The Niqab and the Kneecap

by Esmerelda Weatherwax (December 2011)

The woman in the niqab, burka, yashmak or whatever you want to call a veil that covers the face is a very common sight around east London. I am not the only one who has written at this site on the way being unable to see the face cuts such women off from the social interaction normal in English society. I can chat to anybody but the lack of that hint that a conversation can be struck, taken from the smile or the twitch of the lips, means that my conversation with niqabis has been limited.

I had what could have been a better opportunity earlier this year when I attended a local hospital for day surgery on my knee. I thought I had torn a cartilage while climbing down from the wall around the statute of President Eisenhower outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, whereup I had climbed to get better photographs of the Al Quds day protest in September 2010. In fact my kneecap had decided to wander in an excursion of its own and day surgery was required to set it back on the straight and narrow.

In the female day ward were several young women with recalcitrant wisdom teeth and on the adjacent trolley to my left an Asian woman a little older than myself clad in black abaya and niqab. Sadly she spoke no English, her husband spoke little English and their interpreter had her work cut out conveying the nurse’s queries as the man was reluctant to let his wife speak at all.

She went for her operation first; by the time I returned her cubicle had the curtains drawn round her. The time came for us to be discharged and we had to confirm that we could walk using the crutches, as demonstrated by the physiotherapist. 

The Muslima came out from behind the curtains, in her dress but without the niqab. She walked up and down the ward, in full view of my husband, other husbands and the male physiotherapist with no apparent embarrassment. And she smiled.

Then having shown that she could walk, the abaya and veil went on, her personality was locked down behind the cloth, her husband spoke to the interpreter, nodded to the ward sister and left the ward with a black figure on crutches behind him.

I have frequently wondered how much the niqab, and to a lesser extent the hijab is a genuinely modest garment and how much a statement of intent and Islamicity. I have seen woman eating under the veil but several times have also seen a woman remove her niqab to eat, then replace it once her food is consumed. When women on pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest site in Mecca don the specific hajj garments called  ihram it is specified that their heads should be covered but NOT their face. Therefore I have long wondered why so many Muslim women claim that to reveal their face is akin to being naked. I know of no great world religion that requires women to perform its most holy rite in a state of indecency or public undress. Schoolboy fantasies about ancient fertility rites, the worship of Aphrodite and those bare above the wasp-waist Cretan snake goddesses don’t count.

I came to adulthood in the era of the mini-skirt, when even formidable woman like my mother and the Queen raised their hemline to the knee, and young women to well up the thigh. I remember one schoolteacher admonishing my friends that their school uniform skirt was too short and had to be taken down 3” only for the PE mistress to tell us that our sports skirts were too long and had to be taken up 2”. Thus we learnt to judge that what is modest on the hockey pitch is not appropriate for assembly. I tend to wear my skirts much longer now in middle age. But I was not embarrassed to show my wandering knee cap, or to demonstrate how well I could do the physiotherapy later required.

I have come to the conclusion that the face of a Muslim woman ranks alongside my knee and shin at  very low position in the hierarchy of erogenous zones. It is an area of the body that a modest woman can and does reveal in public when required. And in a society where face to face communications has always been part of the culture and values the face should not be covered other than, for example, in an operating theatre.

That value is implicit in our very language. Such phrases as “Ashamed to show her face” “Don't you ever show your face in here again” Must attend a particular event and “show my face” “new face in town” “face the music”, our contempt for “faceless bureaucrats” and the best of all in my opinion the blessing “The Lord bless thee and keep thee. The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee. The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee and give thee peace ” at Numbers 6:25.

Allah doesn’t make his face to shine upon his slaves – he is remote, unknowable and terrifying. He doesn’t give peace, he demands submission. We show our faces, and God shows his to us.

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Esmerelda Weatherwax is a regular contributor to the Iconoclast, our community blog. To view her entries please click here.


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