Veiled Objections: Facing Public Opposition to the Niqab

AuthorNatasha Bakht
[  ]
chapter two
    many Western democracies are increasingly
multicultural; that is, heterogeneous in terms of race, class, religion,
gender identity, ability, and sexual dierence. Despite many moves toward
increasing tolerance for such diversity, the inclination toward religion in
the public sphere is frequently experienced as dangerous. Perhaps this
is in part due to generalized beliefs that religious views are necessarily
narrow-minded or less progressive. e risky nature of overt displays
of religion in public spaces is aggravated many-fold when the bearers of
religion are Muslim. Suspicion of Muslims is partly the result of the
historically fraught relationship between Islamic societies and “the West,”
and this has no doubt been further fuelled in the aftermath of , sub-
sequent terrorist attacks in several Western nations, and the ubiquitous
national security rhetoric of many nations that target primarily Muslims.
Muslim women garner particular attention for their dress.
* An earlier version of this chapter was f‌irst published as part of an edited collection:
Natasha Bakht, “Veiled Objections: Facing Public Opposition to the Niqab” in Lori G
Beaman, ed, Reasonable Accommodation: Managing Religious Diversity (Vancouver:
UBC Press, 2012) 70. It has since been substantially updated.
[  ]
In Your Face
It seems that as Westerners, we have barely recovered from the
fact that some Muslim women wear the hijab when the latest focus
of anti-Muslim hysteria appears in full swing, this time over women
who wear the niqab. Niqab-wearing women appear to provoke such a
repugnance in many people that they are unable to move beyond this
initial visceral reaction. My concern about this revulsion led me to col-
lect and ref‌lect on public reactions to Muslim women who cover their
faces. is chapter is an attempt to analyze the growing agitation that
has been expressed about Muslim women who cover their faces. I occa-
sionally use examples of hijab- or headscarf-wearing women where an
example involving a niqab-wearing woman was not available, or where
the rationale used to justify a prohibition is equally applicable to both
types of Islamic veils. Although the hijab and niqab are dierent, both
of these types of Muslim women’s religious dress are often perceived
by non-wearers as threats to gender equality or other values that people
see as belonging to the nation. e niqab is arguably more controversial
than the hijab because it covers the womans face (as opposed to only her
hair) and is not as commonly seen. us, where the hijab has garnered
opposition or criticism, my rationale is that the niqab will be considered
even more problematic or inf‌lammatory.
I trace North American, European, and some southern global con-
texts in which the issue of the face veil is a site of social debate and
contestation by canvassing media and law reports from the last twelve
years. While there are unique socio-political factors that shape local
responses to the face veil in dierent regions and nations (and where
possible, I elucidate these), the commonalities and recurring themes that
emerge are striking. e depth of discomfort evoked by these women
and their outward markers of religiosity is extraordinary and, as I will
demonstrate, results in a wide range of rationalizations as to why their
public displays of religiosity must be banned.
e purpose of this chapter is to review the reasons for opposing the
niqab by critically examining arguments put forth for why women should
not wear face-coverings. e intent is not to further marginalize an
already beleaguered minority. Rather, I am of the view that it is impera-
tive to unpack arguments that insist on alienating a religious minority
such that the refocusing of the gaze is on “us,” on the reasons we oer

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