The niqab, burka and things women women use to cover their heads and faces due to faith are of great fascination for much of Western society. Much of the commentary precludes opinions from the ‘primary source’ (women who wear these items of clothing), and as such there are significant and often damaging assumptions made about the subjects.
‘Subjects’ is an uncomfortable but apt term, as many niqabed Muslim women are seen as foreign objects of curiosity and conjecture. They are rarely ever perceived as human women who have hopes, dreams, kids, families, gardens, laundry and all the same dramas as every other human.
So given the fact that I don’t wear the niqab, what gives me the right to talk about this topic?
Nothing really, to be honest, and I do my best not to talk on behalf of, but to hopefully propose alternative narratives in an effort to change perceptions. This post is one such example.
As you may or may not know, I spent the first half of 2012 in Sudan with my grandmother, learning how to cook, become a ‘good housewife’ and studying Arabic at the local university. The university I went to, unbeknown to me at the time, turned out to be an Islamic based - and very traditional - institution for international students from all over Africa. This meant that the classes for men and women were separated and many of the women were from all over Africa, rather than just Sudan.
I was fortunate enough to befriend many of my fellow classmates, although it was an interesting experience as our life experiences were very different! Funnily enough, because we were in an all-women class, all the ladies would remove any niqabs they wore and many would have their hair out (the 45 - 50 degree heat wasn’t conducive to many layers of clothing). As such, my ideas of them were not founded around what they wore but their varied personalities and stories. I’d actually forgotten they all wore niqabs until I saw the following photographs on a former colleague’s Facebook page:
What are these photos, you may be asking? Are we seeing women being trained up for some crazy operation that we don’t understand?
No, what you see are African (Ugandan and Nigerian) women being trained as mechanical engineers and technicians.
Not only do these women have to brave the standard ‘women in engineering’ perception, they have to do so in an extremely hostile and patriarchal culture. They learn how to take apart engines, weld and manufacture equipment, and do so with flair.
It is inspiring.
They’re smart and driven, but also feminine and devout. Sure, it isn’t easy. There is no denying the difficulties… but these are examples of women who do almost everything they want to, and what they wear in no way oppresses them.
Kinda cool huh? Glad you clicked? I am too :)