Friday, April 15, 2011

Open Letter to Mona el-Tahawy

This letter is in response to Mona el-Tahawy and her stance on the niqaab ban (

If you support this letter, please sign it with your name in the comments and share it with others, whether through FaceBook, email, blogs, or websites. We would like to have this letter reach Mona directly, if possible.

This article has been cross-posted at IslamicAwakening and MuslimMatters.

Disclaimer: Though the message is sincere and heartfelt, the details are not meant to identify one specific individual (i.e. the author) but rather to represent real niqaabis around the world.

From A Very Visible Niqaabi to Her Self-Appointed Champion

Dear Mona,

As much as you no doubt think that you are doing great good by appointing yourself as a champion for (or against? You’re a bit confusing on that point) Muslim women who wear niqaab, I’d appreciate if you stopped and listened to me first.

I am a Muslim woman who wears niqaab, and I neither believe that I am the paragon of virtue nor live in fear of Hell should an inch of my skin be seen in public. I am neither oppressed nor invisible. I do not consider myself so beautiful that I must cover myself to save men from temptation; nor do I believe that men are sex machines who will be turned on by the tip of my nose or the curve of my ear. I am not ignorant or brainwashed. I am not Salafi or Wahhabi.

I am a Muslim woman.

You say that niqaab has been made into the pinnacle of piety. There may be some people out there who say that, but I don’t believe God says that. In fact, God says that none of us are safe from Hell just by doing one specific action or another. Earning Paradise and protecting ourselves from Hell is an ongoing process, a constant struggle 24/7. I don’t feel that wearing niqaab has earned me a ticket to Eden... but I do believe that it’ll help me get that little bit closer.

You say that Muslim women are forced to wear the niqaab in Saudi Arabia. While I don’t agree with anyone being forced to wear niqaab against their will, I don’t see how that has anything to do with me. I don’t live in Saudi Arabia, and never have. I live in America and I chose to wear the niqaab despite my parents’ opposition to it and my husband’s unease with it. He was worried that I’d be considered “extreme” and targeted for my beliefs. Turns out he’s right, but just because people like you want to take away my freedom of belief, it doesn’t mean I’m just going to roll over and let you dictate what I should and shouldn’t do or believe.

You say that niqaab makes Muslim women invisible. I have no idea where you got that from, although invisibility has always been the one superpower I’d love to have. As it happens, people can see me pretty well. It’s just that they can’t see every single bit of my skin or physical features. If you mean that I’m “invisible” in that niqaab reduces my role in society and the public sphere, you’re wrong.

I’m a successful businesswoman, who left a thriving career to become an entrepreneur. The company I founded has blossomed and we’re becoming quite well-known in our field. My best friend, who started wearing niqaab after me, is a high school teacher. She’s been recognized by the school as one of the best teachers they’ve had for several years running. The local Imam’s wife is getting her PhD and volunteers at the women’s shelter – and gets a kick out of going horseback riding on the beach where people’s eyes bug out when they see a veiled Muslim women galloping across the sand.

We Muslim women who wear the niqaab come in all shapes and sizes, of every ethnic, religious, social, and educational background. We are businesswomen and artists; writers and community activists; teachers and stay-at-home mothers; philosophers, intellectuals, and housewives. You have no right to gloss over our places in society, the roles that we have and will continue to fulfill. You have no right to tell me or others that I am invisible when I very much know that I am not.

You say that niqaab objectifies women as sex objects. So does the mini-skirt and tube top. Are we going to ban those too? I don’t deny that some men obsess over women’s bodies – but those men are non-Muslim as well as Muslim. Just as there are men who would prefer that I covered my body completely, there are men who wish I’d walk around half-naked. I don’t wear the niqaab for, or because of, either of them. I wear it for myself. I am not repressing my sexuality nor exacerbating it. I am demanding that you mind your own business about my sexuality, and deal with my ideas, my words, and my actions instead.

You say that niqaab has been the reason that Muslim women have been oppressed in countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. It’s not. Poverty, illiteracy, government corruption, backwards misogynistic mentalities that have nothing to do with Islam... THEY are the reason that Muslim women have been oppressed. Hijaab, niqaab, and whatever else is used only as a tool to enforce Islamically incorrect ideologies. It is not the root of the problem.

Furthermore, what of countries like South Africa, Mexico, and Britain where the daily statistics of rape, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, peer pressure, and so much more are all forms of crime and oppression against women? Oppression of women isn’t limited to race or religion. Unfortunately, it extends throughout the entire world, across every racial, social and economic spectrum.

You imply that it is only “extremist Salafis and Wahhabis” who wear niqaab or demand it of their women. That’s kinda funny, because I have a Sufi aunt who wears niqaab; and the nice Indian aunty at the mosque is a Deobandi, and she wears it too. The Nigerian convert who campaigns for women’s space at the mosque and demands that Muslim men stop acting like caveman and behave like gentlemen has been wearing niqaab for several years.

I’m sorry that you have had bad experiences with the niqaab. I’m sorry that you’ve had bad experiences with Muslims who call you a she-devil, a whore, and a scourge against Islam.

Sister Heba Ahmad – the one you debated on CNN – said something really beautiful that I agree with completely: “Mona is my sister in Islam and even though I must disagree when she misrepresents Islam and Muslims, she still should be protected from the tongue of her fellow Muslims.”

That’s how I feel about you. I strongly disagree with what you say about the niqaab and much about what you say about Islam and Muslims in general. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to threaten to kill you, or swear at you, or condemn you to Hell. What I will do is invite you over for coffee at my place, with open arms and a warm smile that you can detect even beneath my niqaab.

Your sister in Islam,

A Muslim Woman Who Wears Niqaab

(Author: Zainab bint Younus aka AnonyMouse al-Majnoonah)


Little Auntie said...

This is a great letter and I admire that you are being proactive about this :)

One thing I would add is that Mona kept talking about the 'pinnacle' of piety that niqab sets. What about the pinnacle of beauty that the actresses and directors of Hollywood have set up? While most women are a size 10, the media is constantly bombarding us with pictures of women that are size 2. Isn't that an impossible pinnacle that they are setting up? Should we 'ban movies' as well? Should we go and ask Angelina Jolie to cover her face because she's setting an impossible standard?

It's illogical, really.

To each their own.


Anonymous said...

my dear sis in islam

may Allah bless u immensely for this amazing letter. InshAllah it will open the eyes and hearts of many.

ur sis in islam

S.B said...

salam aleykum

You got my signature :)

Hepzibah The Watchman said...

I bring peace to you. It is written that the payment for sin is death. The minute we sin - we are dead. I cannot remember my first sin - but I know it exists by the ponderous of sins since the first. The only redemption is in a living sacrifice, but how can I give a living sacrifice if I am dead? So, God died for us. He lived a life without sin and provided the living sacrifice. Only God could live a life without sin - no one else could have lived that life. All he asked of us is to believe. May God bless you, indeed.

Molly said...

Hi, Mouse. It's Molly from the Angry Arab. How are you? Anyway, the part that bothers me most about the niqab is the smiling part. I live ina largely Muslim neighborhood and one of my only ways of making friends with my women neighbors is by smiling at their children and then they smile at mine and we strike up a conversation that way. This, to me, is impossible with a niqabi. I don't feel comfortable smiling at someone who can't smile back. I disagree that it doesn't restrict basic social interaction, such as smiling, which insulates the wearer from society at large. Also, as a mother, I know it is not good for a child not to see its mother's reassuring face. In fact, their are studies that show that children facing away from their mopthers in strollers develop more slowly that those that face their mothers. I hope you are doing well and its great to see you still blogging!

Molly said...

P.S. I also believe the custom is pre-Islamic...

S.B said...

My daughter has no problems with reading my "face" since my eyes, bodylanguage and voice express more than enough - in fact it takes my daughter only one look at me and she knows if I e.g approve or dissaprove of her action.
As for the smiling, I agree with you to some extent. Especially if you're not used to the niqab. However, you can smile with your eyes (or smize as Tyra says) and you can with you're body expression be more inviting towards people. This is the responsebility of the one wearing niqab.

AnonyMouse said...

Hey, Molly! So good to hear from you again - it's been a while, hasn't it? How's your baby? I've got a baby girl too now, she's a year and a month old :)

As a niqaabi in Canada, I've never found that smiling is difficult to do. Since my eyes show, everyone can tell if I'm smiling or not. In fact, I usually smile first at people and they will, 99.9% of the time, smile back!

Just because a woman wears niqaab doesn't mean that her child doesn't see its mother... alHamdulillaah even when I go out, I'm always cuddling my baby or talking to her, and she's very aware of when I'm there or not (even if there are other niqaabi women around, she instinctively knows which one is me!).

As for it being a pre-Islamic cultural practice, yes, it did exist pre-Islam, but so did many other practices. Islam didn't come to necessarily "invent" everything, but rather to refine and regulate certain practices (such as polygamous marriage) in a manner that God decreed was most fitting and appropriate.

Once again, great to see you here! I've been quite an active blogger for the last several years, and I haven't forgotten that you're the one who started this blog for me :)

Anonymous said...

as Salaamu alaikum, I have a comment about just the first paragraph. I don't understand the negative attitude toward Salafis (not wahabbi btw). This is the way of the Scholars of Islam and it means is that we follow the Prophet ( salallaahu alaihi wa Salaam), Companions,and the rightly guided predecessors. I think you should do more research on who the true salafis are. Maybe this could help inshaa Allaah

Also, to Molly, I see from your avatar that you're not a hijab and I wanna say that it's very hard to understand how a niqabi feels esp. if you're not wearing hijab. I'm not trying to talk down on you,if that's what it seems like. I personally don't wear niqaab but my sister and many of close sisters in Islam do. However, I can definitely recognize my sister, and so can everyone else. They know by the way of her dress, her height,etc. And though because I know her so well, I never stopped to realize that I know when she's smiling even without seeing her face. It's jus something natural. Just like you can tell by the vibe you get from someone that they are happy or sad without it showing, and this is with people who don't even wear any hijab. See for you to understand and appreciate something like the niqab, you have to bring an open mind to it, as well as knowledge. Hijaab was around way back then too, it wasn't that long ago that Jesus alaihis Salaam was a prophet. They had a sense of modesty even with the ignorance at that time. And to recall from what I saw on one of those science/history channels, women in Europe were wearing these huge dresses and, even tho it wasn't worn as a Muslimah would wear it, they a veil too. Just the fact that a Christian bride wears a veil before getting married,shows that there is a reasoning behind that tradition that has much to do with modesty,as with in Islam. However, we as Muslims practice our religion everyday, not just once a week like them ( as it seems).Cause it sure doesn't make sense you have a bride with a veil but before marriage, they two were already together, and after the women will be wearing a party gown dancing and ( in some cultures) kissing random men. That shows the perfection of Islam
I hope I didn't say anything inappropriate.
May Allaah subhanahu wa ta'ala guide us to the correct path. Ameen

Anonymous said...

Consider my signature yours. :)
Jazakallahu khairan kathiiran.

Marjaan Ali said...

you have my signature :)

very well written, mashaAllah.

the Valentines said...

OK .. why does the Veil make you feel closer to God? Why does it not function in the same fashion for men of your faith?If you don't wear it for the reasons it is worn in places like Saudi Arabia (where its use in enforced by law alongside innumerable others which oppress women) then why do you wear it?

I am curious because you don't explain this. You just insist over and over again that the choice to wear it is righteous but never explain what renders it so.

Also, would not a modest and humble Muslim woman heed the advice of her parents and husband?

AnonyMouse said...

'The Valentines,'

Thank you for your questions :)

1) The veil makes me feel closer to God because I believe that it has been ordered by Him (it is considered to be a part of the overall hijab that Muslim women must observe).

2) I wear it as a means of obeying God and hopefully getting one step closer to Paradise.

3) Men don't wear a veil because they haven't been commanded to; however, they have been ordered to do certain things that women are exempted from.

4)'A modest and humble Muslim woman' is not a brainless robot who can't make decisions for herself! Modesty and humbleness do not equal instant servility; in fact, the wives and daughters of the Prophet Muhammad (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) were well-known for being fiery, independent women who would often challenge their husband/ fathers.

Muslims, men and women alike, are expected to obey without question only One being - God.

While a woman is indeed expected to respect her parents and her husband, they cannot force her to do anything (or not do anything) against her will. The recommendation/ obligation to obey them ends when they tell you to do something which is considered to be going against a religious duty.

Thank you for taking the time to politely and respectfully comment -I greatly appreciate it :)

the Valentines said...

Mouse, thank you for your reply. It is important to me to take a righteous position on this issue.

I need a bit of clarification. When I asked 'how the veil brings you closer to Allah (Praise be His Name)' I was hoping for a scriptural reference? You state in your reply that you feel you are honouring Allah (Praise be His Name) but not why or how. Please illuminate this for me. How exactly does the veil bring you closer to God?

Of course, I understand that men do not wear the veil but my question was why not? I understand that there are requirements for them as well but my question is, why is the veil only an avenue to Allah (Praise be His Name) for women. Can you explain this to me? Again, theologically speaking here, scriptural references would be greatly appreciated.

Also, I understand that you have chosen this garment for yourself but certainly your are not suggesting that women in Saudi Arabia for instance have a choice in this?

Can you explain why it is you do not see the Veil as an extreme extension of the gender bias of the old world? You have yet to do so and truly my position hangs on these points.

the Valentines said...

(Also, it was not my intention to suggest that Muslim women were brainless robots! Only that 'humble' and 'modest' by their definition would suggest that the individual would be deeply and meaningfully swayed by the wisdoms of their parents and the concern of their beloved partners.)

AnonyMouse said...

No problem, I'm always happy to engage in a positive dialogue :)

1) The Qur'anic verses regarding hijab are as follows:

“And tell the believing women to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things), and protect their private parts (from illegal sexual acts) and not to show off their adornment except only that which is apparent (like both eyes for necessity to see the way, or outer palms of hands or one eye or dress like veil, gloves, headcover, apron), and to draw their veils all over Juyoobihinna (i.e. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms) and not to reveal their adornment except to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husband’s fathers, or their sons, or their husband’s sons, or their brothers or their brother’s sons, or their sister’s sons, or their (Muslim) women (i.e. their sisters in Islam), or the (female) slaves whom their right hands possess, or old male servants who lack vigour, or small children who have no sense of feminine sex. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment. And all of you beg Allaah to forgive you all, O believers, that you may be successful”

[al-Noor 24:31]

“O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies. That will be better, that they should be known so as not to be annoyed. And Allaah is Ever Oft‑Forgiving, Most Merciful”
[al-Ahzaab 33:59]

The understanding that the covering (hijab) includes covering the face is well-known as shared in the following reports:

Ibn ‘Abbaas (may Allaah be pleased with him) said: “Allaah commanded the believing women, if they go out of their houses for some need, to cover their faces from the top of their heads with their jilbaabs, and to leave one eye showing.”

‘Aa’ishah said: The riders used to pass by us when we were with the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) in ihraam. When they came near us we would lower our jilbaabs from our heads over our faces, and when they had passed by we would uncover our faces. Narrated by Abu Dawood, 1562.
(I.E. even in Hajj when women were supposed to keep their faces uncovered - a difference from the default, which was to keep the face covered - they would cover their faces when men passed by)

Abu Dawood Book 32, Hadith # 4090
Narrated Umm Salamah, Ummul Mu'minin (Radhiallaahu Ánha): When the verse "That they should cast their outer garments over their persons" was revealed, the women of Ansar came out as if they had crows over their heads by wearing outer garments.

Abu Dawood Book 32, Hadith # 4091
Narrated Aisha, Ummul Mu'minin (Radhiallaahu Ánha) "May Allah have mercy on the early immigrant women. When the verse "That they should draw their veils over their bosoms" was revealed, they tore their thick outer garments and made veils from them.

(This implied that it was immediately understood by the earliest believing women that their faces were to be covered; and this was what they did.)

AnonyMouse said...

2) In Islam, obeying any commandment of God is considered to be a means of growing closer to Him. Thus, obeying parents, being honest, praying 5 times a day (at least), fasting, standing up for the oppressed, etc. are all one of the countless ways of obeying God and growing closer to Him. To observe the niqab is just one of these ways.

As for why men don't have to wear it, then it must be realized that Islam occasionally has some gender-specific rulings. For example, Muslim men are obligated to pray each of the obligatory prayers in congregation, at the mosque, unless circumstances are so extenuating that they cannot. Muslim women, on the other hand, are not obligated to do so. Men are also commanded to grow their beards, wear their pants/ robes above their ankles, and are forbidden from wearing gold and silk. None of these apply to Muslim women.

3) Have you ever been to Saudi Arabia? I have, and I was actually shocked to see how many Saudi women do not wear the niqaab or, in fact, the hijab. Saudi law stipulates only that Saudi women must wear the abaya in public (and you should see the types of abayaat available! Puts designers to shame, honestly).
Anyway, I cannot speak for all Saudi women and claim that none of them are forced to wear it, or that all of them are forced to wear it. What I do know is that those women who wear the niqab in Saudi Arabia, and indeed in other countries around the world, wear it for various reasons; some due to religious convictions (like me), and some due to cultural standards or family pressure.

It is important to note, here, that Islamic law does not have any specific measures to be taken against women who do not wear the niqaab. Anyone who forces a woman against her will, whether through threats, emotional abuse, or physical abuse, to wear it is in fact transgressing against the Islamic injunction that states that no one can be forced to believe or disbelieve.

4) I do not see the niqab as 'an extension of old world gender bias' because I fully believe that the requirement to wear it was not made up by some random dude who hated women and wanted to keep them locked up, but rather because it came as a command from God.
Furthermore, the niqab does not prevent a woman from having rights, from being able to travel and study, engage in business or to educate others. Islamic history is replete with examples of women who observed the full hijab, including niqaab, and were considered to be of the greatest scholars of their day.
The Prophet's wife A'ishah was a poet, a historian, a linguist, a doctor, an Islamic jurist, and an expert in the interpretation of the Qur'an. Khawlah bint al-Azwar was a Muslim woman who rescued her captive brother during a war against the Romans, and her military skills were so excellent that Muslim soldiers confused her with Khalid ibn Waleed, the commander of the army. She not only rescued her brother, but she also cooperated with Khalid and ensured victory for the Muslims - all of this while observing the niqab.
The sister of Salahud-Din al-Ayyubi, Zumurrud, was a pharmacist who subsidized medicine for the Muslim soldiers who fought against the Crusaders and built hospitals along the front lines of war.
These are only a very, very few women who have existed throughout history; women who wore the niqab but were never held back from excelling in other fields by either the niqab or even by Islamic law.

Unjust gender biases and discrimination are practiced and experienced only when there is a lack of correct understanding of Islamic knowledge. Discrimination against women exists all around the world, in every society and in every religion (and indeed, amongst atheists as well). Those who perpetuate this behaviour will use any excuse to keep women marginalized, and though the means may reflect a certain cultural or religious background, the motives are always the same. Religion is just an excuse.

Anonymous said...

Zainab, you are treating your hair and face like private parts (awrah). I must conclude, therefore, that you are not a friend to women because you participate in the creation of a very superficial dichotomy between those who are "pious" (veiled women) and those who are "profane" (unveiled women).

Even in the West, this turns women who do not behave as if their face and hair are private parts into targets for those who have fallen prey to misogynistic Islamist hate messages that women who do not veil are immoral and fair game for rape:

I ask, therefore, that you stop fueling hate crime rape. Please stop wearing the niqab.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous; Christians don't pray "once a week", some pray as they need to whilst others pray at set times (eg Opus Dei Catholics amongst others). I've heard the 'brides wearing veils' reasoning before and it is a throw back to a Roman custom which aimed to disguise the woman from 'the evil eye' (hmm, that sounds familiar). It was NOT to safeguard modesty but to hide and camouflage the bride amongst similarly dressed bridesmaids in order to confuse evil spirits as to whom exactly was the bride-to-be. Hope this puts the 'bridal veil confusion' to bed once and for all.