Freedom or oppression? What it means to wear a niqab or burqa

Covering the face with a niqab or burqa is seen as both a choice for freedom, and as  political oppression.

By AMELIA LIM

Denmark’s political parties have declared burqas an “expression of extreme oppression” in preparation for banning them, but for Dr Amna Rehman, it means freedom.

Denmark is set to join France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and the German state of Bavaria in banning facial coverings, which includes burqas and niqabs, after the ruling parties unanimously voted against them. 

But for Pakistan-born Dr Rehman, 33, wearing a burqa represents her personal commitment to Islam.

“It’s been a spiritual journey and I have been taking the burqa on-and-off for three years now, but after the pilgrimage last year to Mecca, I decided to cover my face properly,” says Dr Rehman, a permanent resident who has lived on-and-off in Sydney and Melbourne since 2009.

“I have gone to a very new level of freedom … I have never felt more confident than before and never felt better about myself than before … I reached a point where I went, no, I need to do it for myself and it’s just for myself.”

However, she faced resistance from her family and friends initially, because it is not common in Pakistan for women to cover their faces, especially in urbanised areas.

“I come from a very average liberal Pakistani family background – educated and even secular-minded,” Dr Rehman says.

“I started wearing the headscarf 10 or 11 years back and no one in my family wears that, not even my mother or sister, and they were totally against it when I started wearing the headscarf.

“When I started covering my face, I just got very bad backlash and faced a lot of resistance … one of my uncle was like, ‘what are you doing, you look just like a robber, you don’t fit in amongst us’.

“It used to hurt me because I was in the initial phase of taking the burqa and you need the support from people around you and you need people to accept you with your changes.”

However, Dr Rehman’s said her mother, Talat Shaheen, encouraged her to follow her heart, but remained concerned about her daughter’s safety and about whether the choice might exclude her from her workplace and society.

Dr Rehman blamed her mother’s preconceived notions on the media, for twisting the truth about face coverings. 

“If, say, three in 100 people don’t accept me, I’m not here to please everyone, so I wouldn’t let the negativity of the minority affect my enthusiasm to do something that I want to do and I am not bothering anybody by doing that, Dr reman said.

“It (a burqa) represents freedom. I am free to make my own choices … I don’t have to care what people think or say about me, as long as I am pleasing my Lord … I feel totally liberated and absolutely free.”

​Haybatullah Abouzeid. Picture: supplied.

However for Haybatullah Abouzeid, a doctoral candidate in religious studies at Monash University, the burqa is also a symbol of political oppression that has been abused by certain groups, in the guise of it being for the betterment of women.

“There is the burqa in Islam, it is like the niqab in its personal choice and path to piety and to keep a woman’s life private, however it has become a very big political statement and unlike the political burqa, it is not a form of oppression,” Ms Abouzeid says.

“The burqa does not represent Islam, it is a political symbol of oppression of women who are forced to conform to laws of the country they are in or face persecution.

“It was in the beginning used as a form of protection, to conceal the identity of the women so that they could not be targeted or harmed, keeping in mind that this was necessary as it was during war and invasion.

“Once the Taliban took full force, it became a mandatory symbol of femininity in the region in the name of preserving modesty in Islam, which it most certainly is not.”

Ms Abouzeid says the stereotype that the Islamic headveils in general are oppressive to women is not true, because it is often a woman’s personal choice to wear one, and she is rarely forced to do so.

The expert, who wears a headscarf, also says the decision to wear a headscarf, and the way is it worn, is affected by both upbringing and personal beliefs. 

“The headscarf is a form of religious modesty and recognition of public piety, just like a nun or a conservative Jew, the choice is purely yours alone,” Ms Abouzeid says.

“The power of a piece of cloth comes from the power that you give it … it is the abuse of the headscarf and stripping away of its purity by people in power and men that have made it abusive.

“God gave women the choice of the headscarf … as a personal path to God and an identity to lead and not to be ignored. He liberated women from men and unfortunately men continue to try and strip away the authority the headscarf and piety it gives to women.

“The way religion is practised by different ethnicities and different countries is not a universal way of practice, it is a personal one. The Islamic law and hijab is not monolithic … your culture, laws of country, personal choice and personality is presented through the clothes you wear.”

Education and frequent interactions with the Muslim community, and teaching people the truth about Islam, would reduce religious misunderstandings and hatred, Ms Abouzeid says. 

“Acknowledge the freedom of choice, draw similarities to Christianity and Judaism, allow public expression and provide small classes to explain the basics of such religious practice,” Ms Abouzeid advises.

“My headscarf does not define me as an individual, it only tells you that I am on a personal spiritual journey, or simply I’m a Muslim.  I define my headscarf, I define how and why I wear it, I give it purpose, and it is essential to recognise that I am not entrapped by a piece of cloth, I have empowered myself through it because I have decided it meant something to me.

“Islam is a personal religion …  it is not a voice that dictates how you do things, you are that voice, your own inspiration, your own goodness. Islamic law and Qu’ranic stories refine that, frame your life as acts of worships and give you purpose if you want that purpose.”