Face to face with niqab questions

As a rule, I am not a fan of those little mini-opinion features that editors have started attaching to online news stories in order to gain an extra click or two for the website's daily statistics. However, I thought that the following question offered an important insight into a Washington Post story that focuses on one of the most symbolic and emotional issues facing Islam today in the Western world. Go here to read the story and cast your vote, if you wish. The voting reflects the moment earlier today when I prepared this post:

Cast Your Vote

Do you think the niqab is repressive even when a woman wears it by choice?

Yes -- 64 percent No -- 36 percent

That's the dilemma that is at the heart of this interesting, but ultimately shallow, report. As you read it, you can almost hear an editor or two arguing about the central premise of the report -- that female converts to Islam choose to cover their faces as an expression of strength and individualism, not as a symbol of submission to, oh, something resembling male patriarchy (insert the hot feminist phrase of your choice at this point).

The lede focuses on one such woman, 55-year-old Safiyyah Abdullah:

Abdullah, a Chicago-born, Lutheran-raised social science researcher, has lived in the Washington area for more than 30 years. And in that time, almost no one has seen her face.

She wears a niqab, the same kind of Muslim veil that France earlier this week declared illegal to wear in public. At least one woman there was cited and fined under the new ban, and several others were arrested while protesting it in Paris. In the United States, some outraged Muslims have called for a boycott of French goods, while others have quietly applauded the prohibition of a garment they see as repressive.

During a round of morning errands Wednesday, Abdullah reflected on her experiences as part of a tiny minority of American Muslim womenwho go beyond a head scarf and wear the full veil. Since she put on the niqab shortly after converting to Islam in 1975, daily outings have been a mix of harassment and compassion, comfort and alienation.

She gets harassed when using mass transit, pulled over while driving (yes, she drives) and she quips that she is thinking about changing her first name to "random," as a tribute to the searches she receives when going through airport security lines. And what does her husband think of all of this? That detail slips into this interesting passage.

Abdullah, a poet who does readings at Busboys and Poets and other open-mic venues, boasts a sharp Chicago accent and a ringing laugh that lights up her eyes. If there is a matching smile, only her family and a few female friends have seen it.

She said covering herself to all outsiders lets her interact with the world on her own terms. “When I dress this way, you are required to deal with me intellectually and that’s it,” Abdullah said.

Abdullah views the veil as a strictly voluntary part of Islam. Her 28-year-old daughter covers her hair, but doesn’t wear the veil. Her husband of 31 years (they divorced five years ago) never liked it, and she once went nearly three years without it when they lived in New York. She did not like the uncovered life.

“People come up to me and say, ‘This is America, your husband can’t make you wear that,’ she said. “I say, ‘You don’t understand, this is my choice.’ ”

Now, as you can see from the mini-poll cited above, there is another point of view that needs to be covered in this Metro-front news feature. Think of it as the other half of a tough question about feminism and/or modern liberalism. Is something liberal/feminist because to reflects a woman's choice, or because it reflects concerns about the reality reflected by this choice in many other cultures? Is the niqab a sign of liberation or repression? To the majority of women who wear it freely choose to do so?

So where is the other side of this story?

You will find this material in a very strange place: Located in the final two paragraphs. Why is it located there? Why is this theme all but overlooked, until the Post readers voice their concerns? Good question.

Asra Nomani, a local Muslim feminist and author of “Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam,” is seeing more covered women in area malls and dog parks. Most of them, she suspects, are converts to Islam.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find many native-born Muslims who wear niqab,” said Nomani, who would support a ban on religious face coverings here. “It’s been mostly accepted within Islam that women are not required to wear the veil. Even these women who adopt the veil voluntarily are promoting a hard-line ideology.”

This raises another question. Nomani is a Muslim feminist, we are told. OK, then what is Abdullah, the outspoken, witty, divorced, poetry-reading professional woman whose story dominates this report?

For me, this is a classic news subject that deserved two writers, two headlines, two pieces of art, two thesis statements. Yes, this subject deserved two completely different stories to show readers a sincere attempt to listen to and grasp the two different perspectives. This one story is hard to take very seriously and this is a serious subject.

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