The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

fear, vulnerability and inferiority?

Heavy with kohl, only her eyes could be seen as they peered between the strips of black fabric that made up the niqab of her outfit. Her shoes peeped from below the bottom of the hem of her dress. Her sleeves rode a little up her arms exposing her forearms slightly, the delicate lace edging of the fabric pretty against her arm. A man joined her as she sat in the waiting area at the airport. Her demeanor did not change. They chatted and appeared relaxed before they walked off, he leading while she followed pushing the luggage trolley. From her eyes, her gait and the age of the man she was with I guessed her to be in her late 20’s or early 30’s.

A lot has been said in the UK press, and elsewhere, about the rights or wrongs, values or merits of the niqab, the effect it has on society, how non-Muslims feel about it, etc. Some of the most recent comments have been about situations such as giving evidence in court, with allegations of the niqab denying other participants the opportunity to benefit from all types of communication, including facial expressions. Over time there have been comments from women who feel they are forced to wear the niqab against their will, perhaps because of the country or society in which they live. Others feel condemned because they choose to wear this garment. Either way, all I can say is that from where I sat, no more than ten feet from this couple, was that this woman’s body language did not obviously display any discomfort.

But it was my reactions that lead me to write. I am White British and no longer young. I was wearing trousers and long sleeves, I was not dressed to incite temptation. Yet my first feeling was of vulnerability. I felt exposed. Her voluminous dress and almost entire face covering denied me any sense of what she looked like, beyond the heavy kohl around her eyes. By contrast she could see if I was skinny or fat, if my hair was long or short, the distinguishing features of my face, if I was smiling and happy or otherwise sad.

As I observed her body language, that she seemed comfortable in her garb, I began to feel inferior. If the niqab was her choice to wear was I her spiritual inferior for not having the same dedication and devotion? Even though my religion may be different?

None of us are immune from the vagaries of our upbringing and experience. All we can do is recognise our reactions and emotions in situations such as these, and be prepared to challenge ourselves.  Especially when our work brings us in to contact with cultures different from our own.

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