Opinion: Trying to understand the niqab

Ryan Sampson

Ryan Sampson

Ryan Sampson is a senior architecture major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected].

Egyptian-American feminist, writer and activist Mona Eltahawy has been an extremely vocal advocate for the rights of Muslim women and is now creating headlines with a can of spray paint — she recently painted over an anti-jihad subway sign in New York City that compared Muslims to savages. But a year ago, she was making headlines because of a different image: a naked woman covered in black body paint on the cover of Foreign Policy magazine.

The article itself talks about the heinous treatment of many women in Muslim culture, but what initially sparked anger in one writer, Samia Errazzouki, was the woman on the front cover and interspersed throughout the magazine’s pages. Errazzouki was outraged that Eltahawy spoke as though she was representing Muslim women as a whole, when in fact there are many diverse opinions about the culture and, more specifically, about the traditional garment.

Muslim women wear the niqab to cover their body and face, masking their form for many different reasons. Some wear it by choice, for comfort or to portray modesty; others do to respect tradition, and I’m sure there are plenty more. Eltahawy completely disregards these justifications in her support for the garment’s ban in France almost two years ago. In April 2011, Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France at the time, stated that the niqab is a new form of enslavement and would not be welcomed on the territory of the French republic.

I think this is ridiculous. Regardless of what interpretation the Western Hemisphere contrives from the garment, women (or anyone, for that matter) should be allowed to wear what they please, within reason. Sarkozy completely contradicted himself by implementing this ban, as he is actually infringing upon the rights of the very women that he tried to liberate. In fact, the ban has, in some cases, been reported to diminish the quality of life for those who will not abide by it. One woman was beaten on the streets outside of Paris by a man who was uncomfortable with her peaceful display of protest.

CNN hosted a debate between Eltahawy and blogger Hebah Ahmed to discuss whether the ban should be more widespread, and Ahmed was outstandingly triumphant. She spoke without an accent, which differed from what I had expected. She has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering — intelligent, educated and outspoken is not what I would have expected from a proponent of something that I had originally thought was used to suppress and control women. She was incredibly rational, happy to comply with the need for facial recognition in an airport or when obtaining a driver’s license, obliging to show her face whenever it was essential for security.

Unfortunately, comments such as “Don’t hate us for wanting to put effort into our looks” from niqab opponents remind us of the ignorance of negative stereotyping. While not all women wear the niqab by choice, society shouldn’t punish those who do.