‘Don’t judge us for what we wear’: Wearing a niqab in Australia

A woman wears a niqāb in London. Photo: Sixstreetunder

By GABRIELLE COLE

Manal Shehab never considered herself religious growing up. Born in Egypt and raised in Australia from the age of two, she was surrounded by many cultures, but religion was non-existent. Her childhood memories include alcohol on the table and her mother in a miniskirt.

What Manal chose to wear and the way she behaved was considered normal in her  community. But after becoming a Muslim at the age of 25, Manal made a decision that confused and angered those she loved most.

Manal decided to wear a niqāb, a head covering that also covers the face, but not the eyes.

The wearing of the niqāb has been a divisive topic of discussion not only in Australia, but also in many other countries around the world.

Partial and national controversial face veil bans have been implemented in many European countries, as well as in Chad, Cameroon, Niger, Republic of the Congo and Turkey. Debates around the new laws discuss security concerns, communication and women’s rights.  

In 2015, militants used face veils as camouflage to conduct suicide bombings in Chad, and as a result security forces were ordered to burn all burkas (similar to niqābs, however the eyes are also covered with a thin mesh) sold in markets. The niqāb and burka have also been banned from being worn in public service areas in Canada for reasons that Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard says are “linked to communication, identification and safety”.

For similar reasons, there have also been  debates across Australia on whether or not the niqāb and burka should be completely or partially banned.

One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson entered Parliament during Question Time wearing a burka last August in an attempt to highlight security issues with the covering of faces. Federal MP George Christensen has also proposed a ban, arguing that the “Islamic garment is not conducive to the Australian way of life”.

Soray gets a check up at a local medical health clinic

A burka covers the whole face, including the eyes. Picture: World Bank Photo Collection 

As well as party leaders and members in Australia, more than 50 per cent of respondents to a recent Sky News/ReachTEL poll in Australia approved the banning of the burka, with 43.6 per cent saying they strongly support the ban.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has also expressed his views that burkas are oppressive to women, however, he says it’s not Australia’s job to tell people what and what not to wear.

Despite strong opinions such as Mr Turnbull’s, Manal says she found liberty through Islam and wearing a niqāb.

“I fell in love with the religion and its purity and looked at how women were given rights from day go.

“I found my liberty in wearing the Niqab, to tell you the truth.”

Liberty for Manal, however, came at a cost.

“When I decided to wear a face veil, my husband didn’t speak to me for four months. My family disowned me pretty much. [I] was not invited to weddings or anything like that. 

“I became ‘fundamental’ or whatever they really thought. But I was still the person who I was.”

Sheikh Alaa El Zokm moved to Australia three years ago and is a respected Imam at Elsedeaq Heidelberg Mosque in Melbourne. He has spent time studying at Al Azhar, the only university in the Arabic world to survive as a modern university, and focused especially on contemporary issues in Western societies.

He says people, including many Muslims, have misconceptions about the niqāb, and Islamic scholars disagree on its importance.

“The main verse of the Quran that talks about the niqāb, some scholars interpreted this as an obligation for the Muslim women to wear the niqāb. There is a disagreement between the scholars of having the obligation to wear the niqāb.

“Like in other religions, some people are following the rules of the religion without being educated and sometimes they think that the orders of Islam can never be broken.

“This is one of the misconceptions of Muslims; they have to understand that we as Muslims, and Islam itself, is putting the safety and security of the country over any other thing.”

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Schoolgirls wearing niqabs in Yemen. 

Sheikh Alaa says people expect someone dangerous to hide behind the niqāb and that’s why Muslim women need to unveil their faces when asked to by officials.

“Some people intend to do some harm by making themselves look like women and they reach a certain place, they kill people. They may put bombs on them under the name of niqāb.

“We advise the Muslim woman that if you believe that the niqāb is an obligation upon you, then for the security and safety of the people, you have to uncover your face.”

He recognises the benefits of the niqāb but says that circumstances have changed from 1400 years ago and so rules also need to be changed because of  “the new life we are living now”.

He believes it is necessary for Muslims to adhere to specific rules and customs of the West, however there are other Islamic leaders and scholars who would disagree.

Islamic scholar Muhammad Al-Munajjid says those who live by Islam should not in any way imitate those who do not follow Islam. He says one of the reasons for this is because imitating a disbeliever’s appearance leads to “imitation of internal views” and a love for the individual or group of people they are imitating.

It is prohibited for Muslims to love disbelievers of Islam and it is “obligatory to disassociate from them, and hate whatever disbelief they are upon”, he says.

Claudia Dumas, assistant to Rise Up Australia Victorian president Yvonne Gentle, says she and stands by the party’s opinion that face veils should not be worn in public in Australia.

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Zunera Ishaq is challenging a recent law that bans face-coverings for people receiving public services in Quebec, Canada.

She says that when women who were born and raised in Western nations have converted to Islam and wear the niqāb, it is a “militant act” and a “political statement”. She believes that niqābs are a security concern and should never be worn in public.

“There have actually been quite a few instances of men hiding under the niqāb,” she says.

Claudia not only believes the niqāb to be a security concern, she says there is a stigma of oppression attached to the niqāb and those who wear it are not able to integrate into Australian society.

“We want people to integrate into Australian society, to advance, and this culture of wearing a niqāb prevents women from doing so.

“Probably the majority of women in the world wear the niqāb against their will, they have no choice in it.”

Claudia says that if a woman in Australia were to take off her niqāb, it would show a “desire to integrate in Australian culture”.

“I would give her a standing ovation because she would be breaking away from that cultural belief and pressure of wearing that, because a lot of women, they are under pressure to wear it.”

Manal Shehab decided to unveil her face to be more effective in the community. Picture: supplied

Although Manal chose to wear the niqāb because she felt it was liberating, six months ago she decided to no longer wear it every time she was out in public. She feels more effective in her community without one, she says.

When counselling women, Manal found wearing the niqab wasn’t helping her do the best job she could.

“When it came to accompanying women in court, when it came to expressing and building rapport with these women, I found I could better serve my community without it.

“My own heart told me, it is not conducive for my life now to keep it on and I’ll break a lot more barriers without it.”

Manal still wears her niqāb occasionally but says that there is no compulsion in her religion and although many people do not understand it, no one should judge anyone on what they wear.

“Everyone is on their own merit and journey,” she says.

“For some people, it’s hard to take on, but then where does freedom of religion and freedom of expression of speech come?”