The following statements are really the work of three women. Since Amina, however, has been the main contributor and the other two contributors would prefer to remain anonymous, all answers will be formally attributed to her.
My mother, who rejects both hijab and niqab, will be referred to as Oum Muhammad and provide an occasional contrast to Amina's views.
1) Why do you wear a niqab?
2) What do you think is the value, or the implication of the niqab?
Amina: First of all, I wear it because I love Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala) and because I put this love above any other thing in the world. It is natural that the lover seeks closeness to the Beloved by means of doing things that please HIM.
As a hadith qudsi beautifully illustrates, the niqab is such a thing. The niqab is mustahab. Being neither fard nor sunnah, it is an asceticism of the spirit.
Our worshpip of Allah (sws) through our obedience of whatever HE commands us to do draws us near to HIM, and by doing even more than HE has commanded us, we shall be drawn even nearer to HIm, insha'llah.
Clearly, the veil, or a modest dress, is a command from Allah. Sisters attain closeness to HIm in doing that, in the first place. When we are doing all this, and we are still seeking a deeper expression of our taqwa, the niqab can help us to achieve this. If there were no other justification than that, surely this would be reason enough.
The niqab is, in fact, like the observance of an additional fast after Ramadan.
Oum Muhammad: Well, if it's a person's dearest wish to wear it, they should wear it. I respect that. But to people like me, this would be taking things to the extreme.
Amina: How can it be "extreme" to do what your heart tells you? Niqab is beautiful. We are not offending or challenging anyone by wearing it.
It also emphasises the separation between private sphere and public sphere. Islam places great importance on privacy, and on keeping private what should be kept private. So it is important to me to physically protect my private sphere against any incursion, just like Islam bans speculations on a person's private life, gossip and spying (Surat An-Nur, Ayat 12-13; Surat Al Hujarat 11-12) in order to protect people's privacy and personal freedom. In our private sphere, life is relaxed. You can be at ease with your dress, your social life, your ways.
And strangers have no business peaking into it. I'm not public. I have the right to protect myself against gossip and public surveillance. My niqab is my way of pointing that out. If I see myself in the mirror like this, it helps me remind myself of who I am. It is the seal of the Beloved(Allah)in my aspect, and it motivates me to behave in the best possible manner.
Sometimes people critisise us for being over-concerned with outward things. It is true that that can lead to hypocrisy, especially when the preoccupation with our outward appearance prevents us from concerning ourselves with our inner identity and our own personal values. Yet, we should not be discouraged by hypocrites who are trying to replace inner reality by outward pretension. We should look at ourselves and at things without prejudice, to achieve a balance of inner core and outward manifestation.
In this sense, the niqab, to me, is a spiritual jihad, because sometimes it is difficult to stick to wearing it. So it makes me look deeper into myself to find the faith and the courage it takes. So, again, think just how much of a challenge a niqab is, and how much more of a benefit when the nafs, the inner self, has been conquered!
Oum Muhammad: I respect anyone's way of life. Your way of explaining your motives makes it all seem clear and nice enough. But I have never been the spiritual type. For me it's out of the question to wear a thing like that because a) it doesn't make me feel myself, b) it therefore makes me look grotesque and c) as you said, no one can impose his or her values on me when my heart tells me otherwise.
Amina: It is always right to follow your heart. We are in perfect agreement on this. Everyone has to make her choice and stand by it.
Speaking of the context of dress,it is also true , on the other hand, that a lot of what Muslim women wear is steeped in tradition and culture prior to Islam, and much of what is considered "Islamic dress code" has really nothing to do with the actual guidelines of the Quran. As long as a sister dresses in a way that doesn't place sexuality into the public sphere and shows self-respect, without large cleavages or excessive accentuation of her bodily features, her mode of dress is Islamically sound.
3) How do you feel when you wear a niqab?
Amina: To be honest, I feel safe, comfortable and happy. I feel myself. Because if you wear jeans or if you dress up for men, it makes you worry all day long how you look; whether you're looking good, whether it's attractive and stylish enough, how you are seen by others... Wearing hijab makes me forget about my cloths and relax. And what I appreciate most is that when you're wearing it men actually look to the ground and talk very respectfully, unlike when you don't.
4) How do you perceive girls who are wearing miniskirts and revealing dresses? What is your attitude towards them?
Amina: Al hamduli'llah! I don't dress that way.
Oum Muhammad: Well, what's 'revealing'? There is fashion and there are limits. If you're young it's cute to dress in a certain way. We all liked feminine, stylish, elegant things when we were young. If you're young and lively and sweet, you can afford it. But when I see the tourists entering the National Museum in beachwear, or entering vehicles of public transport half naked, I feel that is an open display of disrespect for the country and its culture and heritage.
Amina: It puzzles me seeing these girls constantly pulling their micro mini skirts because their underwear keeps showing. Why not just wear a longer skirt and be free? I often wonder how they can be surprised by the looks they attract. I think even we look at them, so if a man looks, what else did you expect? If you are offering strawberries, do you want people to buy or not to buy? I don't think it does much for their self-respect--and for society's respect for women.
5) Don't you see the niqab, in a way, as an expression of a subordinated status of the woman?
Oum Muhammad: Yes.
6) What is the relationship between the niqab and women's rights/feminism?
Amina: Equality is largely about everyone having equal choices and options. The classical American and European feminism of the 1970's and '80's had a notion of "housewives" being traitors to the cause because their personal choice didn't correspond to the expectations of privileged and career-driven professional feminists. This meant, in fact, a disregard and a further downgrading of the role of women whose social contribution consisted of managing the household and raising kids. This was wrong. It was fair to point out that some women simply had no choice but be housewives. It was fair to point out the social and economic factors that deprived women of any alternative, that excluded them from any other occupation. The struggle against this social exclusion and gender-based discrimination is the great achievement of feminism. But it was never right to suggest that those who made their own choice in favour of a more traditional preoccupation were "traitors to women's liberation".
And then there are people like us, who never had any choice but make a living and raise kids at the same time, to whom this entire dispute was nothing.
That's why it is important to have our own Islamic feminism, which expresses ourselves as we are, and our own views and feelings within the culture we represent.
Oum Muhammad: Western feminism has very much remained a theory. Theoretically, the woman has been liberated and emancipated. In reality, her wages remain a fracture of a man's wages who does the same work. It's the man who determines what programme to watch on TV. It's the man for whom women dress up and for whom they sacrifice their own lives, which is taken for granted. Their sacrifice is repaid with disregard. The men and the society they sustain with their devotion and their strength do not feel they owe them anything.
If women ever hope to improve their position they must do, I don't know what...
Maybe that is how God has made the world.
Amina: God has made the world for us to guard and improve it. HE taught us to fight for our rights. He taught us in the Qur'an to be persistent and believe in ourselves and our mission as human beings and never give up the struggle, no matter what the odds. All people, men and women are equal. Each generation will do their own part of the struggle to make this real, until it is won, until the world and humankind will be free.
7) Do you consider the mode of dress to be a matter of personal choice? If this is so, how do you react to alternative expressions of the personality, say to someone who chooses to paint her hair green and wear torn jeans?
Oum Muhammad: It's extreme. It's hard to put up with a choice like that.
Amina: I can't speak for everyone. My opinions and feelings are just my own. In fact, I would never presume to dictate anyone else what to do or wear or think. Personally, I'm not offended by it at all. I want to ask why could different ways of life not be compatable? Why could different people not just accept each other the way they are and coexist? And what is it about Western-style dress that makes it universally acceptable while the traditional dress of other cultures is not? What makes the European and American way of life more than just one culture among many? What makes them think and feel supreme? What is the justification of stepping on the rights and values of others with one's feet?
Oum Muhammad: It's because this is how capitalism works. Don't expect compassion. He who proves stronger will eat him that proves weaker. The system that rules the world has no values. Profit and resources is all that counts for them, even if the price is the survival of the planet itself.
Amina: We won't allow it. There are people of conscience, people of faith and courage, ready to resist. It is our love of both CREATOR and creation that gives us hope and strength.
8) Is there anything else you would like to add?
Amina: I want to say again that the niqab is no necessity of the faith and that no dress code can be externally imposed. But we, the wearers of hijab and niqab, say, for ourselves, that it brings us closer to God. Sheikh Ali Abu Hassan, the former head of the Fatwa Council at the Islamic Studies Institute (ISI) in Cairo confirmed that eventhough it is not required for Muslim women to cover their faces, women should be allowed to wear what they choose.
And finally, Allah loves us the way we are, whoever we are. Allah is Love. Allah is Devotion. He is the All-Knowing, the All-Compassionate.
Rowan El Shimi is an Egyptian journalist and photographer whose work has greatly contributed to the documentation of the Egyptian Revolution, in which she has taken an active part.
Her articles and soon also her photography can be seen at http://rowanelshimi.wordpress.com