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“I wanted to own the article of clothing that was being talked about,” Jonas Otterbeck says, explaining his reasons for buying a niqab. Otterbeck, who teaches Islamic Studies at Lund University in Sweden, spoke of his view on the niqab on the documentary Black Polyester, the sixth in a sixteen part series broadcast on SVT1 dealing with issues of power and politics.
In the hour-long program, the presenter Lina Makboul addresses (but doesn’t attempt to resolve) the question of whether the current ramped up debate about niqab is a result of real fears from a threat or fear-mongering driven by political populism. Along the way, she interviews women who wear the niqab, questions Muslims and non-Muslims on their views, and does a Europe-wide niqab-count as a way of assessing how many women would be affected by numerous proposed bans. In Sweden, Makboul notes, the number is thought to be about 200.
In the beginning of the program, Makboul points out that “a lot of people talk about women that wear niqab but few speak for themselves,” and in the course of the program she interviews Marianne and Hanan, two women who wear the niqab. Jonas Otterbeck, who has worn and even lectured in a niqab to experience the effect it has, believes that “wearing it means paying a rather high price. One becomes a kind of non-human in society.”
Following an extract from a speech by Sarkozy, the next person to appear on screen is Marianne, a woman in niqab driving a car while criticizing the democracy in Sweden. She insists that it is only in immigrant areas that “real democracy” is practiced. Her words might be called bitter or exaggerated or naive, but she is far from the silent “non-human” Otterbeck describes. This is just as much the case for Hanan, who is at one point stopped by a Muslim man who sees the camera and tries to convince her that the niqab is neither a part of Islam nor a good idea in the current climate. Hanan has little difficulty expressing what she thinks of his PR efforts.
Since Black Polyester shows that niqab is a contentious issue within the Muslim community, the program does not represent the niqab as a visual signifier for Islam. In the vox populi sections for example, a woman wearing a headscarf explains why she doesn’t agree with niqab, believing it hinders communication, and several Muslim employers discuss why they would not employ a woman who wears niqab, citing similar concerns about interaction.
The program focused heavily on the issue of employment, from niqab’s history as an article of clothing worn by women from higher social classes to the question of whether communes should pay welfare to niqabis, given that they choose not to be “suited for the workplace.” Othman Tawalbeh, an imam Makboul interviews, makes it clear that niqab is a choice, while supporting yourself should be seen as a duty. He suggests that women who choose to wear niqab should perhaps compromise by not wearing it during work hours. Hanan on the other hand, sees no contradiction between niqab and work, pointing out that in today’s world people frequently communicate without having to see the face of the person they’re talking to.
Towards the end of Black Polyester, there’s a segment on Alia Khalifa participating in a television debate. Khalifa became Sweden’s “celebrity niqabi” when she took up a court case against her school for refusing to allow her to wear niqab. In the debate, she is asked if she is oppressed and she answers, “I would be oppressed if I’m not allowed to wear what I want.”
Mabkoul does not play the oppression game, making it quite clear that Marianne, a convert, chose the niqab, while also clarifying that Hanan wore the niqab against her husband’s wishes. However, Makboul does repeatedly press both Marianne and Hanan as to why they don’t follow Al-Azhar’s rulings on niqab as a choice, as well as what they think of the right to welfare, and their own experiences with work. At several points in the program, Marianne resorts to “I don’t want to answer that question.” This was picked up on Inuti Burkan (Inside the Burka), a blog run by three women who wear the niqab, where Makboul was criticized for, among other things, cutting the interview to make it look like Marianne “had something to hide.” However, several commentators on the blog saw Black Polyester as being more nuanced than most discussions of the niqab, and saw it as “relatively objective.”
This was perhaps most evident in the concluding discussion between Mariam Yazdanfar, a member of parliament, and Roland Martinsson of Timbro Media Institute. Yazdanfar said she did not support a ban but that she did see niqab as a problem that had to be discussed. Martinsson’s opinion was also ambivalent in that he admitted that he didn’t feel comfortable with niqab, but argued “the sign of a free society is that there are minorities that may make the majority uncomfortable.”
How far this discussion is from the more familiar for/against stance with its emotional rhetoric can be seen in an article by Malin Lernfelt, which mentions the SVT1 program and particularly Otterbeck’s “nonhuman” comment, and has a description of niqab as “a punch in the stomach” in lieu of a title.
Black Polyester was first broadcast on Swedish TV on Oct 6. It is online on the SVT site until Nov 6.