Page last updated at 11:34 GMT, Monday, 23 August 2010 12:34 UK

Why are women choosing to wear the niqab?

Watch the film in full

Increasing numbers of British Muslim women are choosing to wear the face veil. Two of those women explain to Newsnight why they adopted the niqab when their mothers did not.

Rumaysa, aged 27

I started wearing the niqab about eight years ago and I started wearing it in the first year of university - and my decision to wear it was to help me in my religion as an act of worship. It helps me and protects me. I feel [it] empowers me, and it helps me to realise and get closer to achieving my aim, which is to please my creator.

No-one in Rumaysa's family wears the niqab

It empowers me because when I talk I believe I have a voice, I have an opinion, I'm my own person - my own personality comes across, and when people talk to me, they don't... think 'she's looking like this, she's looking like that,' so my voice comes across and people are judging me for who I am, rather than what I look like.

Why did the earlier generations like our parents, their parents, when they came here, why did they not wear the niqab? Their purpose was to earn a better livelihood, make money and give a better life to their children. Their aim was to come here, work, fit in with the society. And we are saying hang on, we are born here, we are part of the society. I see myself as British.

Twenty years ago, fair enough, the niqab would have been virtually non-existent. You've got to bear in mind it's their choice to wear it, and as a democratic country, can we really dictate to people how they should dress?

To take the niqab off would be stripping me of my identity as a woman and stripping me of my beliefs - and for me personally, I am nothing without my beliefs
I get mixed reactions from people. There are people who are understanding, who are educated, and if they approach you and they really want to understand why you wear the niqab and you explain it to them, they are absolutely fine with it. They understand that a face is not an essential component of communication.

And you get other people who, no matter what, they are ignorant or they are just plain racist and do not want to understand. Why should I compromise my religious beliefs to please other people, when it's not harming them in any way whatsoever?

Of course it upsets me that this intolerance is going on, but it doesn't make me think I want to take it off, because then I'm not being true to myself. To take the niqab off would be stripping me of my identity as a woman and stripping me of my beliefs - and for me personally, I am nothing without my beliefs.

I believe I integrate fully into British society. I go to work and the people I work with - the majority of them are non-Muslims - and they've been absolutely fine with me, I've been fine with them. They haven't had a problem in terms of me communicating. They've never seen the niqab as a barrier, and they see me for who I am and they see beyond the niqab.

Muslim headscarves

The word hijab comes from the Arabic for veil and is used to describe the headscarves worn by Muslim women. These scarves come in myriad styles and colours. The type most commonly worn in the West is a square scarf that covers the head and neck but leaves the face clear.
The niqab is a veil for the face that leaves the area around the eyes clear. However, it may be worn with a separate eye veil. It is worn with an accompanying headscarf.
The burka is the most concealing of all Islamic veils. It covers the entire face and body, leaving just a mesh screen to see through.
The al-amira is a two-piece veil. It consists of a close fitting cap, usually made from cotton or polyester, and an accompanying tube-like scarf.
The shayla is a long, rectangular scarf popular in the Gulf region. It is wrapped around the head and tucked or pinned in place at the shoulders.
The khimar is a long, cape-like veil that hangs down to just above the waist. It covers the hair, neck and shoulders completely, but leaves the face clear.
The chador, worn by many Iranian women when outside the house, is a full-body cloak. It is often accompanied by a smaller headscarf underneath.
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Khola, aged 42

I was never expected to wear the niqab. I don't think it ever crossed my parents' minds. The hijab was important, and I wore it at a very young age. The niqab was never even an issue.

Khola Hasan
Khola used to wear the niqab, but now wears the hijab

[I started wearing the niqab when] I was at university and I was mixing with a group of very young, very radical men and women - students like myself who were, I suppose, bringing a very literalist, very, what we would call now, fundamentalist interpretation of the sacred text.

And one of the things everybody was saying in the group was that the niqab is compulsory.

The group was bringing scholars from countries like Kuwait, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, who were all preaching the same thing - that women should be completely covered from head to toe, even the hands and the feet, that there should be total segregation as much as possible.

There was a lot of violence against Muslim countries and one of the things that was being said again and again [by these scholars] was, 'look - the world is out to get Muslims. We are weak, we are vulnerable, we have lost the incredibly stunning empire that we had in Spain for example under the Ottomans - we've lost all that - and everyone is waiting to feast on us'.

And that was the language that was being used, 'the non-Muslim world is like wolves waiting to feast on Muslims - and the reason we are weak and vulnerable is because we are far away from true Islam. So we need to recapture true Islam in order to become strong again'.

I wanted to go to school with my three-year-old son and be able to smile at the other mothers and have them smile back at me, and it wasn't happening when I was wearing the niqab

I think my generation was very unhappy. We had experienced quite a bit of racism in the 70s and 80s. We were very aware of the fact that our parents were immigrants - we weren't, but we were not accepted, and we probably would never be accepted. We were searching for an identity, we were really struggling and we just couldn't be happy being British because we were not treated as English.

So we were making this point about being different and being Arab - and in our thought prophetic.

[I decided to stop wearing the niqab because] I found it incredibly impractical. I enjoy doing outdoor things and it's just very hard to do many of those. I enjoy eating out - that's one of the things I enjoy the most, and it is very hard if you're wearing the niqab.

I wanted to go to school with my three-year-old son and be able to smile at the other mothers and have them smile back at me, and it wasn't happening when I was wearing the niqab.

I was also sensing a racism - a racism I had felt when I was a child growing up. My children were experiencing racism. I started to realise slowly maybe the fact that I dress so differently is not helping... so I took off the niqab.

I think that the niqab does not help in terms of integration and it does not help the community.

The beauty of Islam is that it has universal values and rules within the Koran, and they are meant to take Muslims forward into whichever society in which they live - whether in the desert as Nomads, or in modern Britain or in America, wherever, they should be able to contextualise the Koranic rules.

Watch Newsnight's film about the niqab on Monday 23 August 2010 at 2230 BST on BBC Two, BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.

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