In the brouhaha calling for a ban on Niqabs (face veils) in France and in Europe in general, I could not help but remember my own mother, who was a Niqabi (face-veil-wearing woman, to use a recently coined term). She tugs at my memory even now, as she always will, over a quarter century after her death, and just days before Mother’s Day this weekend.
I grew up in rural Pakistan, during the first decades of the country’s establishment in 1947. For me, Niqabis were not a symbol of oppression, backwardness or alarm. Where I lived, both educated and illiterate women wore the face veil. As well, a number of women did not wear the face veil. But it was never an issue for either groups of women, nor for the men of this community. Nobody gave sermons about it, there were no political discussions about it, and it did not represent affiliation to unseemly elements in society.
The Niqab was part of a general understanding of modesty between men and women. And contrary to popular belief, the onus of responsibility for this virtue, highly valued in Islamic culture, was not just on the women. Both sexes were required to observe it.
For example, as a teenager, I regularly walked miles to school on pathways that were as narrow as one foot, in the midst of vegetable patches, crops of sugar cane and corn, as well as cotton fields. Sometimes, the women working in the fields would pass by in groups. The established etiquette was that if a man saw a group of women coming, he would move aside to let the group of women pass, and vice-versa if there were fewer women and more men passing by.
The women who worked in the fields usually did not cover their faces, but if they saw men approaching on these narrow paths, they would. Then they would remove their face veils. I don’t ever recall our Imam or anyone else lecturing us on this topic or parents telling us what to do. Yet, somehow, everyone knew how to be respectful toward the other gender.
But back to my mother, the first Niqabi I ever knew. She covered her face in public, but never her humanity. Her heart was always open to others and her motto in life was to serve.
I can’t remember a day she did not find some way to serve those in need. Whether it was providing food for the hungry, a shoulder to cry on or just a listening ear, she was a dynamo of service. Even her once large vegetable garden and her love for carpentry, were a means to the end of serving others.
Almost daily, she taught neighborhood girls who were not attending school basic reading and writing, along with how to read the Quran in our yard. And as a multi-tasker, as most moms are, she would usually be doing something on the side, whether it was cooking, sewing or tending to the other mundane tasks involved in keeping house.
Other times, she would speak at women-only gatherings held to honor the memory of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. Her speeches were about not just loving the Prophet, but putting his life and legacy into action as Muslims. When I was younger, I would tag along, enjoying the food, but also the sight of people dressed in white and being sprinkled with sweet-smelling rosewater.
As a child, I remember her taking me everywhere, including the women-only Meena bazaars. These were the equivalent of the high class benefits we hold today, only a lot simpler. There, like moms today who contribute to school bake sales, she would cook a special dish which was then sold for the good cause of the day. I especially liked her gulgulas and dahi baras.
But cooking, something she did almost daily, did not stop with these fundraisers. I remember her sweltering over a hot stove in 110-degree heat, making food to send to the mosque close to the local train station, where poor travelers and the homeless used to congregate. I used to think the Imam used to eat all of the food collected from the neighborhood’s women because he was so fat.
It was only when I was older that I discovered that he would serve all of that food spread out on reams of tablecloth in the Masjid. There, these men and women would get some respite from their gnawing hunger and loneliness.
There was no soup kitchen or food pantry. It was the mosque and the Muslim women like my mother running this system who provided for those in need.
Sometimes, random women would appear at our home to talk to my Niqabi mother. Some would cry and my mom would offer a hug of sympathy, a consoling heart and her full attention, no matter how long they needed to unburden themselves of their sadness. As is customary, she would feed them during their visits as well.
I remember one woman who my siblings and I called Khala (maternal aunt). She came from a nearby shanty town. Her husband used to beat her. I remember we children took our revenge and disgust of this abuser by refusing to buy from his shop and never offering our Salaam to him. There were many other unnamed women who we called Khala as well, who came seeking solace from my mother.
My Niqabi mother also attended the local Masjid regularly. This was 50 years ago in a small town in Pakistan. She would not miss Friday and late evening prayers in Ramadan, but would show up many other times as well. I remember all these Niqabis getting together for women-only discussions and classes as well as to hear lectures when a traveling preacher was in town. They would often gather in the mosque to discuss their social work for the community.
Our mosque always had a space for women to pray in. The door of the women’s entrance was at the side where the Imam stood, and the women’s section was on the right side of the Masjid. The men were on the left. Men and women could not see each other but loudspeaker arrangements were made so that everyone could hear. However, at that time it was not a big deal in that small town if a mosque had women’s space or not. Nobody gave sermons about it, wrote about it or made a big deal about the issue either way.
Grocery shopping was another activity my Niqabi mother took me with her to, like countless mothers do today. With her face covered, she moved through the markets, conversing with shopkeepers and negotiating the best price. She knew well who had the best deals, who was honest and who was a cheat.
Interestingly, none of the shopkeepers seemed to have an issue with her Niqab. Like salespersons the world over, they did their best to persuade a potential customer and haggle when necessary. They did not care that she was a woman with her face covered. She was a customer, and they would do whatever they could to ensure she remained one. There were many female grocery store owners in our vegetable market just like in Madinah, the Prophet’s city, where men and women bought and sold in the marketplace.
But my mother’s service and interests were not restricted to education and philanthropy. Politically, she was aware of the trends and issues of the day and she formed her own opinions. In the weeks before her death, she decided to vote in a national election that my father and the rest of my family were boycotting. After many spirited arguments, on the day of the election, she grabbed her Niqab, Hijab and long robe and went out on her own to find a polling station so she could cast her vote (she had to go to multiple polling stations to finally find her name in that less than organized election or was it a referendum? But that‘s another story).
When she passed away a few weeks later, on a cold day in December 1984, hundreds of people attended the funeral. Somehow, in a place and time where telephones were scarce, they had heard of her death. Many of the attendees were men who had never seen her face. But they knew her through her deeds: the countless meals served; the numerous lessons taught in her yard; the commitment to the hungry and homeless, the poor and needy. Hundreds of people took turns carrying her coffin, as they walked two miles on that frigid evening to bury her in the local cemetery.
My mother was a remarkable and successful woman. She lost a few children and raised others, all while teaching hundreds of girls, feeding the hungry and homeless, remaining aware of the political issues of her day and taking a stand when she had to. If this woman was not successful, I don’t know what success means.
Niqab is a form of dress Muslim women used to choose more often. Some still do while others do not. But whatever their choices, the Niqab issue is about freedom of religion and practicing what you believe in. My mother retained that choice and lived it, all while contributing positively to her society. May Allah bless her and may the reward of anything good I do continue to bless her.
May Allah give courage and patience to all those women who practice the faith the way they want to, not according to the dictates of any husband, father, brother…or government.
[The idea for the article first came to me when Fareed Zakaria (Editor, Newsweek) in one of his articles referred to his face veil-wearing (niqabi) aunt. He emphasized that this woman was cowed by no one, nor oppressed by her husband, father or brothers.
As a Muslim man, I cannot spak for Niqabi women. But as the son of a Niqabi, I can say this much: my mother, like Zakaria’s aunt, was hardly the incarnation of oppressed womanhood worldwide. While she chose to cover her face in public, she neither lost her identity for doing so, nor succumbed to the worst kind of misogyny because of it.
I personally don’t think that God or the Prophet, peace be upon him, ordained niqab, although there are many rules and etiquettes in Islam about modesty in dress and gender relations.
However, I do believe that freedom of religion in Islam and other societies does and must cover religious interpretations which are not acceptable to myself or others. That means accepting that some Muslim women will choose to wear Niqab and others will not.]