I dress for myself. I always have, ever since the day I left home. I grew up in a middle-class Christian family and my father tried to control what I wore. Men tend to do that.
I converted to Islam when I was 28, and when I started wearing a headscarf, my then-husband became physically abusive. He was Muslim too, but he thought it reflected badly on him – he didn’t like the fact that I was no longer a pretty accessory on his arm.
It wasn’t until about a decade later that I started wearing the niqab. Before this, I would often find myself instinctively moving to cover my face with the material of my headscarf when I was out of the house. One day, I tried on the niqab, just to see what it was like, and I felt this instant sense of comfort and inner peace. I started wearing it more often, and I found that when I went out without it I felt increasingly uncomfortable. As well as deriving great spiritual benefit from wearing the niqab, I’ve also noticed psychological perks – I find it kind of therapeutic.
There is tremendous pressure on women to look a certain way in our society. For me, wearing the niqab, which covers my face and body, is actually a way of rejecting that. My brothers tell me to take it off because it’s a symbol of oppression, while having no problem with all the women we know who won’t even go to the shop to get a pint of milk without a thick layer of makeup covering their faces. My seven-year-old daughter has already told me that she thinks she looks fat. The oppression of women is not exclusive to Muslim societies. As I see it, there are men out there telling me: ‘Men told you to wear the veil. We are telling you to take it off’. What’s the difference? It’s still men deciding what I can and cannot wear.
I could take the kind of abuse I get every day on the street if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s usually in front of my daughter. People call me all sorts: ‘terrorist’, ‘Arab cocksucker’, ‘Isis whore’, and if I’m out on my own I’ll turn around and confront them. I’m a black belt in taekwondo, so I’m not afraid. But when I’m with my daughter, I have to keep quiet, I have to pretend not to have heard. I pull her away, because I’m putting off the day when she will become aware of the hate. How do you explain that to a seven-year-old girl? Half her family are Christian. I don’t want her to wake up to the ‘us vs. them’ mentality. I don’t want her to feel ashamed of her faith.
It sounds so petty, but for me the worst thing is that she hasn’t been invited to a single birthday party at school. I’ve spoken to her teacher, and apparently she has plenty of friends in her class. But at that age, the birthday party invitations are more down to the parents than the kids. I might be wrong, but I can only assume it’s because her stepfather is brown with a beard and her mother is this veiled Muslim. Part of me thinks I should take it off for her sake. But part of me thinks that no matter how much you compromise, it’s never going to be enough. And I don’t want to teach her that she has to compromise.
Anna* is a creative director. She lives in London with her husband and two children. Names have been changed to protect identities.
See also: Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, founder of MuslimGirl.com, on why she wears the veil
Interview by Kitty Drake and photography by Ellen Pearson