Wait...what? But aren't you a Muslim?
That is correct.
Okay so I'm going to be completely honest with everyone: I don't like the burqa and don't come from a religious background that encourages wearing it or views it as an Islamic obligation. I won't get into all my reasons for the technical issues I have with burqas here, but let's just say I find it problematic and have a lot of emotional and mental baggage associated with it. This has fueled a prejudice I have against women who cover their faces. Terrible, I know. This is despite the fact that I'm against burqa-bans and believe that we should respect any woman's choice to wear it.
This may sound strange and contradictory coming from a hijabi, Muslim woman who would define herself as a feminist. You might also be surprised to know that growing up, I wore the niqab for short intervals. It was never for religious reasons but for cultural ones during my trips to Saudi to visit my family. Back then, covering your face was a cultural norm enforced to a stricter degree by the government. Things have changed a lot since then in Saudi. But definitely as a teen, everyone covered their faces and if you didn't, people wouldn't be happy about it. So I wore a niqab during my summers in Saudi and so did all the women in my family who were all intelligent, educated women. The vast majority of the women I know in Saudi still do.
So I'm perfectly aware of the fact that face covering isn't always an accurate indicator of a woman's beliefs and general lifestyle. Still, I can trace the hostility I feel towards face veils to those years wearing it. Firstly, I hated covering my face. It wasn't just the practical side of wearing a niqab in the heat that used to bother me but the feeling of being erased, feeling identity-less. Of course, my personal experiences aren't meant to represent how women wearing burqas feel around the world. Other women may and do feel differently.
Then there was the fact that wearing a face veil was imposed onto me by a religious establishment that looked down on me as a Shiite Muslim. I learned from textbooks as a child that Muslims like me are considered infidels whose blood can and should be shed. As a teenager living in the West, the feeling of being part of a persecuted, religious minority was solidified every time we watched another Shiite mosque being bombed in Iraq or heard of buses-full of Shiites being slaughtered in Afghanistan. In the face of this kind of intolerance my mind was quick to associate the burqa with this sort of mentality. After all, extremist organisations all happen to enforce face veils, like the Taliban for instance.
But there's a difference between saying 'Muslim fundamentalists cover their faces' and saying 'If you cover your face, then you must be a fundamentalist.' I know it's wrong to generalize and to make assumptions based on how people dress because that's exactly what Islamophobes do to women who look like me. Still, when I'm on the tube and a woman in a burqa walks in, my natural instinct is to stay away, to announce to everyone:
'I'm not like her. Muslims like her hate Muslims like me. They hate us and hurt us more than you.'
It sounds pretty mean and is, I suppose. I don't know these women after all. They could be the nicest, most tolerant people ever. But it's really hard for me to disassociate the burqa from everything I've come to learn and understand about those who wear it. I see it and it's like seeing a swastika and trying to tell myself that the person wearing it isn't a Nazi. The metaphor might shock you, but that's exactly the effect that seeing the burqa has on me. And I don't know how not to feel this way. I don't know how to look at a woman in a burqa and not think:
'This woman is one of those kind of Muslims. The kind that pray for Bin Laden and celebrate when Shiites are murdered.'
So no, I don't believe that women in face veils are oppressed. I guess my concern is that people who dress that way follow a specific ideology that monopolizes religious truths and encourages the oppression of those who are different.
And the truly scary thing is that this logic is exactly the same used by Islamophobes who probably look at the way I dress and think:
'She's one of those. The kind that hate us and want to hurt us.'
This reality makes me even more bitter and resentful; especially when I have to deal with backlash against Muslims. A backlash caused by extremists who don't even view me as a real Muslim to begin with. What injustice is this? At these times, I feel justified to judge other Muslims, to judge women in burqas. I feel justified to hate. Hate who? Sunnis? No. Never. My closest friends are moderate Sunnis. My love for them has always been a buffer; it keeps the the anger, hatred and frustration from spreading. Salafis then? Yes.
But even Salafis are not all the same. No group is all the same. Is every Salafi woman in a niqab or burqa intolerant or hateful? I know that this is a statistical impossibility.
Sometimes, I take a step back and think: 'Shit... Have I become an Islamophobic Muslim?' How do you even escape this cycle of prejudice, fear and hate?
I honestly don't know how.