Page last updated at 06:56 GMT, Monday, 15 March 2010

'Apprehension' among Muslim women

Selma Chalabi
Selma Chalabi said she was called names while wearing a niqab

The French parliament is to vote on a proposal to ban the face covering known as the niqab or burqa. BBC Wales reporter SELMA CHALABI looks at what is happening in France and finds out how Muslims in Wales are responding.

These days it is quite common to see women walking around the part of Cardiff that I live in covered head to toe in a dark colour, usually black.

It is so common that I hardly blink anymore, but I remember a time not that long ago when I would have done a double take.

As the daughter of a practising Christian British mother and a lapsed Muslim Iraqi father, my own values and cultural references have been almost entirely shaped by this country.

But with half of my family being Muslim, I have a natural desire to understand that side of my heritage.

Within minutes of stepping out of Aminah's front door, two van drivers beeped and stared aggressively at us

When women started to cover their faces on British streets, my curiosity got the better of me.

I wanted to know who they were, and under what circumstances they chose (or not) to cover.

I also wanted to try the cover for myself to see what it feels like and how people respond.

I got my chance when I was asked by BBC Radio Wales' Eye On Wales programme to find out what Muslims in Wales feel about the proposed ban in France.

My guide was Cardiff-born Aminah Delgado, who converted to Islam at the age of 22, and chose to cover her face two years later in 2001.

For her, wearing her outer clothes such as the abaya (full-length gown) and the niqab (face cover) is like putting on her shoes.

After showing me how to put the clothes on, we ventured out into Cardiff.

Anti-racism poster in Birmingham
The interpretation that the face should be covered is not agreed by all theologians.

Within minutes of stepping out of Aminah's front door, two van drivers beeped and stared aggressively at us.

I thought they only paid attention to women who wore next to nothing.

Striding along covered up in a dark burgundy cover, I felt no different in myself.

The cloth is very light and can hardly be felt, although breathing in air through a piece of cloth was none too pleasant.

What was different was how people reacted. People would stare, sometimes curiously, sometimes aggressively, giggle as if we could not see them, and call us names such as ninjas.

Even the Big Issue seller ignored me. That has never happened before.

However I should point out that on another trip to Cardiff city centre, no-one blinked an eyelid.

There was the occasional stare, especially as I browsed through the rails of a high street fashion store, but the overwhelming impression I had was that people were not bothered.

Nevertheless, this piece of cloth causes feelings to run high, especially amongst politicians and the media.

Misunderstandings are rife. The word burqa for instance has been seized upon by the media - burqa commission, burqa ban. It sounds good, but it is inaccurate.

Muslim woman in a park (generic)
Some Muslim women say they feel "society's disapproval"

The burqa is the mesh covered gown that women in Afghanistan wear. In Europe, the Arab-style niqab is favoured, which is the piece of material drawn across the nose and mouth leaving the eyes exposed.

In France, the government is concerned about the growing visibility of the niqab on their streets.

Out of 5m Muslims, only an estimated 2,000 women are covering up to this extent, but the French are worried that this is a growing trend.

Politicians such as the UMP's Jacques Myard are convinced that the face cover is an affront to French values of secularity, dignity and equality, and that it must be nipped in the bud by clear rulings from parliament.

The only way forward, in his view, is to legislate a ban.

Muslims throughout the world, and here in Wales, are watching with keen interest. France will vote on a resolution and possibly a ban after the regional elections which end on 21 March.

Nation's values

France has already banned the hijab (head scarf) in schools in line with its policy on all religious symbols, but this ruling would take things further by singling out the niqab and burqa, and banning it in all public places including transport, libraries and banks.

If Mr Myard gets his way, the niqab will be banned on the streets as well.

In the Muslim world, Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia have already banned the face cover in an effort to crack down on the growing influence of Islamic party politics.

Muslim women in Paris supermarket
The hijab (head scarf) is banned in schools in France

Within these shores, UKIP and the BNP are the only political parties calling for a ban.

Most of the Muslim women I talked to during the making of this programme are apprehensive.

Many of these women wear the hijab, which covers their hair and neck, and they already feel the weight of society's disapproval.

One hijab wearer told me that she does not wear her scarf to work for fear that she will be sidelined and not promoted.

For these women, this focus on a small minority of women who choose to cover their face further alienates and marginalises Muslim women.

Women such as Iman (her name has been changed), who has raised a family in Cardiff and holds down a high ranking professional position, told me: "I think it's symptomatic of something much more serious and profound, that is the notion of trying to create an us and them situation… "

I'm not harming anyone. I won't take it (my niqab) off. It's very important to me
Aminah Delgado

"It's trying to make us out as though we are something completely alien and foreign, that it's completely impossible for us to live as legitimate, contributing citizens within Europe."

Some Muslim women I talked to do not condone a ban, but nevertheless think that there needs to be more debate and dialogue.

Shaista Gohir, of the Muslim Women's Network, told me that she has noticed a visible increase in women choosing to cover their faces, and she worries that such women are putting themselves in a vulnerable position, particularly with regards to job opportunities.

The 2001 census showed that 66% of Muslim women were economically inactive, and Shaista's concern is that this figure will get worse if the trend to cover one's face increases.

Most Muslims agree that the Quran indicates that believing women should cover their hair and chest.

The interpretation that the face should be covered is not agreed by all theologians.

'Working hard'

It is a matter of personal choice, but Shaista thinks that some women are not getting access to the full range of interpretations.

For me, making this programme has been a steep learning curve. What I have felt is lacking in this whole debate is women's voices.

When did you last hear the voice of a woman who wears a niqab, or for that matter a hijab, on television or radio? I am glad to have had the opportunity to seek these voices out.

Iman summed up the feelings of many of the women I talked to: "If women are working hard, if they're bringing up children well, if they're looking after the environment and their neighbours and their extended family… such women are a contribution to society, not a scourge."

These women just want to get on with their lives, and feel that surely there are bigger things facing the world right now.

Not so according to Mr Myard, who told me down the line from the BBC studio in Paris that "this is more important than the economic crisis".

As for niqab wearer Aminah Delgado, whatever is going on in the world, she is adamant that she has the right to cover: "This is what I want to do to get closer to Allah. I'm not harming anyone. I won't take it (my niqab) off. It's very important to me. I won't take it off."

Eye On Wales, BBC Radio Wales - Monday 15 March, 1830 GMT

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