The niqab is making the headlines in the UK after Birmingham Metropolitan University banned the face veil and then reversed its decision last week.
On top of that parliament has recently debated the issue of the niqab, a senior government politician has called for a ban on it, and a Muslim woman was ordered to remove it during a trial.
Today we ask Mirina Paananen, who wears the niqab, to answer some tough questions that those who oppose the face veil often come up with. Mirina is a revert to Islam and a Cambridge University graduate with a BA in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. She is currently an Alimah degree student.
5Pillarz: Why do you wear the niqab?
Mirina Paananen: I wear the niqab because it is a virtuous action in the religion of Islam. It is an expression of my spirituality and an act that I believe to be pleasing to God.
5P: Was any pressure put on you to wear it?
MP: I have had no pressure whatsoever to wear the niqab. In fact, the opposite is true. My own parents disagreed with it and my husband initially discouraged me as he worried for my safety. I made the choice of my own volition and have won their support and confidence.
5P: Most Muslim scholars say it is not wajib so why do you insist on wearing it?
MP: There is a valid scholarly difference of opinion and discussion about the issue. However, what is agreed upon is that as a minimum, wearing the niqab is a virtuous, commendable action and there is no doubt that it was the practice of the earliest Muslim women whom I consider to be my spiritual role models.
5P: What do you say to those who say it is degrading to women? It eradicates their personalities?
MP: The niqab is uplifting, not degrading. I do not have to conform to what fashion and celebrity culture deems to be beautiful or desirable. I carve out my individuality and have the freedom to share that with whomsoever I like. The women I know who wear niqab have an array of temperaments and personalities and are very normal people getting on with their everyday business.
5P: Do you accept that in some circumstances it can be an impediment to security? For example in airports or banks people need to be easily identifiable?
MP: Niqab-wearing women will be the first to accept that covering the face will necessitate uncovering it for identification purposes and we are very happy to do so. I have done this on numerous occasions including passing through airport security.
5P: Why should anonymity be granted to one group of people only?
MP: It’s not for one group only. If another group of people wish to cover their face to express their religion or culture then that is fine by me. We should all have the freedom to choose.
5P: In schools or hospitals face recognition is also important, isn’t it?
MP: As I mentioned, whenever there is a genuine need to uncover the face this is accommodated, such as undergoing a medical examination, being identified etc, but that isn’t to say this is needed in every situation in a public institution.
5P: This is the UK not Saudi Arabia, can’t you accept that many British people find the niqab strange and divisive?
MP: Many women who wear the niqab are British themselves and British culture is not a homogeneous entity. As a white revert to Islam myself, people may object to my choice of dress just as I may find people with excessive tattoos, piercings or odd hairstyles strange. But we live in a liberal society and have the freedom to choose.
5P: Are you willing to compromise at all in the interests of community harmony? Don’t you want to be a full member of British society?
MP: I do feel that I am a full member of British society. I keep abreast of current affairs, I own a composting bin (!), make small-talk with my neighbours and organise community charity events. The issue is of contribution, not of assimilation, and women who wear the niqab most certainly are contributing.
If politicians really were concerned about engagement in society, surely rather than trying to target and marginalise this very small, rather benign group, they might like to address the 138,000 people living in England and Wales who (according to the 2011 census) speak no English at all… is this not a bigger barrier to integrating in British society?