Over the last two years, I’ve been on a jihad of deep emotional and spiritual exploration. The culmination of which can be best expressed with my complex relationship I have with the niqab. I come to Islam as a white English person with that cultural background. Yet, despite the anti-niqab Western propaganda, despite the apprehension, and despite the conflicting internal feelings; I yearn for niqab.
People, the general public, ‘others’, for too long have had access to this body. It’s my right to decide when and how I want to grant access to this body, and I no longer want to grant the public or any other person that access. This body is between me and Allah.
I actively hate having to put my body before others, I hate that they can see me, and I hate they can see what I look like. It’s not the body that irks me so, it’s that people take for granted that they have access to this body. When they don’t have that right, I didn’t consent to them observing it, and I don’t want them to observe it.
So why not wear niqab? If I loathe so much this performance I act for others and their gazing upon this body, why not? Simple, society doesn’t want me to. Socially, there is potentially dangerous consequences for wearing niqab. Especially for me, someone who doesn’t fit into the binary, someone who can’t fake being cis, and to be honest, someone who’s white.
Fellow white people make that latter point the most true. I don’t fear anyone as much as I do fellow white people in regard to niqab and displaying ‘muslimness’. I’ve said thus no less than one hundred times to friends; the day I converted is the day I lost my whiteness, and white people will never forgive me for it. Indeed, since then I’ve been accosted with countless microaggressions and subtle reminders that I’m no longer accepted in their in-group anymore. Which has pushed me into a corner, where I only feel safe displaying Muslimness in ways that aren’t obvious. Such as wearing a turban-style hijab instead of a more conventionally styled hijab.
Then the second largest issue; the niqab is completely gendered. Another reason I wear in the style in which I wear it is that it’s not entirely masculine nor feminine. However, the niqab is synonymous with women and being a woman. When I’m not a woman. There’d be an expectation for me to fulfil a woman’s role. Which is a role I can’t and don’t want to fill.
There’s no on-boarding process with Islam, one can simply join by reciting and swearing by shahada with witnesses. It’s one of the things I like most about Islam, the focus on earnest and honest intention. However, Islam does not exist in a vacuum, when one joins Islam, they join a family of cultures. And there is no tutorial to getting to grips with the various Islamic cultures. Especially here in the west, where it’s assumed that Muslims already have the cultural knowledge for their faith.
The niqab is tied to said cultures. When one picks up the niqab, they’re also picking up the cultures that it belongs to. With that come cultural expectations which may be ignorantly trespassed by a fresh niqabi. Discard gender and Islamophobia, I don’t want disservice the cultural meanings of the niqab.
I’ve spoken with quite a few Muslims who have expressed interest in wearing niqab, but don’t due to social pressures and expectation. However, in the Islamophobic, post-9/11, propagandised, western world, the niqab is synonymous with disempowerment, imprisonment, and exclusion. A way to keep a woman isolated from society.
I want to isolate society from me. People expect, have had, and demand too much access to this body. For the first 26 years of my life, they’ve had unmitigated access to it, and they’ve done nothing but abuse it and take advantage of it. Now you’ve all lost that access. You’ve all lost the privilege.
Maybe I can’t wear niqab, maybe it’s not safe to, but this body is between myself and Allah.