia, what do you think the message is when you see a veiled woman.

Sonia: [unintelligible] question. OK, I’m living in Canada, I’m wearing a hijab, I’m covering up my face. Am I going to be someone who will bring people together, Jews, Christians, Muslims? I don’t think so. Am I going to be the one who will be a philosopher bringing new ideas to the table, actually getting people to get involved in the community? I think you’ll create more barriers. It’s not you, it’s them. It’s, as in, the people around you. Their stereotypes, their perceived notions. All I’m saying is, as a Muslim, you’re a missionary at heart. You’re supposed to actually attract people towards you, not repel them.

I know many people will disagree with me, but I dislike Sonia’s take on this. If someone else sees the hijab as a barrier and doesn’t think these women can contribute to society, then they are the ones with the problem that needs fixed. Sheikha has already shown that she can speak intelligently about her beliefs, no matter how others feel about them. I may disagree, but I can at least see that, based on what she has said here, she’s not likely to use her beliefs to interfere with others. I’m one-fucking-hundred percent cool with that.

Reporter: Well, let me bring this to you, and this is the English translation, not the Quran, “Tell the faithful women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts and not display their beauty except what is apparent of it and to extend their scarf to cover their bosom.” Is that, are you not being faithful to the Quran?

Sonia [interrupting]: Yes, It does not say to cover any particular part except for the bosom. So, I think it is about the humility of it and there’s no, um, kind of implication of what, exactly, what [unintelligible] do you need to wear. We need to integrate, we need to assimilate, and we need to be able to move from one culture to the other without looking like something out of a different era.

The world would be a terribly boring place if we were all the same. I don’t want to see Muslim women get rid of their veils because they want to assimilate or because the law tells them to. If Muslim women get rid of their veils, I want it to be because they have reached rational conclusions about their faith and their world that lets them feel free to uncover their face and exist, without guilt, free of a veil. If they feel that their freedom is best exercised with a veil, then let them have it. What matters most is not that they look like everyone else.

Sheikha: I don’t think it creates any barriers. I don’t think you have to assimilate in all ways, I think you should assimilate in, in um, the basic human ways of goodness and helping others, but you shouldn’t have to assimilate in your dress because, what is dress? It’s just superficial.

I only partly agree with Sheikha, here. Dress is superficial, yes. We are the same person no matter if we are wearing clothes or not. However, our clothes are a way in which we tell the world about ourselves. Our clothes are an expression. Just as her clothes are her way of telling the world she is “an honored Muslim woman,” my clothes are my way of telling the world that I’m … I’m … eh … not like most other people.

Sonia [interrupting]: No, it’s not. People always percieve you by what you wear. No one, I’m not talking about your communication, for example, if I’m non-muslim, I will judge you, I will put a label on you, and I’ll walk away because how …

Sumayyah [interrupting]: How’s that, how’s that our fault, though?

Sonia: It’s not your fault, but I think the world has changed and as a Muslim, you need to represent Islam as an encompassing thing, not an exclusionary thing. You’re excluding people, in your world.

I want to like Sonia, but I’ve got such mixed feelings about her. I think her intentions are good, but her reasoning is bad and leads to poor conclusions. What we wear does not make us exclude people. If I put a bow on my head, if I wear fishnets, if I dress in a manner that is not congruent with the modest world, I’m not excluding people. If I do those things, though, others may avoid me. It is they who are being exclusive. The same goes for when Sheikha wears her veil. She’s not the one who is excluding people by wearing her veil. It is those who have been conditioned to see her as an outsider who are being exclusive. It is not Sheikha’s responsibility to compensate for those people. She can, however, be an example to them and teach them that her veil is not what represents her, as a person. It is simply one thing she uses to express herself.

Reporter: Sumayyah, you want to say something to that?

Sumayyah: I think you need to give people a little bit more credit, like, people are really, they’re not that stupid. Like, I mean …

Reporter: You mean the public at large?

Sumayyah: Yeah, just because someone is covered up a certain way, it doesn’t mean that everyone is going to see them as someone that is completely weird.

Reporter: But is there discomfort, can you feel discomfort from people who are not Muslim, who don’t understand?

Sumayyah: If I meet someone who doesn’t know anything at all about Islam, and has no stereotypes, they’re going to be very friendly with me. It’s the baggage and it’s the stereotypes that make people, you know, defensive and prejudiced and so on. I know people are walking, looking at me, don’t agree with me, that’s totally acceptable.

Reporter: How do you know?

Sumayyah: I know, because I know, that the, the way that they look at me.

Reporter: How do they look at you?

Sumayyah: OK, there are a few people who give dirty looks and stuff like that, I’m used to it. Most people are just, they’re just curious, they don’t know, you know, which is fine, too, I wish they would come ask me, I would love to explain it.

I think that Sumayyah’s suggestion is a good idea. Open communication between two groups, without conflict, is a great way for the two groups to learn from each other. I would imagine that as long as people weren’t trying to strip Sumayyah of her identity, she’s be happy to help break down barriers that exist between her and others. The same goes for whoever she’s interacting with. We often miss out on helping people better themselves by trying to break down the parts of them that we choose. Instead of working toward peace, itself, we bypass that goal and aim for the things people most closely identify themselves with. I may not like the principals taught by Sumayyah’s religion, but I can appreciate that she wants to break down barriers and wants peace. Peace is a great goal to have.

Reporter: Essentially, what Jack Straw was saying, and a lot of people are saying, now, you know, ‘how can I trust you, how can I get a feel for what you’re saying, if I can’t see the entirity of your face?’

Sheikha: Well, let me ask you a question, how do you get a feel for what somebody’s saying when you talk to them on the phone? And we use telephones, like, constantly nowadays, people use the internet.

Sheikha said this perfectly. I have nothing more to add. Neither does the reporter.

Reporter: Do you believe you’re equal to a man?

This question kinda came out of nowhere. Earlier, there were related questions about the behavior of men toward women. The reporter seems to be scratching at equal rights issues and trying to tie them to the issue of the veil. I think this misses the point. If you want to talk about Muslims and Women’s rights issues, you need to talk to the women dealing with the actual Women’s rights issues. If these women don’t feel they’re facing those issues, there’s no point in confronting them over it, especially since they were there to talk about their veil.

Sheikha: Oh, the thing is that, I do believe I’m equal to, to a man.

Sonia [interrupting]: Why don’t men wear the same, kind of, equivalent? If men are equal to women …

This is a fantastic question. I really wish they had put it in a more appropriate place or if it were asked in a less confrontational manner. How about, what is the purpose of the attire that women are asked to wear and men are asked to wear? There are some obvious responses that can be given to this question, as well. Compare this question to why women have to wear shirts, in most western cultures, and men do not. Why is that? Until we have perfected our justification, we’re just being hypocrites by using that as a weapon. Yes, women and men are treated differently in what they have to wear based on instruction by their religion. Sadly, Western society also treats men and women differently based on what society says we can wear. Part of that is due to sexual signaling in breasts. We can’t help that, though, and women’s lips are also a source of mild sexual signaling when they become redder during arousal and we don’t cover them. That being said, these differences in how women are treated are very likely a symptom of a greater problem, and not the problem itself.

Reporter [interrupting]: Why is that? What does, why do you think that is that men are not required, presumably, God, we can all agree on this, God made all of us. He made your face, my face, a man’s face. Why would he require a woman to cover some aspect of herself and not a man?

I’m guessing that the reporter is guilty of compartmentalization. She doesn’t connect the issue she’s addressing with the one that already exists and affects her own clothing choices. Sumayyah gives a good, relevant response:

Sumayyah: Covering yourself is, is something that’s natural to us, we cover parts of ourself that we think is not for public consumption. And if people differ on what that modesty is, I that’s totally fine and honest about you and I don’t have a problem with it. And, the issue with equality and dress, I mean, men, men also have their, their own, their own dress code that they, they can’t just, they can’t just you know, walk around wearing whatever they want.

Reporter: So, if Jack Straw, were, if you were in his office, and he said, “Would you mind removing the veil so I could talk to you, in the presence of another woman?” What would you, what would you say?

Sheikha: I would say, ‘I do mind, why does it bother you, that I have to remove it in front of you. Can’t you communicate with me as a normal human being? I don’t think that, um, the fact that I’m wearing a veil prevents you from communicating with me, as a normal human being, in a normal way. Um, and, I don’t see why you have to, um, get me to do this thing, to take off my veil. Perhaps, from you, it’s something you feel strongly about you, you want me to do it for your comfort, your own benefit. But, I don’t think it really is bothering you, I don’t think it is. And it definately doesn’t bother me.

It is perhaps a little unfair for her to claim it doesn’t really bother Straw. I think it probably does bother him. However, if this encounter with straw really did happen, it would be Jack Straw’s issue to deal with, not Sheikha’s. Jack has no right to interfere with other people when he’s simply uncomfortable.

Reporter: Sonia, your last word, what do you think about the issue of veils and when someone is fully veiled?

Sonia: I think it’s, it’s, time to question things in life, it’s time to think of ourselves, not as ‘me,’ but as a community based on our responsibility as Muslims in the Western world. I think we need to just be more responsible, to actually improve the image of Islam and be more integrated.

I can agree with everything that she said with the exception of the very last part. Muslims don’t need to integrate to make themselves better or to make the image of themselves better. Stressing peace, love and charity to others in whatever garb they happen to feel comfortable in would help us all tremendously. I can’t imagine it would be easy to be a peaceful person from a religion who is the most readily associated with the most violent religious act in recent history. That’s a tough image to change. It also doesn’t help that, even now, their peers in their own religion are threatening people’s lives over things as simple as drawings. In order to counteract that problem, we need to see lots more Muslims openly representing peace and fighting against their fellow Muslims who are advocates of violence and we need those Muslims to be much, much louder than their violent peers.

I should admit, here, that I dislike dogmatic religions, that makes writing this response much harder than it might otherwise have been. I would not shed a tear if Islam itself faded away into the ether. That, however, doesn’t mean that the followers of Islam will leave religion entirely or that they will give up damaging dogma. Dogma that harms us doesn’t have to be from religion and religions have a terrible habit of replacing each other. Thus, I admit here, my bias may be my disability in viewing these issues.

Reporter: Sumayyah, what do you think?

Sumayyah: Frankly, I think it’s ridiculous to say that people have a bad image of Islam because of the way that people look, because someone has a long beard or someone’s covering her head, or even her face.

I find myself rooting more for Sheikha and Sumayyah during this interview than for Sonia. I agree with Sumayyah, here, it is ridiculous. Sadly, some people do have a bad image of Islam because of the way people look. To blame Islam for that, though, is pretty ignorant. I can’t blame my neighbor for me seeing them differently for them wearing long, polyester leisure suits while I like to wear short skirts and fishnets anymore than society should blame Islam for us being biased against the veil.

Reporter: And that stereotypical connection may come up in what you’re wearing?

Sumayyah: Exactly, but the fact that, the fact that there’s a stereotype doesn’t mean that I have to give up what I believe. If I believe something is right, I’m gonna do it. You know, I think that people need to accept the fact that people differ, you know, their opinions are different. They’re going to believe different things, they’re gonna think that, you know, something is better for me, or, you know, another person will disagree. I mean, honestly, I don’t see what the big deal is.

I think it is important to note, here, that having different beliefs are fine as long as those beliefs aren’t causing someone to behave in a way that harms others. I agree that people need to accept the differences between themselves and others. However, sometimes those differences really are harmful. When those differences are harmful, that’s when we can step in and criticize and try to do something about it. For example, I like that there is a movement to defend Freedom of Speech against Muslims who want to silence those who draw figures of Muhummad. That defense is important, regardless of if others are offended. At the same time, I’m also glad that this interview has been done so that Muslim women can defend their right to wear the veil in a society that threatens to ban them from wearing it in many situations. Each fight is equally important and it is differing belief systems that have created the need for them.

Sheikha: My priorities, in life, are different than someone else because my priority is spiritual first and foremost. And also, um, when I cover, my, I-I’m perfectly, uh, fine with myself, like I, I’m not ashamed of myself. I have very high self-esteem, and I’m fine with the way I look, I’m fine with my body, and, um, I just think that if I’m fine with it, then, everyone else shouldn’t feel badly towards me. I understand your concern, and I’m very, um, you know, I thank you for your concern, if anybody is concerned, but I’m fine.

Reporter: I want to thank you all, very much, for coming in and talking, and I’m sure you’re all very anxious to break the fast, today, and go eat.

Yeah, I want chocolate.

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