How do Muslim women who wear the niqab interact with others
online? A case study of a profile on a photo-sharing website.
Anna Piela (firstname.lastname@example.org) Leeds Trinity University
This article identifies a gap in extant academic literature on women who wear the niqab and their
representations in ‘traditional’ media: there are few sources that draw from these women’s own narratives.
In order to address this gap, this paper highlights niqabis’ self-representations in the form of photographic
self-portraits published in new media and demonstrates a variety of positive ways in which these self-
portraits are received by the audiences. The article is based on a case study of a profile of a prolific author
who posts and discusses her work on a popular photo-sharing website. It throws light on contextualised and
relational interpretations of the niqab and its meaning and at the same time challenges a common perception
that non-Muslim audiences are uniformly critical of women who wear the niqab. Data analysis of the data
so far indicates that women who wear the niqab exercise their agency by making visual references to the
everyday, and successfully establish dialogue and intimacy with their audiences. It is suggested that new
media settings are particularly important in relation to researching ‘niqab experiences’, as they foster a
variety of relevant data types and content that is driven by participants, rather than researchers.
Niqab, Islam, social networks, Internet, photography, self-portraits
This is a draft version. When citing this article, please use the details below:
Piela, A. (2016) How do Muslim women who wear the niqab interact with others online? A
case study of a profile on a photo-sharing website. New Media & Society June 14, 2016
This article looks at new media-based self-representations of British Muslim women who wear
the niqab. It responds to socio-political debates and controversies in which the niqab has been
uniformly charged with negative associations. Secondly, it aims to sidestep these debates by
drawing attention to spaces where the niqab is imbued with positive associations. Data analysed
in this article includes online textual interactions between niqabis and viewers that take place
in comments sections accompanying niqabis’ self-portraits published on photo sharing
websites. This approach allows examination of spaces where the niqab is constructed and
viewed positively by authors and audiences of different faiths and none, and trace ways in
which these women voices are engaged in a dialogue with wider and largely positively-oriented
audiences. Furthermore, it also gives insight into mundane, ‘ordinary’ interactions related to
the the niqab which contrast with conflictual frameworks encountered in British media and
policy addressing the niqab, Muslim women and Islam. Finally, it facilitates exploring ways in
which the transnational reach of the online discourse informs, supports and challenges local
niqab practices that are part of divergent understandings and embodiments of Islam.
The niqab continues to attract the attention of politicians and the media in the UK in reductive
debates on immigration, assimilation, and extremism (Meer, Dwyer, and Modood, 2010). The
question whether the niqab should be banned in the UK as incompatible with ‘British values’
arises frequently (Kiliç, 2008). The first large controversy in the UK involving the niqab was
caused by the MP for Blackburn, Jack Straw in 2006; he said that he preferred his constituents
not to wear the niqab when they came to his MP surgeries (BBC, 2006). This statement was
followed by a barrage of editorial opinion pieces which expressed resentment towards women
who wear the niqab (Khiabany and Williamson, 2008). In that period, British media tended to
report on different groups’ views of the niqab; however, voices of women who wear the niqab
were ignored. Similarly, prior to introduction of legislation banning the niqab from the public
sphere in France in 2010, ‘the sidelining of the people at the heart of these debate has been a
recurring motif’ (Bouteldja, 2014: 115. The mass media frames the debate in a particular way
– allowing mostly those in positions of power to voice their views (Morey and Yaqin, 2011).
Whilst the media does not exactly determine what we think, it plays an important role
delineating group identities, such as nation or society, and it suggests who remains within or
outside of these collectives (Bullock and Jaffri, 2000). Those singled out as ‘others’ are at risk
of being stereotyped, vilified, and demonised (Morey and Yaqin, 2011). Ramazanoglu and
Holland (2002: 107) write: ‘The binary thinking that characterises western attributions of
superiority and inferiority both differentiates between the “self” (the same) and its “other” (the
different) and actively constitutes a social relationship the ‘same’ who has the power to name,
subordinate, exclude, or silence [emphasis mine] the “other”’.
The ‘niqab debate’ currently engulfing almost entire Western Europe (Afshar 2013) has
been framed from the beginning by questions of integration and both literal and metaphorical
dialogue with religious Muslim women in such a way that the women concerned were almost
completely excluded from it. In addition to Jack Straw’s comments, other members of the
Cabinet made negative statements about niqab: Prime Minister Tony Blair called it a ‘mark of
separation’; the Culture Secretary Theresa Jowell described it as a ‘symbol of women’s
subjugation to men’; and Harriet Harman, a minister in the Department of Constitutional
Affairs, said she would like to see an end to niqab as an obstacle to full equality (Kabir 2010:
146). In 2010, Philip Hollobone, a Conservative MP who tried to put through a private
members bill to introduce a niqab ban was threatened with legal action for refusing to meet his
niqab-wearing constituents. (Pidd 2010: np)
Politicians’ statements are echoed by journalists and columnists including Muslim
female ones writing for national broadsheet press, such as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: ‘[niqab]
rejects human commonalities and even the membership of society itself...It is hard to be a
Muslim today. And it becomes harder still when some choose deliberately to act and dress as
aliens’ (cited in Meer, Dwyer and Modood 2010: 96). Even some university-based
commentators, normally expected by their institutions to support equality and diversity in their
prestigious position as higher education lecturers, publicly express their disdain for niqabis. A
director of an MA programme in investigative journalism at a London university wrote in her
article in The Independent: Education: ‘I was particularly disturbed by the sight of Muslim
female students wearing the niqab, a dress statement I find offensive and threatening. Don't
they value the rights and freedoms they enjoy in Britain? (…) I think the niqab should be
banned at university’ (Waterhouse 2010: np).
Women who wear the niqab respond to media (mis)representations
In the latest ‘niqab controversy’ in September 2013 the mainstream media coverage changed
slightly: women who wear the niqab were occasionally asked for commentary (for example, in
Elgot, 2013; Dugan, 2013), and in one instance, published articles commenting on the matter
in national press (for example, Al Faifi, 2013). In most cases, unfortunately, such publicised
encounters were been framed in such ways that ultimately these women’s accounts were
critiqued, undermined, and dismissed by many mainstream media outlets (Author). This no
doubt exacerbated rather hostile reception of these accounts by readers, evidenced by their
many unfavourable and sometimes downright hostile comments.
It has not been researched how women who wear the niqab in the UK navigate or
respond to these media representations. Hebbani and Wills (2012) have interviewed eleven
Muslim female students: two niqab-wearing women as well as nine hijab-wearing women in
Australia, and experiences of these two groups were different in that the niqabis experienced
more harassment and a lower quality of life due to negative stereotyping by the wider
Australian society. They all associated most of these problems with the way Muslim women
were represented in the Australian media. Importantly however, they went out of their way to
mitigate the effect these representations might have on their interactions with others.
Consequently, they actively managed the risk of alienation and vilification by displaying
behaviour that contradicted the image of a hostile, unadjusted ‘other’.
Constructions of the niqab in existing academic literature
This paucity of women’s voices also characterises academic literature across the social
sciences, political sciences, law, and other disciplines discussing the position of the niqab –
and women who wear it – in the contemporary West. The legal literature mostly focused on
the appropriateness of women wearing the niqab in the courtroom (Kirk, 2013; Laird, 2014;
Murray, 2010; Ogilvie, 2013 Schwartzbaum, 2011) or the legality of burka bans in different
European countries (Ferrari and Pastorelli, 2013). Some authors wrote of victimisation of
veiled women which intensifies in the aftermath of legal burka bans (Zempi and Chakraborti,
2014). Sociological literature, which could be expected to redress this imbalance, has mostly
focused on views of the niqab expressed by people who do not wear it (O’Neill et al, 2014;
Shirazi and Mishra, 2010). This paucity of academic literature to date that would engage
niqabis themselves is somewhat startling, as post-positivist sociology is not only interested in
examining views of social groups, but also promotes inductive and constructivist frames of
analysis that promote agendas of participants (Mason, 2006). Feminist research particularly
stresses the need to listen to voices of marginalised women (Brooks and Nagy Hesse-Biber,
2007; Ramazanoglu and Holland, 2002). In the UK context, one notable exception is Tarlo’s
research (2007; 2010) for which she interviewed women who wear the niqab, and another is a
recent edited volume that brings together experiences of niqab-wearing women from different
European countries (Brems, 2014).
Critical accounts of media representations of women wearing the niqab (Al-Fartousi
and Mogadime, 2012; Hebbani and Wills, 2012; Khiabany and Williamson, 2008 and 2010)
stress that the narratives of the niqab/burka have undergone a transformation in the recent
years; Khiabany and Williamson trace this shift to the Jack Straw controversy; they argue that
his comments have provided the Sun and other tabloids with ‘with a new approach to Muslim
women; one which shifts the construction of Muslim women from that of 'victims; to their
being a central part of the Muslim 'threat' (2008: 84). They also note that in 2006 the number
of articles about the niqab grew exponentially; in The Sun it increased from six in 2005 to 150
in 2006 (Poole in Khiabany and Williamson, 2008). The ‘reverse-victimhood’ trope is
dominant; those at the receiving end of racism (usually vulnerable) are blamed for the ills of
the society, as well as for the prejudice they experience.
Niqab and online research
Due to limited amount of research with niqabis, there are few critical methodological accounts
of research with this particular group, whether online or face to face. Keeping in mind the
reservations about the actual impact of new media on individual and collective lives (Campbell,
2010; Haythornthwaite, 2002), research on online activity (both textual and visual) of these
women may provide new data on their actual relationship with Islamic doctrine, and highlight
the ways in which they take up the authority over what it means to be “religious” (Cambell,
2010: 43). There is a substantial and quickly growing body of research on Muslim women’s
online activities, ranging from early descriptive accounts of use of Internet (then 1.0) in the
early 2000s to more critical and evaluative studies assessing the significance of online
communication by Muslim women in contexts of identities, migration, multiculturalism,
education, and doctrinal tensions in the area of Islamic hermeneutics
. However, Nisa (2013)
was the first author to use online methods in research with face-veiled women, called ‘cadari’,
in Indonesia. She explored Internet subcultures of cadari women as well as analysis of online
businesses that they run; her study was based on online ethnography methods, but it is unclear
what role she had in the setting and what position she occupied on the insider/outsider scale.
Her the article is helpful in many ways: it contradicts the stereotype of a backward Muslim
woman unfamiliar with technology (Eickelman and Anderson, 1999), describing sophisticated
ways in which the cadari are able to harness technology to their own advantage and to create
their own platforms of communication and sources of income, and it provides a window into
the everyday life of these women, thus showing that they must not be reduced to their face veil,
but rather accepted as people with day-to-day lives and ordinary concerns, such as earning a
livelihood in ways that do not challenge their religious beliefs (Author).
Nisa’s article demonstates that new media offer a chance to engage with women who
wear the face veil, as ‘the Internet [provides] an intimate and legitimate space for interaction’
between niqabis and ‘people they might otherwise be unlikely to encounter’ due to geographic
dispersion or cultural differences (Tarlo, 2010: 153, 146). For the online ethnographer, this
opens up an opportunity to analyse this interaction, something impossible in the case of using
in-depth interviews. As the interlocutors are often strangers, living in different countries and
continents, the analysis must consider global contexts and implications of such discussions. In
this sense, the focus of the analysis is necessarily different to that applied to data generated
through other methods. In the case of the niqab, the global dimensions of the issue are based
around varying approaches to ‘cultural’, traditional iterations of Islam in which the niqab may
For a more detailed account of this literature, see Author, Author.
be considered as ‘indigenous’ (as in the Persian Gulf area), or alien (as in the Subcontinent).
The niqab is sometimes seen as a symbol of adoption of puritan Salafi Islam, spreading across
the Muslim world on the back of ‘oil money’ that pays for mosques and Islamic study centres
in regions where indigenous interpretations of Islam have been developed (Tissot, 2011).
Online discussions between niqabis from different regions of the world have the potential to
illustrate tensions between these understandings.
Tarlo (2010) makes a further important point in relation to ethnographic research
approaches to online settings: people are likely to voice their views much more openly online,
compared to being interviewed by a researcher. They are not bound by strict conventions and
power dynamics of a research interview. Furthermore, ethnographic research of online forums
is based on recognition of participants’ own agendas, rather than an agenda imposed by the
interviewer (Author). This allows mapping of participants’, rather than researchers’ concerns,
and, in case of feminist research, endorses listening to women’s (and men’s) voices (Beckman,
The final point regarding using new media to research voices of women who wear the
niqab (and relevant to conducting research with other minority groups) is related to feasibility.
Recruiting sufficient numbers for an interview-based project may be difficult because in the
UK, apart from a few metropolitan areas where niqab is increasingly popular, there are few
niqabi women around. This difficulty is likely to be compounded for non-Muslim researchers
who do not have contacts in Muslim communities. Online research may be a viable alternative
in such situations; although it generates different types of data, it may well produce insights
which add another layer of analysis of the phenomenon.
This article is based on a case study involving visual analysis of photographic self-portraiture
work published on a photo-sharing website by a Muslim woman living in Scotland who wears
a niqab (whom I refer to as Leila in this article, although I do not reveal her username or indeed
do not know her offline name), as well as textual analysis of photo captions and comments
posted by viewers (who appear in this article under changed usernames which have been
selected to reflect the style and type of the original ones). The photo-sharing website could be
described as a type of a social networking site (SNS) according to boyd and Ellison’s definition:
a web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public
profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they
share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made
by others within the system (2008: 211).
The website in question is a platform for different kinds of photography, including more
mainstream work as well as niche images. Users can tag their photos, as well as favourite and
comment on photos of others. The photographs analysed in this article and associated text
belong to a public photostream, and can be accessed by anybody; however, I have obtained
Leila’s permission to describe and analyse her self-portraits.
Leila has so far published 137 photos, all of which are self-portraits of herself wearing
a full veil. She follows approximately 60 other users, of whom approximately 45 appear to be
other women who wear the full veil. Some of these follow Leila, and comment on her self-
portraits. Some photos attract up to 15 comments, while others do not have any. It is not
required to follow someone’s work in order to view, favourite, or comment on it. According to
web statistics, displayed next to each photo, each of Leila’s self-portraits has been viewed
between 3000 and 7000 times. Most photos are tagged as favourite by 10 to 40 users. This
indicates that Leila’s work is appreciated and discussed by a relatively large group of users.
For the purposes of this article, I focus on exchanges that go beyond a single comment, and
represent a discrete ‘conversation’.
Self-portraits as constructions of identity and modesty
If these self-portraits were considered exclusively from a fashion theory perspective, they could
be understood as Islamic fashion blogs; in the photos we see a modelled ‘look’ and a brief
description of particular clothes that make it up. For example, “My face, veiled with a single-
layer niqab, is framed by a thin scarf. I also wear khimar, abaya and gloves. Everything is navy
blue.” Leila uses some phrases in the captions that invoke associations with mainstream fashion
discourse, such as “different look,” or “accessorize.” However, mainstream fashion blogs (as
well as more traditional publications such as magazines) focus on the ability of fashion to
“lengthen, fill out, reduce, enlarge, take in, refine” the body’s shape so that the ideal body can
still be meaningfully signified to readers (Barthes 1983: 260). In fashion discourse, the body
shape sought through specially designed garments remains an unquestioned, mostly
unattainable ideal. Independent fashion blogs, while rejecting the idea of a single ideal of
beauty, still maintain their focus on the visibility of the body (Heffner, 2012).
In niqabi self-portraiture, the body remains largely concealed, with all or almost all skin
and body shape covered with fabric. Promoting modest clothing is considered the primary goal,
whereas certain fashion aspects, such as combination of colours or cuts may be a secondary
(but also important) goal. The function of clothing as helping the body achieve a more flattering
look is absent; the shape of the body is supposed to be obscured. Leila follows this rule very
carefully; she often mentions in her description of a photo that she is covered fully. For
example, she constructs such full coverage (including covered eyes) as a spiritual need: ‘The
khimar and 3-piece niqab give me the modesty I need and the abaya covers me right down to
Some self-portraits are more normative in a more pronounced way. One caption reads:
‘Correctly covered in black abaya, khimar, niqab and gloves, looking at photos of someone else
in full proper hijab’. Another states: ‘The proper niqab – the eyes should always be covered’.
However, the demonstrated examples tend to be positive, i.e. women tend to share images of
themselves that they consider as modest, and there are no examples of ‘bad niqab’, as in some
YouTube videos. In one of the photos Leila looks at a small packet she is holding and then
comments in the tag line: ‘Full navy blue hijab contrasts with the picture on the hosiery packet’.
The model on the packet displays her legs clad in the pantyhose, thus presumably becoming
situated as at another end of the spectrum of modesty. However, the criticism on Leila’s part
is only implied as she only mentions the contrast, but does not explicitly express valorisation
of either garment, leaving potential judgment to the viewers.
Interactions with the audience
Users commenting on Leila’s work represent a mix of nationalities, ethnicities, and languages.
The majority of them (about 60 per cent) seem to be other niqabis following strict dress codes,
but there are also men whose username suggest they may be Muslim. And people who do not
have any apparent links to Islam, based on their username, profile, profile photo, or
photostream. They may just be other photography aficionados who initially came across Leila’s
work randomly. It is important to note that it is very difficult to make any final conclusions
about the demographic makeup of these groups; members of this website often have empty
profile pages and mystifying usernames, consisting, for example, of just numbers. And so a
user with a nickname Helmut, leaving Leila a comment written in German, is likely to be
German, Austrian, or Swiss, but that is far from certain. The social fabric of such a loose,
informal community of interest remains an unfinished jigsaw puzzle to a researcher.
A large group of comments expressed appreciation of Leila’s outfits in terms of colour,
colour combination, accessorizing, or the fabric type. ‘You look beautiful’ is a typical
statement following a photo in which Leila is modelling her all-concealing dress. The
significance of these comments is twofold. Psychologically, they construct a sphere where it is
relatively safe to express an appreciation for the niqab on a public forum which is probably
rare in an offline, non-Muslim majority context. Appreciative comments are posted by both
users who seem to be niqabis and those who do not. One example of such an interaction with
Leila about her self-portrait is as follows: A user with a nickname Audrey praised the
combination of colours of different parts of the outfit and accessories (gloves and a handbag).
Then, a user using a nickname Helmut praised the composition of the self-portrait in German.
Leila thanked Audrey in English and confessed that those colours were here favourite at the
moment, and then thanked Helmut in German. Responding to him in his native language
demonstrates an extra effort to build a rapport. Finally, Helmut repeated his compliment, using
a polite form of address to say that the outfit suited Leila well. This and many other
conversations illustrate the possibility for other narratives and interpretations of the niqab than
those infusing the world of mainstream politics and media in the West. This possibility is not
obvious at all, as social and national imaginaries have become dominated by the hegemonic
discourse of divisions so deep as to doom any attempts at a dialogue. The operation of such an
alternative discourse is the second reason why such brief interactions are significant. As Tarlo
argued (2010), online spaces do facilitate encounters with niqabis with other people which are
not likely to happen routinely offline. For a host of reasons, it is difficult to imagine a similar
conversation taking place in the Tube carriage described by Tarlo (2010). Notably, there is a
dearth of research on inter-ethnic, inter-cultural, and inter-religious interaction online; any
existing literature on the topic is in the area of distance education, for example Goodfellow and
Self-portraits of women wearing the niqab may lead to outcomes that are more tangible
than just praises. Under another photo, user Fazila confessed that she loved Leila’s look so
much that she considered adopting a niqab. This is an interesting comment as it suggests that
such a decision may be dictated by aesthetic preferences, in addition to religious reasons
usually given by women for starting to wear the niqab (Tarlo, 2007; Bouteldja, 2011; Clarke,
2013). Leila responded to Fazila with rather sensible advice to consider pros and cons of such
Thank you for the compliment Fazila. My advice to you is to search for websites
advising sisters on niqab. Veiling is a very personal decision that you should reach after
considering any problems as well as the benefits.
Notably, she recommended Fazila to consult websites rather than scholars. Tarlo (2010)
analysed conversations on Islamic websites containing testimonies from women who wear the
niqab and potentially can answer any practical questions about the practice, as well as real life
examples of problems or benefits related to wearing the niqab. Leila’s comment underlines the
way in which pluralisation of authority in Islam, facilitated by the advent of the Internet
(Anderson, 1999) continues to influence localised discourses about the niqab. In other words,
Fazila may potentially refer to any website that offers a view on the niqab: one that recommends
it, using a theological argument, or one that discourages it, using a different theological
argument. She may find herself influenced by testimonials on an online forum of ex-niqabis,
or converts to Islam who wear the niqab based on their adoption of Salafi interpretations. Such
websites may affect her decision whether to take up the niqab, and if so, what particular style.
Some users commented on several of Leila’s self-portraits over a period of time. This
created a strong sense of intimacy in the comment threads, noticeable, for example, on the basis
of questions about Leila’s moods and states of mind during photo sessions when particular self-
portraits were made. A user under the nickname Paul asked Leila whether she felt depressed
due to looking at the world through a grey chiffon of her niqab, especially as the sky that day
was grey (which we can see in the photo as it shows Leila gazing out of her window). This
question reflects Paul’s interest in feelings aroused by wearing the niqab, and his empathy, as
he tries to imagine these feelings. Another user, Sharon (whose profile was subsequently
deleted, therefore it is impossible to guess whether she was a niqab wearer or not) challenged
Paul’s assumptions as well as the prominent belief that the veil impedes interpersonal
communication by saying that she could see that Leila was not depressed, but contemplative.
Following that, Leila confirmed that indeed she had not been depressed but rather wistful. Paul
and Sharon attempt to put themselves in Leila’s position whilst she is wearing the niqab; her
input allows their ‘exploration of difference’.
Multiple self-portraiture with a particular object with emphasises the significance of that object
for the author. Leila’s self-portraits are all created at home – it is a space signified by the
presence of household furniture and appliances, as well as some smaller objects of day-to day-
use. The house is neat and tidy, and the lack of clutter emphasises the significance of the subject
– a female figure wearing a dress that covers her completely. The repeated use of the household
space creates a sense of intimacy, as the viewer has the opportunity to observe several rooms
in her house: the bedroom, the lounge, and the kitchen. In that sense, a space that would be
habitually described as private, is no longer so; the media of digital photography and the
Internet have blurred the public/private divide (Papacharissi, 2010).
These records of everyday existence also evoke feminist critiques of the public/private
dichotomy (Bargetz 2009). Notions of both the private and the public are undermined in the
self-portraits where niqabis are seen in their own home (usually considered as private spaces),
but dressed modestly as they normally would in public spheres due to the fact that the photos
can be viewed by everyone. Furthermore, the home becomes a stage for performance of a
specific gendered religious identity, from which niqabis assume the position of power and
address the audience/public both visually and textually (Goffman 1959: 25). This collapse of
traditionally understood private and public categories represents a ‘localized and vernacular
version of intimate publics in an age of mobile intimacy’ (Hjorth and Lim, 2012: 478).
These online settings represent new ‘counter publics’ (Habermas, 1992) which
challenge pessimistic view of the public espoused by Adorno and Horkheimer (Johnson, 2005)
who believed that contemporary mass media rendered audiences passive, content, and
uncritical of the ideologies that popular culture promoted. The analysed narratives resist and
challenge domination by establishing ‘discursively connected public spheres’, rich in visual
and textual data. This data is particularly important in resisting 'mass-mediated' representations
of the niqab and women who wear it. New media facilitates such activity; it allows creating
tailored, grassroots political interventions. Notably, the analysed discussions betweem niqabis
and their audiences challenge Habermas's somewhat downbeat idea of separated counter
publics (1990: 120) '[on] the Internet [which] remain closed off from one another like global
villages'. This suggests a potential for interconnectedness, even if tentative and temporary,
between seemingly disparate groups. In Fairclough’s typology of orientations to difference
(which can be applied to social events, interactions, or texts), the analysed exchanges would
match scenario which Fairclough (2003: 41) describes as characterised by ‘an openness,
acceptance, recognition of difference; an exploration of difference; as in ‘dialogue’ in the
richest sense of the norm’. This is particularly important in the case of the niqab, where the
general public is seemingly antagonised about it - approx 55 to 60 per cent of the UK population
would like to see it banned in the public sphere (YouGov, 2013). The Internet offers a rare
chance to interact with a niqabi for many people who otherwise would not be have this
opportunity. As a YouGov poll suggests, approx. 40 per cent of the population do not support
a ‘burka ban’, yet their voice is not heard in the mass media. Some of these people may be
interested in receiving first-hand information about the niqab and the analysed discussions
suggest that they may be using the Internet as a window into ‘niqabi experience’. It is important,
however, to keep in mind that online discussions themselves may not necessarily lead to
tangible results in terms of cross-cultural and cross-religious understanding; Papacharissi
(2002: 17) writes that new media communication is fraught by fragmentation and limited
knowledge of issues: ‘there is a danger that these [new] technologies may overemphasize our
differences and downplay or even restrict our commonalities’.
For the women themselves, these counterpublic-fostering settings offer a chance to
express and receive support, and mobilise around shared values and beliefs, as well as
experiences. Importantly, the narratives describing the experience of ‘full niqab wearing’ are
overwhelmingly positive; this is in stark contrast with indictments of the niqab in the mass
media. Geographical dispersion does not impact on readiness of these women to connect with
each other. Instead, the analysed groups become vehicles for alternative discourse production
with at least some reception beyond the groups of other niqabi women. Downey and Fenton
(2002: 194) write: ‘[Counterpublic] offers forms of solidarity and reciprocity that are grounded
in a collective experience of marginalization and expropriation, but these forms are inevitably
experienced as mediated, no longer rooted in face-to-face relations, and subject to discursive
conflict and negotiation’.
At a different level, Fairclough (2003) links orientation to difference to dialogicality in
the Bakhtinian sense: ‘a word, discourse, language or culture undergoes “dialogization” when
it becomes relativized, de-privileged, and aware of competing definitions for the same things.
Undialogized language is authoritative or absolute’ (Bakhtin 1981: 427). In this sense, the
hegemonic discourse about the niqab becomes ‘dialogised’ by the alternative discourse
emerging around the discussed self-portraits because it is no longer the only one. The
examination of the alternative discourses, both textual and visual, demonstrates that the
hegemonic discourse is highly selective and unbalanced; the former challenges the way in
which women wearing the niqab are represented as devoid of goodwill and dehumanised.
Publication of self-portraits online and subsequent discussions about them are an
important step in the self-identification of women who wear the niqab, as they are then able to
create safe spaces for appreciation and positive discussion of the niqab. This is where they are
able to resist dominant discourses about the niqab and Islam, and construct their own
expressions of religiosity. Furthermore, they act as ‘educators in diversity’ tailoring
interactions with different groups and educating members of the public about their
understandings of Islam. Consequently, these actions disrupt the normalised associations of the
niqab with passivity, hostility, and otherness. Notably, this is facilitated and fostered by new
media which democratise access to information, as well as publishing opportunities (Turner,
Author – details removed to enable anonymous peer review
Author – details removed to enable anonymous peer review
Author – details removed to enable anonymous peer review
Al-Faifi S (2013) I wear the niqab, let me speak on my own behalf. The Independent, 18
September. URL (consulted October 2014). Available at:
Al-Fartousi M and Mogadime D (2012) Media representations of Muslim women wearing the
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