I know it sounds terrible but the truth is that I was so excited to be finally talking to a woman whose face was covered that I forgot to ask her name. Only her eyes were visible – two bright blue sparkling ones – amongst the black.
I’ll call her Mariam.
It was Saturday night and I was in the shiny new Clongriffin shopping centre. A Muslim group known as the Dublin Welfare Society was renting out a section of the largely vacant centre to host a talk about converting to Islam which was to be followed by a special Iftar meal.
Around two hundred people – men, women and children – attended the event so the centre looked busy. The talk was in a large upstairs room. A crooked partition about the height of a person ran down the centre of the room. A dividing line. Women were on the left side. Men on the right.
The talk had just finished and people were wandering around, gathering in groups near the back of the room where the food was being prepared. It was nearly time to break the fast.
I noticed only one woman – other than myself – who wasn’t wearing a head scarf. Mariam was the first woman I saw there whose entire body and face was covered in drapes of black.
I’m ingrigued by Muslim women who cover their faces. I think I must subconsciously (and erroneously) associate the invisibility of mouths with voice-lessness and the black coverings with unapproachability. A fortress of cloth. When I saw Mariam I breached the perceived boundaries and went up to her. “Could I ask you a few questions?” I asked her nervously. “Yes” she answers in an unexpected American accent.
“I wear the niqab to be closer to God” she tells me. “It’s my personal decision. It makes it easier to interact in communities and to maintain my modesty. It’s a very personal thing. I really enjoy wearing it”.
Other people however, don’t always respond positively. “There is some negativity towards it, even from other Muslims”.
Mariam was born in the U.S. to an Irish-American Catholic family. She converted to Islam when she was 32 and immediately started wearing the hijab (which just covers the hair). “It’s hard to go through your life dressing a certain way and then to change but I believe that covering up is following God’s word. I’ll be honest, when I read the verse in the Quran about covering I did believe it meant to cover the face but I wasn’t ready”.
There is often an assumption that Muslim women who convert do so because they have married a Muslim man but Mariam tells me that she wore the niqab before she got married.
“We met through Facebook” she tells me, laughing, when I ask how did she meet her husband. “The only picture on Facebook of me was one where I was wearing the niqab. I found him interesting, charming, attractive and we chatted before he knew what I looked like. Then, after discussing marriage [she told me that in Islam you don’t talk to a man for no reason or just for friendship] he said “now can I see what you look like?””
Mariam’s Irish connection goes back three generations but she tells me that her husband, who is Algerian, is “more Irish than I am. He has an Irish accent and he knows the culture more than me. He was living in Ireland so after we got married I moved here”.
It’s time to break the fast so Mariam excuses herself and goes to take a drink of water. It’s only a few minutes later that I realise I’ve forgotten to ask her name. I go up to the only woman I see who is wearing the niqab. “Excuse me” I ask, tapping her on the shoulder “but are you the woman I just spoke to?” “No” the response comes back to me “I am her daughter”.
I wonder what it is that so intrigues me about women who wear the burqa or the niqab. Alfred Hitchcock comes to mind – an interview I saw with him many years ago. I vaguely remember him saying that what we don’t see is more powerful than what we do. Our imaginations fill in the gaps. I do a quick google. “Suspense is like a woman” Hitchcock said. “The more left to the imagination, the more the excitement.” That could explain it.