Few months ago I met one of the women that I admire the most. She is a well-studied Muslim who looks at Islam as the perfect spiritual path. For her, unlike me, Islam is not political. Islam, in her own words, is purely spiritual.
This friend of mine was born and raised in the West; she is white and older in age. She converted to Islam two years after getting married, and she did the whole thing. By that, I mean what many converts to Islam do… She wore the hijab, covered her body with long sleeves and followed whatever people told her was Sunnah.
With the years she realized that Qur’an was not calling her for that. Qur’an was calling her for a set of principles and values that had nothing to do with her clothing or with the foot that she used to enter the bathroom. Thus, she grew into being a progressive Muslim that focussed less in the form and more in the meaning of Islam.
By the time we met, she was such a “different” Muslim, that women in the mosque used to say that she was a “Christian,” an impostor and a traitor among them. These terms seemed extreme to me. When I met my friend, I had one of the best experiences of my life as a Muslim. I learned a lot from her and she inspired me to further look at Islam not in the political sense only, but in the spiritual one as well.
Nonetheless, Islam has bits and pieces that have to be dealt with from a political, cultural and social perspective. My friend had little awareness of her own biases and her own political stands. Unaware of her privilege as a white-Western-middle class woman, she had become as preachy as any conservative Muslim scholar when it came to specific topics.
Soon enough I realized, to my disappointment, that she had very strong stands on hijab. She believed that hijab was an invention of the “male elite” as Fatima Mernissi called it. She was against women wearing hijab in educational institutions, for example. Yet, she could not tolerate niqab.
One night while we met with other friends from different backgrounds, my friend went on and about niqab and how terrible and how awful it was for women. She further continued explaining that women who wear niqab teach men that uncovered women are up for rape (something that I am glad is challenged here).However, she did not stop there, and unaware of the impression that she caused on women from Pakistan, Mexico, Canada, Hungry and Saudi Arabia, she kept on.
Niqab is a whole discussion by its own. It is everywhere in the media, in the streets, in the political discourses, etc. Being a woman who does not wear niqab, I consider that no one has the right to question a woman’s choice to dress in whatever way she pleases whether that is a bikini or a burqa.
My friend, on the other hand, felt insulted by the garment. The last part of her argument was that niqab represented a security threat for herself. This is a very well-known argument used by French nationalists. Niqabis are perceived as time bombs walking around among people. However, I was somehow surprised.
To my knowledge niqabis had never represented a security concern in the West before 9/11. Even then, it took a few years for the image of these women to become political propaganda to justify the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and to advance the French nationalist cause against immigrants.
In addition, I wondered… what made my friend’s sense of security more valuable than anoother woman’s sense of comfort? The answer was simple; my friend saw niqabis as ‘outsiders.’ Niqab, even for a Western Muslim, was a proof of lack of assimilation. It was a symbol of resistance to the “liberation” that the West offers. She saw niqab as a “cultural” invention of the Arab world, which was threatening the well-being of women. It was then that I realized that my friend was a Muslim, but she remained a white-Western woman, unaware of her privilege and political stands.
Her opinion bothered me somehow. In my mind “open-minded” people could not think that way. Liberalism for me meant acceptance. However, my friend’s liberalism had become as inflexible and as intolerant as conservativism.
Whether or not niqabis represent a security threat may be up for discussion, but if that is the argument we should also ban everything that is a threat to security… meaning…. all of us! In addition, even if we challenge the religious validity of niqab, there is little chance for us to challenge its place in Islam. Muslim women wear it today and they will continue to wear it for decades. It is mentioned in early Islamic sources and it is used in the West to represent political Islam. Niqab is present and it is not going anywhere even if we do not consider it “Islamic.”
Nevertheless, my friend’s position (as annoying as it was) helped me to recognize about my own biases and cultural luggage. My experience of Islam is heavily based on my experience as a non-Muslim. Yet, it also encouraged me further to strive for a middle ground. Extreme liberalism and extreme conservativism is intolerance in both ends, and this challenges the core of spiritual Islam.