A religious sister reflects on the niqab, wearing the veil as a Catholic woman, and living in the gaze of others
At the airport security in Brittany, we had to remove our veils. This was something new. They are about twice the size of a pocket-handkerchief, and hardly the stuff for hiding a terrorist. And our little group of Catholic Sisters could not have looked very threatening.
But it was a sign of the times. The British debate about the niqab was even in the French news. They reported about one or two British girls who had converted to Islam, who explained why they chose to cover themselves completely, and their explanations struck me as very sad. Not because they were unreasonable, but because their reasons were all too convincing. ‘Have you ever heard of a woman in a veil being assaulted?’ one asked.
What kind of a society have we created where young women feel threatened whenever someone looks at them? So threatened that they prefer to cut themselves off from the sun and the fresh air – along with that precious communication, too deep for words, which we share through our facial expressions? The response to the problem is extreme; but the problem itself is all too real.
I thought back to a lovely sermon we had heard while in France, on chapter 7 of the Gospel of Luke, the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee. The priest had spoken of le regard of the two men: that is, the way they looked at her. Simon had looked and seen only the money she had spent, and her sinful past. Jesus had gazed on her with compassion and respect, seeing the beauty of a human person, a person who deserved love that was profound and pure, in place of the superficial, exploitative ‘love’ that had been her trade.
The young western girls who choose the niqab are reacting to a genuine threat. This choice alleviates a real symptom but it does not attack the disease. Our collective gaze is indeed corrupted; however, the Christian response is not to hide ourselves away from this corruption, but to recognize and challenge it.
For example, we should explicitly acknowledge how certain fashions, which we collectively tolerate or accept, can diminish not only young women, but even little girls. In advertising, in dress, in our manners, in the ways we speak of and look at them, we can reduce them to objects of exploitation. Only when we honestly recognise this can our hearts – whether Christian or secular – begin to be purified. For if our hearts are innocent then our gaze will not be a threatening stare. The eyes of Christ, resting on the woman in Luke’s story, restored her self-respect, and took away her fear.