On Niqabs and Candy

We met Sister Sumaya in a small masjid located in a small, secluded shopping plaza. She wore a beautifully decorated purple abaya. The tail of her pink hijab was pinned to the other side of her head, covering her face. She warmly welcomed us inside as we sat in a circle before beginning to recount how she got to where she is today.

Having formally studied Arabic in Saudi Arabia, Islamic Studies in Pakistan for 5 years, and memorizing the Qur’an in its entirety, she certainly has a wealth of knowledge to share.

She spoke fondly of her childhood, emphasizing how her father, a former ambassador for Saudi Arabia to Kenya, was very open minded and never pressured them into certain beliefs. She arrived in the U.S. in 2005 after her husband relocated to Charlotte for work. She is involved in the Islamic communities in Charlotte, Gastonia and Hickory, teaching Islamic classes to children.

Of course, many people who meet Sumaya for the first time do not see her educated background or service at the masjid. Instead, they focus on the piece of cloth, just a few inches long, that covers her face.

There were times when prophet Muhammad’s (saw) wife would wear the niqab. According to Sumaya, although one may not see the reasons behind wearing it, the wives of prophets are role models and she would like to follow in their footsteps. For her, it is another step she can take to enhance her spirituality.

She elaborated about how she would talk to other Muslim women and encourage them to wear the niqab, but emphasizing that it is a personal choice and not compulsory; in fact, freedom of religion is the value she prized most about America. She believes the niqab rescues women from “fitna,” or the causing of problems between people. She gave the example of a wrapped and unwrapped candy. “Which one would you prefer to take?” she asked. Females are vulnerable to getting raped, kidnapped, and other horrible acts. The niqab can help mitigate these risks, she said.

Wearing the niqab has not come without times of doubt and hardship. She recalled outings to the mall and watching children stare at her before hiding behind their mothers as though she were some foreign creature they needed protection from. When she and her family were pulled aside for extra screenings at the airport, her kids would ask why they were being searched again as everyone else walked past them. There have been moments in public when the glares of strangers have been so provocative that even her husband would suggest temporarily removing the niqab before going somewhere else.

“I have removed it before. Then something inside of me just said, why? It’s freedom of religion,” she explained.

Even within the Muslim community, Sumaya still feels some tension around certain individuals who seem to judge her decision to wear the niqab. The effect this has on her, however, is minimal.

She explained, “I don’t care what people think of me wearing the niqab. It doesn’t affect me in any way – whether I die, or get sick…if it doesn’t affect me, why should I care? I know it is not compulsory so I don’t understand why people would judge me for doing it. Some people don’t wear hijab, and that is compulsory, but I don’t judge people for that. So why should people judge me for doing something that is not compulsory?”

I really enjoyed listening to Sumaya share her story. It was the first time that I had the chance to really sit down with a woman who chose to wear the niqab and listen to her outline her reasons for doing so. I admire Sumaya for her strength and ability to stay true to her beliefs despite heavy societal pressures – from both Muslims and non-Muslims.

However, there were moments in the conversation when I felt uneasy. I’d heard the candy analogy before – but for some reason, this time, my heart started pounding and I could feel the anger travel through my body. The fact is I’m NOT a piece of candy to be consumed or enjoyed by others. The problem with this analogy is that it projects a perception of women that the hijab is meant to protect us from. I like to think that although I don’t currently wear the hijab, I am not like an “unwrapped candy” with flies on it or “damaged goods” or whatever you want to call it. Although there may be good intentions behind it, it sends the message that my value is derived from my sexuality. When I decide to wear the hijab, it will be for Allah (swt) alone, not a desire to make myself appear undefiled. I find it difficult to imagine a similar analogy comparing the value of a man’s purity.