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Kunmi Omisore: The Veil Debate



I have this hypothetical friend, Rebecca. I like Rebecca. We’re not entirely different; I mean, we both watch Scandal. We both really enjoy baking and Candy Crush and Olamide’s music. We even have similar life goals. But there’s this one thing about Rebecca… She has this large hairy mole on her face I can’t stop staring it. But, you know, it’s just out of concern for her and all. She should probably have that checked out because it could be cancerous. You never know these things. It’s not because I don’t like moles or they bother me or scare me or anything, it’s really because I care about Rebecca’s welfare. Really.

As you may be able to tell, I don’t give a crap about Rebecca. Or her ‘welfare’. In actual fact, I am more concerned about the fact that her mole irritates me than about the prospect of it being cancerous and her general well-being.

This is my handy analogy for so-called activists against Muslim women wearing the face veil (hijab). Nearly 100% of those pro-banning the hijab claim to be fighting against oppression and for the equal rights of women across religious and ethnic barriers (mostly living in developed countries). But is that the whole truth? Is that even the truth at all? Allison Pearson, a Telegraph UK writer, says in a 2013 article, “How free is an 11-year-old who only sees her city through a letterbox slit, and who is obliged to dress in a way that intimidates people, prevents any connection being made, and ends up stoking even more racist feeling? How free are the children at the Ayesha Siddiqa Girls’ School, which, like other private Islamic schools, requires pupils to wear a burka or jilbab (headscarf)? The Ayesha Siddiqa School had an emergency inspection earlier this year that raised concerns about the 120 girls’ “welfare, health and safety”.”

How convenient that the welfare, health and safety issues for “those poor girls” – as she describes them in her article – are conveniently addressed after she singlehandedly declares the Muslim headscarf as ‘intimidating’. Her immediate concerns are the prevention of “any connection being made” – which of course has nothing to do with the ‘connectees’ – and the headscarf encouraging racism. She automatically assumes that the young girl or woman under that burka is oppressed and in bondage because it’s a lifestyle that she clearly could never understand, let alone embrace.

The issue is not whether or not the burka, hijab or jilbab is a tool of oppression or not, as that is a massively complex debate in itself. Contrary to popular belief, a significant proportion of Muslim women make the choice to wear a face veil or be fully covered, and believe it to be a symbol of pride in their religion. The issue here is the denial; the denial that a Muslim woman covered simply makes people uncomfortable.
Rhadika Sanghani, a British Indian reporter carried out a real-life experiment. She wore a niqab for a day and reported the dramatic change in people’s reactions and behaviour towards her as a perceived Muslim woman. “People looked at me – and then immediately turned away. There were no shared smiles of consolation when I dropped my iPhone, or sympathetic glances when a teenager playing blaring music sat next to me. With my face covered, nobody knew if I was smiling or frowning. They all assumed I wanted to be left totally alone, without the usual public interactions you can expect on public transport. I didn’t.”

Underlining this debate isn’t mere care and concern for the effects on the Muslim woman or her right to make choices or what she wants/needs. It’s largely a selfish, one-sided argument. It’s about how it makes ‘us’ feel as on-lookers and ‘our’ need to impose certain ideals, not just about how this could or could not be “anti-democratic”.

Some would argue that this is a way of cowering, under the pretense of giving women – of all religions, ethnicities, social class, etc. – “choice” and “freedom of expression”, so as to sweep the important issues under the carpet, but it is not as simple as that. It’s about acknowledging that it appears to affect ‘us’ just as much as ‘we’ believe it affects Muslim women. The Non-Muslim has suddenly become a part of the equation; a ‘consideration’ in the matter. So let’s not pretend it’s all about ‘The Oppressed’. The title of Pearson’s article, ‘The burka casts a veil on all of us – so ban them’, says it all; it’s not just – if at all – about ‘them’, it’s also very much about ‘us’ – whoever that is.

Photo Credit: Dreamstime | R. Gino Santa Maria / Shutterfree, Llc

Kunmi Omisore is a non-award-winning opinionist, currently living the life of a nomad. She believes in the power of words and the importance of people being able to express themselves. She is presently trying to make sure she doesn't end up penniless. Follow her on Twitter @Kunmi_O for more stimulating conversation and high levels of weistfulness.


  1. Kris

    October 15, 2014 at 4:40 pm

    Nice article Kunmi but it’s funny how the picture above in the article is of an open-faced, confident-looking, made-up woman with a white veil not the usual dank-looking, black and unkempt look many of the hijab wearing women spot. Maybe if they were encouraged to look as the picture above, get fashionable with the hijab, still have a voice in society and generally be empowered, no one will really care whether they wear a veil or not.

    The truth is that if you walked out of your house and saw someone in a peculiar outfit, your initial reflex will be to avoid them. I’ve got no issues with women wearing the hijab as long as it is their choice not some religious weight which is why I cringe when I see children on it.

    • Kris

      October 15, 2014 at 4:44 pm


    • tami

      October 15, 2014 at 5:31 pm

      “Usual”?!…my brain aches when I read this sort of comments

    • Oyinda

      October 15, 2014 at 5:58 pm

      Hi Kris,

      I would say there is a difference between wearing a burka and looking unkempt, please don’t lump the two together. Maybe where you live the women wearing burkas look that way but where I leave they generally don’t. Wearing a white scarf, make-up or following the fashion trends may signify confidence and empowerment to you, but also bucking the trends, not wearing make-up, being independent of thought and not caring what people say/think also signify a self confident woman. I have met many women who wear hijab and who are self assured and who others know not to mess with. I live in the U.S. and I meet confident women in hijab all the time so maybe you need to look into cultural and societal differences.
      There is also a difference between the burka that covers the whole face and the headscarf that mostly covers the hair and as long as it is her choice to wear whichever one, then it’s really none of our business. I’m also really curious as to where you live because I have never seen a child in a burka. I have seen them wearing hijab/headscarf but I’ve never seen one in a burka so please do tell, I would like to be enlightened. If you cringe when you see a child in hijab then it may be just like Kunmi said due to your own prejudices. Just as I am sure parents in a conservative society would cringe when they see a child in a mini skirt or super short shorts which I’m sure the child’s parents bought for her just as the parents of our hijab wearing girls. Parents impart their beliefs and cultural teachings on to their kids as is done almost everywhere in the world. To each his/her own.

    • ruqoyah

      October 15, 2014 at 6:16 pm

      I love this! Your comment made me smile

    • sibo

      October 15, 2014 at 7:01 pm

      Tell’em Oyinda! Some people generalize without doing their homework….

    • Kris

      October 16, 2014 at 8:46 am

      Hello Oyinda,

      You just said that you live in the US and someone else commented below about women in France and so on. Bella Naija is foremost, a Nigerian blog so when I read posts and comment, I do so from the point of view of Nigeria where I live. I would think you’re a Nigerian going by your name and if you have ever lived in the country or visited several parts of the country, you would allude to my point of most hijab wearing women looking unkempt and sour and you would also see several children spotting it.
      The world is not made up of Western countries alone. Even in Saudi Arabia, it is used more as a form of subjugation for women as they must never be caught without it. I’ve even watched a movie where a girl was beaten by her father for refusing to where the hijab.
      Hence, I still hold strongly to my point that women must be empowered and made to choose rather than being bogged down by religious weights and also children (in Nigeria since that’s where they seem to exist) should not have to be forced to.

    • NaijaPikin

      October 15, 2014 at 6:10 pm

      Are you serious with this comment? sigh!!

    • Just an opinion

      October 16, 2014 at 6:18 am

      @ Kris…..Unkempt? Seriously? What part of the world are you referring to?….you’re just like some white people who think all blacks are thugs… are definitely part of the problem……funny how we are offended when others profile us or paint us with the same brush and yet we do the same to others………unkempt is usually a factor of poverty or personal hygiene NOT the hijab…….or maybe you live in a downtrodden neighbourhood…… the way majority of those wearing the hijab that I know spanning from UAE to France, to the USA are fabulous……what an unbelievable shame that you don’t have that exposure.

      By the way what right have u got to dictate how any woman should dress if they are decent and functional society members and causing no harm?…..Is it what’s on her head that matters or what’s IN her head???…….. Get used to diversity and stop being so superficial……there are already enough vain dressed girls out there for you to stare at…..*what a jerk comment*

    • Oyinda

      October 16, 2014 at 8:27 pm

      Hello again Kris,

      Yes I am Nigerian and Muslim as well. I grew up in Lagos, have visited the northern part of the country and went to Unilag for a while so I know all about this issue both at home and abroad. While I choose not to wear the hijab at this time I have a no problem and nothing but respect for those who CHOOSE to. You say you advocate for choice and empowerment but it seems you are one sided in your views as you keep equating wearing the hijab with subjugation. You seem to forget that a lot of women all over the world and yes many in Nigeria as well choose to wear it. Please no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. If you think being covered up makes them inferior then that’s your problem not theirs. Also if there are women who believe dressing half naked is empowering, and that’s their choice. And please again I beg you to stop equating the hijab with being unkempt. It’s a stereotype that some Nigerians like to perpetuate for their own arguments. While I was at Unilag there were a lot of hijab wearing women attending at the same time and I don’t remember thinking hmmm why do they look unkempt. The typical woman in Northern Nigeria is a Hijabi wearing woman regardless of socio-economic status. They tend to dress conservatively and be covered up and I don’t think of them and think unkempt. If certain parts of the population you encounter are unkempt then I’m pretty it sure it wouldn’t matter what they are wearing they would still look unkempt. Don’t equate a certain style of wearing the hijab with the only way of wearing hijab.

      If you took the time out to have a regular conversation with someone wearing hijab you might be surprised to find that they have normal conversations like everybody else. But if your goal is to ask them why they wear one and to tell them they don’t have to, then you are indirectly calling them foolish so don’t be offended if they respond in kind. I’m also going to assume that you are talking about the style that leaves the face open which is what the majority of women wearing hijab wear since you mentioned sour looks on their faces. There is a difference between “Resting Bitch Face” which is easily confused with anger or sourness. I can imagine I’ll have constant RBF too if people came to me with inane questions all the time. It is a look I have worn many times in public when I would prefer for people to stay away :). Above all they are human just like you and I and they respond to their environment.

      It would be great if you could provide some solid evidence that isn’t based on conjecture that the Saudi’s use hijab as a means of subjugation, because I’m trying to understand the correlation between a certain style of dress and subjugation. So Beyonce can perform in underwear and feel empowered but a woman in hijab should be feeling subjugated? If a father beat his daughter for not wanting to wear one, I’m pretty sure he’ll be beating her for any other form of disobedience as well, so don’t single out the hijab. I’m sure we are smart enough to form our own opinions about what we are constantly being fed by the media and we should know enough to take it all with a pinch of salt. All the stories you hear about us as Africans in the western media is mostly inaccurate so why would you think its different for the Saudis. There is a difference between culture and religion. The subjugation you speak of may come from other factors and not their mode of dress. If style of dress = subjugation, then by your logic, hijab wearing women everywhere should be feeling subjugated. Don’t project your issues or perceptions on the girls or women you know nothing about.

      Finally I am all for children being given room to make some choices, but parents will guide them towards their own personal choices. I’m pretty sure that as a child you did not get to wear whatever you want, whenever you want and to wherever you wanted to go. Except you are now trying to tell me that that wearing hijab is child abuse, we don’t get to determine what someone else’s child wears.
      I know a lot of well adjusted and happy girls who wear hijab and they have the same types of conversations most girls their age have. There are many who choose to keep wearing it after they leave home, those who choose not to and also those who were the only ones in their households that wore it even though they were all muslims in said household. Parenting is more than just deciding what your kids will wear.

      Epistle over 🙂

  2. Jane

    October 15, 2014 at 5:27 pm

    And a tie on men makes them look like they are chained to their jobs. Like a dog lead around their necks…

    Wear what you want and leave others alone.


  3. annoynmous

    October 15, 2014 at 6:04 pm

    dis is nonsensical, everyone has their own belief and different ways to life so do u.i dunno y christian especially wil alwaz be condemning an act or religion.

    • idomagirl

      October 16, 2014 at 6:08 am

      Huh? The most vocal critics of the hijab have been liberal secular humanists (atheists), the same people that condemn anything that has to do with religion. Then there are also Muslims (some Muslims say she iant tho) like Mona Eltahawy who have been very vocal against the niqab.

      Abeg get your facts right, don’t assume that everyone who says anything against something related to Islam is a Christian, this is how religious crises begins. Or maybe you probably think that anyone who isn’t a Muslim is automatically a Christian.

      In addition, there are very conversative christians who dress all covered up like Muslim women and I’m not just talking about nuns.

  4. Wifey

    October 15, 2014 at 7:06 pm

    I thought these things always depended on your interpretation of the Quran and the meaning of “covered’.

  5. Tobi

    October 15, 2014 at 9:04 pm

    The rest of us have to deal with the fact that try as we may, there will always be people among us who will revert to or remain muslims and live muslims (dressing inclusive). As long as these people do not get in the way of anyone or try to force their belief system on anyone, we should see them as co-humans and let them be. Live and let’s live!

  6. samiah

    October 15, 2014 at 9:32 pm

    wow. This is so uncanny. I was just penning an email to Bella Naija on this same matter.
    A few facts, Hijab, which means dressing modestly and leaving only certain parts of your body exposed IS COMPULSORY upon muslim women. It is however a personal decision to obey this command of God., Everyone’s spiritual journey is different.
    To Kris, I am a PROUD muslimah and hijabi, who was not forced into wearing the hijab! my mother doesn’t wear it and i don’t have any sisters, so i’m copying no one either. With my hijab, i have become a very happy wife, proud mother of 2 amazing kids, medical doctor, and an entrepreneur with a number of successful businesses. I do not say this immodestly, i say it to let you know that you need to broaden your horizon and find out about muslim women, you would be quite pleasantly surprised as what we are doing in the world!
    Muslim women CAN be stylish, contrary to what you believe, within limits that we are comfortable with (thank you for fighting for our freedom, but we are just fine! LOL!). We generally don’t care about what the world regards as fashionable, as i know most women don’t, muslim or not. If being fashionable means walking half nude as is the norm, please keep it, we’ll pass! Stylish? well thats a different matter., and the world is full of super stylish hijabis, with careers, loving marriages, happy homes and all the other things you think we are “deprived of’
    i have an adorable 4yr old who because she thinks her mama is beautiful sometimes wants to wear her cute pink hijab out with me! i let her, just as i let her wear a big pink bow if she wants! She’s not forced., but i hope one day she’ll look at me and make the decision to wear it because i have been a strong role model for her.
    Don’t judge people. Don’t draw baseless conclusions. If you want to know about muslim women, ask a muslim woman! Apart from societies where Islam has been mixed with tradition, a muslim woman has so much rights to the point were we are just quite frankly spoilt!
    Let me stop here, i could type for days.

  7. Janyl Benyl

    October 15, 2014 at 9:52 pm

    Well, I think people should be allowed to wear what they want because people are just happy and satisfied having such freedom. But Mehn, I do not see any freedom in those big veils ESP those that leave nothing except their eyes out on a hot summer day. But then, what would you say to the guys wearing suits and ties all knotted up? I think it boils down to letting people do whatever they feel is of importance to them. My only issue however is when people abuse it. Like you are going to spend time to cover up based on your belief, but you don’t care that it is at least not morally right for you to make someone else cover all up and pose as you to write an exams for you, what do you think the authorities would do if more than one case is being reported?

  8. Rems

    October 15, 2014 at 10:59 pm

    I love your comment Samiah….I’m a proud Muslim Hijabi and a stylish one. I live in United states and I went to a catholic private school; the catholic Nuns cover their heads and they are not judged for it. So, people need to stop judging other’s religion ignorantly.

    • Curious

      October 16, 2014 at 1:13 am

      Just out of curiosity why did you attend a Catholic school?

  9. Menoword

    October 15, 2014 at 11:45 pm

    Very true Kunmi, a woman’s choice to honour her faith by covering her face is her choice. It’s a tad insulting to automatically assume that every covered woman is oppressed. It’s on the same level as asking a newlywed couple why they haven’t had a baby yet…no one’s business but the couple’s! Well written, I liked!

  10. Isu Ati Epo

    October 16, 2014 at 3:12 am

    Hijab and Burkah is slavish.Majority muslim women don’t wear niqab or hijab.Only fanatical muslim women does.Muslim women are the most oppressed in the world.

    • Becks

      October 16, 2014 at 9:51 am

      Then leave the “fanatics’ alone!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! its none of your business. Mind yours!
      BTW, im a Christian!!

  11. idomagirl

    October 16, 2014 at 5:55 am

    “They all assumed I wanted to be left totally alone, without the usual public interactions you can expect on public transport. I didn’t.”

    Well do you blame them for this assumption? She was wearing a niqab, they could only see her eyes and nothing else, before you can begin to interact with a total stranger you have to read their body language to a large extent.

    I’m not Islamophobic, frankly I don’t understand why people are so bothered about the hijab (IMO no one should be forced to wear or not wear it), but whenever I see a woman in a niqab I do not try to interact or start a conversation with her, because I cannot see her face, I do not know if she even wants to talk to me.

    That doesn’t mean that if a woman in niqab speaks to me or needs help I will turn away, absolutely not, I’m just saying that the people that didn’t interact with her probably didn’t know how to do so.

    Also there are people who believe that women in niqabs are made to wear them because their husbands/fathers do not want them talking to strangers, whether this is true is an entirely different matter but nonetheless people believe this, so if they see you wearing it, they let you be.

    I’m just trying to point out why they assumed that she wanted to be left alone, I’m not in anyway disagreeing with the article.

    • Open your mind

      October 17, 2014 at 5:25 am

      Idomagirl, thank you for verifying the point behind the article…..that it’s really not about the women in hijab but it’s all about People and their perception and so they are the ones with the problem…….so don’t blame those white people who feel squirmish when they see a black man…..or cross the road when he is coming, cos they really don’t hate blacks, they’re just uncomfortable around them because they’re not used to blacks…… …..afterall, black males according to the media are significant in crime and gang related violence…….this random analogy is just to let you understand how screwed up stereotypes are…….likewise next time you are told you’re from Africa and are asked if you know someone from Ghana or worse still if you have Ebola, don’t complain……because bottom line is many are stereotyped and stigmatized often but instead of learning from it and keeping an open mind, they do the same to others….

    • idomagirl

      October 17, 2014 at 3:33 pm

      You misunderstood me. I’m not saying Muslim women should be discriminated against, I’m explaining to the writer why a lot of people did not interact with her wheexcuse de had on a niqab.

      Your examples with race and Ebola are completely off because I did not stereotype Muslim women in my post. If I had said something like ‘they didn’t talk to you because they thought you were a terrorist’, then you would have a point.

      I usually avoid conversations like this because people get so emotional and defensive and end up misunderstanding you. I did not stereotype anyone negatively or excuse discrimination, calm down and read my post properly.

  12. Yemi

    October 16, 2014 at 6:26 am

    I have seen children in burqa. It is not really a strange sight in Northern Nigeria, including Abuja. Make no mistake, I am talking about prepubescents.

    I am not a fan of anything that blocks body language. It dulls communication and makes interaction awkward. It encourages isolation and restricts integration. Facial expression (body language) is an important part of communication course, it is open secret that some of these clothings are clear signs of oppression especially in ancient religions that have strong misogynous roots. I understand the place of choice though.

    Call it discrimination or whatever, the truth is many people are weary of people in these extensive cover cloths in this time of terrorism. It is common sight, on trains and buses (in Europe), to see passengers avoid such people. Not wearing these cover cloths does not mean being naked. In fact, there are laws against nudism.

    This is an inconvenient truth. Although, we may want to pretend and be politically correct.

  13. MIA

    October 16, 2014 at 7:09 am

    At some point in my life I actually started wearing one. Not because I am a Muslim, I think people are always afraid of what the don’t understand. I am a Christian, a Roman Catholic but wearing hijabs made me calmer that period and all. I wish I still live in Abuja. wearing it in the East make people question you a lot. I end up lying that I am having a bad hair day, So I stopped. People should allow people wear whatever they want to wear.

  14. Fatima

    October 16, 2014 at 8:28 am

    At Isu. Please choose your words carefully. Slavish? To whom? How many Muslim women do you know? What statistic are you quoting that majority of us don’t wear the hijab? I don’t even get it! Are the Muslim women complaining? Why is the world so concerned if we are just fine? I get that some people are forced into it based on tradition and what not, but using your word, majority of us CHOOSE to wear it and obey the command of God. I also get that niqab makes people uncomfortable, but it’s some people’s choice! Same way seeing women who are slaves to fashion leaving nothing to the imagination makes some of us very uncomfortable. Live and let live.

  15. ij

    October 16, 2014 at 9:34 am

    By all means wear whatever you like as long as we can all see your face that’s my take on it, yes because these are trying times and we cannot afford for some people to come out in public faceless .

  16. Que

    October 16, 2014 at 10:32 am

    First, let me quietly admit I’m not sure which name applies to what, as per burka, jilbab and co, ,so I shall describes as I uunderstand.

    I personally believe if a woman wants to wear whatever option, she should. I’m not sure what extent of oppression they endure, imposing the hijab on them, so I cant comment…. However as far as perception goes I believe u cant blame public reaction onnthe public….

    Its important to understand that not all staring or shifting reactions stem from a bad place, and I will give an experience…. I grew up always around people that I could always see n touch (my direct neighbours being a northern muslim family whom my siblings and I did almost everything with…) I only saw the adult ladies with hijabs, so that didnt freak me out cos again I had grown to accept it as normal…. imagine my shock as a teenager, I found myself navigating a big market and stopped to pick something, only to be confronted by ‘silhouettes’ behind me all robed in a slightly faded black attire +socks, and I was viewing frm the bottom bit upwards everything black plus no face, no eyes…. that had some netting over it…..needless to say I FLIPPED…. it took a few seconds to regain my composure after I realised it wasnt anything dangerous, as other people weren’t perturbed, and yes she was with a smaller figure I assumed to be a child….. the only mental association I had for anything that covered in black was my village masquerade…..except that those were colourful, so my reaction wasnt of judgement, but of having a different expectation of how humans presented themselves…. it still scared me a few times after that cos it was something I came in contact with, say 5 times a year…. the natural reaction for someone like that would be to stare only in wonder of who possibly laid beneath….

    Now yrs later, post Uni, I discovered my friend Seliat has made a decision to be all covered up, but guess what, I cant be bothered, cos I know d babe under d veil, it felt strange at first to see her differently, but once we get chatting it the personality comes through, and I can relate to that…

    I used this experience to say, there are reactions that WILL occur naturally withouth even the observer intending it…. For instance I like to see peoples eyes when I’m talking with them, so even if I have sunglasses on when you approach me, I take em off till we’re done talking, cos thats how I feel you will understand that you have my attention, and I appreciate similar gestures…. when I cant be bothered with the person, I leave my eyes concealed, to hide any expressions that might come through….. so you see, there is some psychological parts to this debate, whether we like them or not.

    I have found myself in a country with a very countable black population, you can imagine the reaction of people to me when I went further into a more remote part….. I approached from a place of understanding their stares and tapping each other, with a confident smile n goin bout my business, even taking pics with some…. I cant carry such expression on my head, as if they were being racist

    That said, let girls wear their hijab and others to school or work or to ride the buses, or wherever, if it isnt in the way of performance, As long as you’re not mistreated or denied something due to you, you can expect a level of public reaction depending on where you are, dont take everything personally….I bet if u say something to stranger they are less likely to dwell on what might be strange to them…

  17. me

    October 16, 2014 at 12:38 pm

    [email protected] Isu.. muslim women are not oppressed women, we luv being covered and we do not complain about it.. you can decide to walk naked all your life, its your choice

  18. Rems

    October 16, 2014 at 9:20 pm

    @Curious….let me clarify myself…I only went to the catholic school for nursing school; the had a great nursing program

  19. Rems

    October 16, 2014 at 9:21 pm

    *they had a great nursing program

  20. Rems

    October 16, 2014 at 9:32 pm

    @Curious…I applied to several schools; but they choose me first…it took a long time to hear back from the other schools and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity of not getting into a good school that semester.

  21. D

    October 17, 2014 at 10:16 am

    Disso going well I see. Lol. Brilliant read!

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