Recently my co-curriculum mates and I were assigned to write an essay on a taboo of our choice for an assessment. I wanted to focus more on the niqab being a taboo internationally, but my lecturer wanted me to focus more on Malaysia. So, here you go.
There is arguably no item of clothing more political than the Muslim veil. The niqab is a worn by some Muslim women in public and in front of non-mahram men, covering all of the face apart from the eyes. Most Muslim scholars agree that it is not obligatory for a woman to cover her face, but recommended as it was practiced by the wives of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). There are many reasons a woman wears the niqab such as wanting to save her beauty only for her husband and family, covering her facial flaws, and above all, wanting to be closer to Allah s.w.t by displaying modesty.
Sometimes when a woman expresses her intention to start wearing the niqab, family members and friends react negatively with shock and alarm due to the fear of attracting bad perceptions. My own relative quizzed me endlessly with heavy concern after I once bought a niqab with the intention of wearing it to my college dinner. Except I ended up not wearing it after all after one of the college committee members discouraged me, wanting to avoid controversy with the auxiliary police because the university dress code prohibits students to cover their face. When I once suggested to my editor that one article be about a girl’s experience wearing the niqab, her reply was, ‘okay, but nothing extreme’. Yup, Muslimahs who wear niqabs are often perceived as dangerous, oppressed, mysterious, ninjas or Batmen.
In Iran and Saudi Arabia it is required by religious law, but it is nearly always a hot-button issue, spurring arguments about religion, security, and personal freedom. France was the first European country to ban Islamic face veils in public places. In the States, Lady Gaga was criticized for sexualizing the burqa. Even in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country, some see the niqab as a social taboo.
Firstly, certain members of society tend to associate dressing ‘Islamically’ or mimicking Arab fashion, with terrorism and extremism. They see people with niqabs, jubahs and beards, and Islamic State is the first thing that comes to mind. In September 2014, Azrul Mohd Khalib wrote a controversial article for the Malay Mail expressing his concern about students of MRSM Langkawi dressing up during a talk about the current conflict in Gaza. He wrote, “The teachers saw fit to educate their students through play acting and dressing up their kids in black, balaclavas and purdahs. Was this necessary? It may look like they are getting into the spirit of Hamas fighters. However, it also brings to mind images of radical militants, members of Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah, and most recently, of beheadings”. After the article went viral, my school, MRSM Alor Gajah, did not even allow us to wear jubahs to prep anymore, only baju Melayu and baju kurung.
Sunni Islam is the accepted denomination of Islam in Malaysia, primarily contrasting with Shi’a teachings. Shi’a and other unorthodox teachings are also taboo in Malaysia, but let us save that for another essay. Muslimahs who follow Shi’a teachings supposedly always dress in black and wear niqabs. Because of this, certain Malaysian Muslims tremble at the thought of dealing with women who dress as such because of the belief that they may follow incorrect teachings, or ‘ajaran sesat’ as the Malays say. Fynn Jamal, a local artist and writer, was highly accused of following Shi’a teachings by the public as she wears a black hijab and jubah as everyday attire.
Generally, women working for the government and female students in public universities in Malaysia are not allowed to cover their face. The history began in 1985, when a clerk named Halimatusaadiah Kamaruddin working in the office of the Perak State Legal Adviser, Ipoh, wore a niqab. On 12th March 1985, an article in The Star was published regarding new government instructions banning all women working in government institutions from wearing the niqab. She was later dismissed from public service on 16 December 1986 for covering her face. While the niqab ban is good for the sake of security and easy identification, it potentially encourages the existing social taboo, increasing likelihood of women wearing the niqab to be discriminated.
We as Malaysian Muslims need to open up our hearts and minds to accept the niqab and view it in a positive light. Perhaps we need to relearn our perceptions of religion. Perhaps we need to make friends with more niqabis and realize that they too are normal human beings. After all, if the niqab is still a social taboo even among ourselves today, how can we expect Malaysian and non-Malaysian non-Muslims to accept it, and other aspects of Islam? Insulting and hating on the niqab is insulting and hating on one of the teachings of the Prophet. One day, I hope to live in a world where women can wear the niqab without feeling guilty, discriminated, or feared.