I initially wanted to write this piece as a response to an Associated Press photo essay by Beirut-based photographer Hassan Ammar. The essay is a collection of images Ammar took while wearing a “full niqab” as a way to depict how some women are being forced to view the world due to the conservative practices of the Islamic State. For Ammar, the niqab—a face-covering veil worn by some Muslim women—rendered familiar, warm places cold and unfamiliar: a sunny sky was darkened and the bright colors of life were dimmed.
I wanted to create a verbal equivalent of the eyeroll-meets-groan reaction I experienced while looking at Ammar’s project. As someone who has worn niqab in certain social settings, what he was seeing seemed much more reminiscent of the view from behind a boushiya—a specific kind of niqab with an extra piece of fabric used to cover the eyes, if the wearer so wishes. The boushiya is not as prevalent as the niqab, which itself is not all that common, but can nonetheless be found everywhere from Pakistan to Canada. Both are also quite situational for many of the women who wear them.
While Ammar admits that he had pulled the extra fabric over his camera lens to create the image effects, he doesn’t seem to see a problem with perpetuating the inaccurate assertion that the view is really that of a niqab. It’s a small detail, but something that a simple, run-of-the-mill Google search would have easily clarified.
Let’s back up a little bit. The real issue here is with Ammar’s essay, and the continuing attempts, often by men, to comment on or recreate the experiences of women. Putting aside his patronizing approach, the presumably well-intentioned project has ultimately resulted in damaging depictions that will end up hurting Muslim women—both those who choose to, and those who are forced to wear the niqab (and, by proxy, other forms of veils).
These stereotypes reinforce the idea that women who choose to cover themselves are segregated from society, despite being within it; an interesting thought when we consider that more countries ban forms of Muslim veils than the number of countries which force women to wear them. (In other words: who’s really doing the social segregation here?)
But while I could write an epic takedown on the points above alone, I decided instead to do what comes naturally to a tech-addicted twenty-something: I posted about the project on Facebook. I shared the essay and asked women who wore niqab to get in touch and let me know how they actually see the world. Is it really like what Hassan Ammar shows? Or is it, well, not?
The number of responses I received in a short period of time was astounding. Women of all different backgrounds, ages, countries, and different careers responded with enthusiasm. Overwhelmingly, these women were unimpressed with Ammar’s essay and with the generally positive–or at the very least uncritical—attention it was receiving. They sent photographs they’d taken of their world (hint: it’s the same one you and I know), as well as personal stories. Running throughout these anecdotes was a central theme: it’s frustrating to feel like you are being kept out of the very narratives that purport to be about you and your supposed “oppression.”
One woman, Faatimah—an IT freelancer from California—told me that when she first saw the photos, her reaction was, “wow, terrible camera settings.” Another woman, a self-described Canadian Salafi feminist by the name of Zainab, said she snorted out loud, appalled at “the erasure of Muslim women.” “We have a brain, we have a voice, and a lot of us have our own cameras too,” she noted.
Then there was the woman, an American, who spoke of the harassment she faced while wearing niqab, harassment so fierce she felt compelled to remove it. She told me how difficult this decision had been for her, and how she continues to struggle daily with the way society has dictated her self-expression.
Clearly, these many women—women who wear the niqab, who cover not just their bodies and their hair, but also a part of their face—want and are able to be in charge of the stories that are told about them.
Isn’t it time they were able to?
We are currently living in an era that has seen a sort of pop culture revival of feminism in Euro-American societies—what it means and who can be a part of it. So why are only some women told they can be, wear, have and do as they wish, whereas others are told what they can wear, have and do?
Far too often, we fall back on centuries-old Orientalist depictions and connotations of how Muslim women choose to engage with their bodies in the public space. None of this really involves the diversity of experience, belief and thought that make up the lives of Muslim women—an amorphous group we refer to as though without individual parts. Muslim women still seem to exist in popular imagination as easily definable characters: Veiled and Unveiled, Oppressed and Liberated.
But when I asked Zainab how she, as a Muslim woman who straddled the worlds of feminism and Islam, saw the world, she responded in a single word:“Clearly.”
Maybe the rest of us should too.