My understanding before my niqab experiment had been that it is not required for all Muslim women, but may have been something the Prophet’s wives were told to adopt, peace be upon them all. I have a few friends who choose to wear niqab, but I had never talked to them in detail about their choices. I respected it as a valid option and recognised that especially in the countries many of them live, it’s not a popular choice.
Living in Pakistan though, where everyone dresses modestly year-round, and head-covers of one type or another are the norm, niqab is plentiful. So much so that in my very first meeting with my very first expat acquaintance in Karachi, I was told to consider wearing niqab here in order to avoid some of the situations that come up when the natives know we’re American. I gave her advice some serious thought. Unfortunately, because it was also August at the time, I was smack in the middle of a miserable second trimester of pregnancy, and it was what felt like 1,000 degrees and 110% humidity every day, I just couldn’t stomach it. However, the seed was planted to give it a go in milder temperatures and see what it was like. When winter rolled around and the daytime highs became tolerable, I finally decided to give it a go.
In preparation for my experiment, I watched a few YouTube videos to determine what might be the best way to wrap my existing scarves. I wasn’t quite ready to make a more substantial investment in a black set unless I knew I wanted to wear niqab long-term. I found one style that looked like it gave good coverage, was easy to wrap and didn’t require more than two pins: I decided to give it a try.
I put on my first niqab one night as my husband and baby and I were leaving the house to go out to dinner. I came out of the bedroom and two of my sisters in law (one visiting from the USA and one from another part of Karachi) gave me priceless looks. “I’m just trying something new” I said to them gleefully. It appeared that this new level I was taking things to clearly made them uncomfortable. The first one looked at me with a bemused smirk, the other’s mouth hung open for a few moments too long but she regained her composure and played it off well. I still need to explain to them that I was doing it for personal research – not making any drastic lifestyle changes just yet!
I only got as far as the car before I realised that I had no idea what the protocol was for eating out with niqab. I’d seen a few friends lifting it slightly to allow access to their mouths, but I was planning to order a curry and some parathas – I would be needing to eat with my hands. We drove off and I mulled over the logistics. My husband, laughing a bit at my experiment, told me I was “cute”. I told him I was having to breathe my own bad breath, but in the dark, and with niqab on, at least he couldn’t tell what faces I was making at him. I shifted the A/C vent to point right at my face so I could get more air.
When we arrived at the restaurant, I definitely noticed that the waiters didn’t stare at me at all like they used to. This proof, similar to the affirmations I received after a similar personal experiment with my hijab in 2011, started me thinking that perhaps niqab is a bit more of a protection after all – even WITH the printed scarf I had worn.
I didn’t have much time to mull that over because soon the food and drinks arrived. Holding a fussy newborn in my arms while manipulating a soda with a straw under a niqab for the first time turned out to be near impossible to do one handed. I ended up giving up before I made a mess of myself and flipped the niqab bit over my head for the duration of dinner as I had seen some women do in the past. Eating with niqab one handed apparently has a rather steep learning curve, and I decided skipping a meal was out of the question.
I had also been a bit curious to see if I would still get the gawking stares due to the fact that I wasn’t wearing gloves and my skin colour is decidedly not as dark as many Pakistanis. Well in the darkness I must pass as Pashto when I wear niqab! Sweet! As long as I didn’t speak to anyone perhaps I wouldn’t get harassed as much, could move about with less trepidation, and my hubby wouldn’t keep getting overcharged for things with me stood next to him! I also fantasised about hiding my coloured eyes with some dashing Jackie O-esque sunglasses as well.
In another outing with niqab I made sure that we weren’t planning on eating out. This was to be a longish trip to the local bazaar for fruits, veggies and some other essentials. I had a cold and was glad that my niqab probably offered a bit more protection for my little one, in addition to the antibodies in my breast milk, since it would keep me from breathing in her face ALL day at least. I also realised that works in the reverse as well. How cool that niqab protects us from dust, some kinds of pollution and random illnesses and irritants! Just so long as I remember to brush my teeth before going out, carry mint gum at all times, or make sure to stop and buy some paan!
Since I was coming down with something and not feeling too great, my hubby insisted I sit in the car while he ran the errands for us. In such cases in the past, while sitting outside in a marketplace populated by 95% male merchants and clients I would get at LEAST a half dozen “careful you almost twisted your head off staring at me as you walked by” first gazes. With niqab? Zero, zilch, nothing. It’s almost like I was invisible! Which is perfect because I am not the show-offy type and very much an introvert. The less attention I receive (in public especially) the better.
I didn’t get a chance to wear my niqab for a much-anticipated outing to a local Sunday market, but I hope to soon! I’m definitely keen to wear niqab more frequently in the days to come and to see if my initial practical observations are bolstered by some feelings of increased iman as well. It could be, in fact most probably is, that my actions/intentions were not properly aligned, but this was a much-needed first step. I’m also nervous that as the days get hotter and more humid I may end up unable to cope – but we’ll see! People in different cultures and societies are tested in their dress in different ways. In some more mild summer climates it is culturally dubious to don a niqab, whereas here it’s culturally anticipated, yet more physically demanding due to the climate conditions. As I continue on my own personal journey that brought me here, from the USA to Pakistan, I pray that I will be guided to continue to make all the changes that are needed to bring me closer to Allah I in all that I do.
Read Part 1 HERE:
Janet Kozak joins two other sisters as they upgrade their level of hijab and assess the changes they experience.
Read Part 3 HERE
Janet Kozak spoke to Yasmine, a sister donning the hijab. However, Yasmine found a less than positive transformation within herself due to other Muslims’ perceptions of hijab.
Janet Kozak is founder and COO of the PR and communications firm Resoulute. She’s an entrepreneur driven by business insights and boundless creativity. Janet’s most interested in women-owned business development and social causes including public health issues and domestic violence education in Muslim communities. She founded an online advocacy and support group, Muslim Women Against Domestic Violence and Abuse, and also recently spoke on the topic of financial abuse at the 2nd International Conference on Women’s Empowerment in Karachi, Pakistan. She can be found on Facebook and Twitter.