By Mashaal Mir
At a time where women are embracing their curves and looking sexy in the name of empowerment, some have found freedom in covering up.
Ahmed, 20, a student at Kingston University, has been wearing a veil for nearly three years. It was a life changing decision that spawned tensions in her family from day one.
“There have been instances where I have been thrown out of the house because my dad was like, ‘it’s either the veil or it’s me’,” she says. “And I said, ‘it’s the veil all the way dad’.”
There are around 2.8 million Muslims in the United Kingdom, but there are no exact figures on how many Muslim women wear the veil. The majority of women in Western Europe who cover their face wear the Niqab, which is a veil that covers the face but exposes the eyes.
The Burqa covers the entire face, including the eyes. People often confuse the Burqa with the Niqab, but Ahmed draws a clear distinction between the two.
She began practising her religion after failing to find tranquillity in her life. She describes her former self as ‘bitter with discontent for the world’, and recalls getting into frequent fights at her college.
At the age of 16, Ahmed decided to wear the Hijab (headscarf) and was immediately shunned by her friends. Her parents assumed she was going through a teenage phase.
“The more I progressed in my religion, the more I lost friends. But it reinstated the fact that what I was doing was right. If they can’t accept me for I am, then they are not really my friends,” she says.
It was only when Ahmed decided to go all the way and wear a full veil that both her Muslim and non-Muslim friends began to completely avoid her.
“You get daily challenges,” says Ahmed. “When I wore the veil, I went from being the life of the party to slowly being isolated and withdrawn. It’s hurtful.”
For women living in a western society, the veil is often bewildering, especially after decades of female pioneers breaking barriers and achieving equal rights.
“There is a certain void you cannot fill. There is a beauty and simplicity to the veil. I believe in more to life than just the superficial and material,” she says.
Despite dealing with peer pressure and finding confidence in her appearance, Ahmed still faces challenges in wearing the veil, often feeling like a moving target for insults and mockery.
“I’ve been called a letterbox, a ninja, I’ve honestly heard everything,” she says, laughing. “People find the need to insult you. I could insult you back, I could drop everything and say, ‘you know what, let’s take this outside’.
“But everything I do and wherever I go, I remind myself that I am an ambassador for my religion. So I wouldn’t insult anyone back, because in a state of anger I wouldn’t be representing my religion.”
A global debate
In the past couple of years, the veil has been the subject of global political debate. Several politicians, such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, have declared it undemocratic and unwelcome, proclaiming that it should be banned for encouraging the control and submission of women.
Although Ahmed acknowledges that some women are forced to wear the veil by their male relatives, she does not believe that this is the case universally.
“If a woman wore a miniskirt and got raped would you ban miniskirts? No, because that would be wrong,” says Ahmed. “You would take away something from the woman that she likes and feels is a part of her. If I was to take this veil off, it would be like missing my heart.
“I’m more than capable, I’m not withdrawing from society. I feel this makes me a better person.”
“What you do in this life is your choice.”
*Noon, 21, is also one of the few girls wearing the Niqab at KU. Having worn it for only one year, she is still new to the experience, but fiercely dedicated.
“I don’t wear my veil because I am running away from something,” says Noon. “I wear the veil to protect myself and my religion. It’s a reminder of who I truly am and not what society wants me to be.”
Like Ahmed, she also experienced a backlash for choosing to cover.
She has been accused of being a fundamentalist and a cavewoman. She says that continually facing questions about her choice can be tiring.
“You find yourself in a position where you have to justify everything,” she says. “It’s physically exhausting.”
But despite the negativity, Noon says she has received moral support from the Islamic Society at KU, which has reinforced her perseverance about wearing the veil.
“No one should, or is allowed, to force you to do, or not do, anything,” says Noon. “What you do in this life is your choice.”
Deciding to wear the veil is a controversial move even within the Muslim community. There have been heated debates among scholars, some claiming that the veil is more of a cultural practice than a strict religious observance.
Ahmed believes distrust towards the veil stems from fear and ignorance.
“People are scared that one day I’m going to run after them and put a veil on top of their heads and tie them down,” says Ahmed. “I’m not here to enforce anything on you and I’m not here to judge you. I’m not even demanding that you accept it, because it’s my decision.”
She also disagrees with the popular notion that women who wear the veil need to be liberated and saved.
“You are trying to save me from a choice I have personally made. And you’re telling me my choice is wrong,” she says. “You are taking my freedom of choice and expression away.
“You are not saving me: you’re just causing unnecessary problems for me.”
Noon agrees and adds: “We don’t need to be saved. What needs to be saved is the way people think.”
Both women have high aspirations. Ahmed wants to get into diplomacy and work with the United Nations, while Noon wants to have a career in the medical industry. And both women intend to keep their veils on while doing this.
“I feel happy. It completes me and it’s who I am,” says Ahmed. “You will always be criticised by society, so why not do what your heart feels is right?
“Your happiness is the most important thing. And no one is allowed to take that away from you. My veil is my happiness.”
*Name has been changed