LOUGHBOROUGH, England – When you meet Rahmanara Chowdhury, she tends to look you straight in the eye. Given that her eyes are the only part of her face that most people are permitted to see, this is significant.

Chowdhury, 26, is one of a small but growing minority of Muslim women who have decided to wear the niqab, an extremely conservative form of hijab, or modest dress, in which a veil is used to cover the entire face except for the eyes.

She first began wearing the niqab six years ago while she was a student at Loughborough University, where she now works as a sports education instructor.

“I did a lot of reading and thinking, trying to understand the different Islamic viewpoints. My main concern was the effect it would have on my university studies, and how other people at the university would react to me,” she explained over tea at a student canteen.

“Then I realized that I am not doing it for other people. It is a very spiritual journey, between God and me. When I understood that, I woke up the next morning and it was decided. It is one of the best decisions I ever made,” she said.

It also is a decision that places her at the center of a complex and emotional debate that is testing the limits of multiculturalism and tolerance in Britain. The question is whether an individual’s right to freedom of religion and expression takes precedence over the cultural norms of a society that expects interpersonal exchanges to be face-to-face.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has criticized the niqab as a “mark of separation” that inhibits integration and makes non-Muslim Britons “feel uncomfortable.” David Davis, a leader in the opposition Conservative Party, said that wearing the full-face veil amounted to “voluntary apartheid.”

Feminists, among them many Muslim women, say the niqab is a medieval manifestation of female subjugation, but Chowdhury and others who have chosen to cover their face insist that it liberates them from superficial Western notions of female attractiveness and from the unwanted attentions of men.

It all seems rather strange that in a country where half-naked females are daily fare in tabloid newspapers, a woman can be censured for displaying too much modesty.

The niqab became a national topic of conversation last month when former foreign minister Jack Straw, now the leader of the House of Commons, wrote an article explaining that he has decided to ask women who visit his district office to remove the niqab, saying he found it to be an obstacle to communication.

Straw, whose district in Blackburn is about 20 percent Muslim, made clear that had no problem with head scarves that did not cover the face, and that he only suggested – never demanded – that the veil be removed.

A few days later, a labor tribunal in Yorkshire upheld local school authorities who suspended a 24-year-old teaching assistant for refusing to remove her niqab in the classroom. Aishah Azmi’s job was to teach language skills, and after monitoring her classroom performance, the school decided that the niqab was hindering her ability to teach. The story was front-page news.

Blair said he supported the suspension, but critics accused the government of discrimination and Islamophobia.

Chowdhury believes that wearing the niqab is her right, and that it contributes to the multicultural diversity of Britain. At the same time, she recognizes that enshrouding herself in Britain carries a responsibility, which is one reason why she is more willing than most to speak about her decision.

“Because it is difficult to wear (the niqab), it has to be spiritual. It can’t be about politics or making a political statement. You can’t force someone to wear it; it has to be the individual’s choice,” she said.


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