Ever wonder what goes through the mind of a woman in niqab? Why do some Muslim women willingly cover their faces? Find out in this deeply moving and inspiring interview with Sr. Noor Bhuiyan. Written by Heba Youssef, and reposted here with her permission.
Imagine stepping outside every day – your body and face in complete concealment from the rest of the world, with only a slit exposing your eyes to see where you are going. A life devoted to the constant worship of God, through extremely modest dressing.
This is the life that twenty-six-year-old Noor B. lives every day. This is the life of a niqaabi (nɪˈkɑːbee), a woman who wears the niqaab or Islamic face veil.
It is lunch time and Noor is on break from the weekend intensive seminar she is taking entitled: Islamic Code of Ethics. The lounge is flooded with young women: some wearing head scarves and jeans, others robed with complete face veils. Greetings of Assalamu Alaykum (Peace be upon you) are exchanged as the women eat and eagerly discuss the new information they have acquired from the seminar.
Noor sits with her back facing the exit door. She does not want to take the chance of a man seeing her face when the door opens. She explains that it is generally okay to take off her veil in front of other Muslim women and close male relatives, but in this instance she was in a public area and did not want to take a risk.
Dressed in an all black niqaab and jilbaab (a looser outer garment that covers the entirety of a woman’s body) all I can see are the creases on the corner of her eyes indicating her nervous smile. She does not think she is worthy of being interviewed and apologizes for eating while I conduct the interview. She lifts the black veil, takes a bite of her egg roll and then lets the veil fall back in its place as she finishes chewing. She makes sure to tell me one of her biggest challenges is eating. “It’s so hard!” And with the same process of lifting her veil for each bite, one can only imagine how tedious it can be.
Eating is not her only problem though, as she tells me that finding places to purchase her niqaabs and jilbaabs are not easy, especially given her petite figure. “I got this one from Saudi Arabia, and I had to hem it like 6-inches! …And when I shop in the [Islamic] stores in Brooklyn, they are so expensive.” She tells me she likes the black ones because they draw less attention than a brightly colored outfit would.
Noor began wearing the niqaab six months ago when she went to Mecca for ‘Umrah, a pilgrimage that can be performed any time throughout the year. “Seeing all these women in niqaab, I was like, what am I doing?” So she took the next step – completely veiling her face and body. When she came back to her hometown of Brooklyn, NY she received mixed reactions.
It was no surprise to Noor’s mother who is already a niqaabi, but her friends were not as supportive. “I had friends who didn’t understand the super-change I was going through. It was mostly my non Muslim and non practicing Muslim friends who were surprised.” Although she has remained sociable with her friends, she admits these friendships are not the way they used to be.
She explains that the issue of niqaab as an obligation or an option has been the crux of the debate amongst Islamic scholars. “But if you study the Qur’an [Holy Book in Islam] and the Sunnah [the examples/teachings of the Prophet Muhammad], we find that Allah commands the wives of the Prophet to cover themselves.” She tells me the wives of the Prophet were considered the best and purest women of all time, and covering was considered an act of modesty and submission to God’s command. “If this act of veiling was made obligatory for the best women ever created, then it must be fard (obligatory) for us… What would lead me to believe I’m better than them?”
She then begins to recall the moments that led to her decision of veiling. “Another turning point in my life was a [marriage] proposal that I received. The guy wanted to marry a niqaabi woman and my initial reaction was: I am not the one you want.” But after reading up on the issues and reasoning behind the niqaab, something changed, “…and I found this was something that I wanted to do.” She explains it was something of an epiphany, and this feeling of increased faith is what prepared her for a life changing alteration.
We briefly shift into the topic of marriage and she tells me that young Muslims are always eager to marry. “It’s what prevents lusts from turning into immoral acts, like premarital sex… Anything that leads to desire, even too much looking [at the opposite sex] is considered unrighteous and un-Islamic.” This is why the marriage proposal from a man she did not know did not seem unusual or out of the ordinary. She tells me the criteria for Islamic marriages is that the aspiring spouse should be very religious. “He knew my dad, and asked for my hand in marriage…and that was it.”
Noor says she disagrees with people who say change is gradual, because for her, change happened almost instantaneously. “I went from wearing the hijaab (Islamic head scarf) with fitted jeans, to wearing the niqaab and big jilbaabs… [Before], I never even studied Islam when I was in hijaab.” And in this short transition period, she recalls the longing she felt to fulfill her duty as a Muslim woman. “Every time I saw a niqaabi I was jealous. I would stare at each and every one of them thinking, why can’t I please Allah (God) the way she pleases Allah?”
This interview was conducted in the early months of 2008. In July of 2009, Sr. Noor Bhuiyan passed away. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’oon – to Allah we belong and to Him we return. May Allah have mercy on her soul, and grant her entrance into the highest level of paradise. May her deeds and her words, and her life and her death, be an example and inspiration for us all.