Niqab a choice that 'doesn't limit us,' Ottawa's Mahwash Fatima says

Mahwash Fatima knows she often turns heads when she wears her niqab in public. Sometimes people even think she needs help. But she feels confident about her choice.

Ottawa mom's family worried about her decision: 'Do you know what kind of guy you're going to get married to?'

Choosing to wear a niqab

9 years ago
Duration 5:37
Ottawa's Mahwash Fatima speaks about her decision to wear a niqab.

Mahwash Fatima knows she often turns heads when she wears her niqab in public. Sometimes people even think she needs help.

"They'll stop me and say 'Do you know you're in Canada dear? You can take it off,' I'm like, yeah, I know."

Fatima not only covers her hair with a scarf, or hijab, but also covers the lower half of her face.

She does it to be a devout, modest Muslim.

"I'm not putting any makeup on and I'm hiding my beauty from the world and I'm just saving it for the few men of my choice. It's a sort of a sacrifice," Fatima says in an interview with CBC News.

"I'm doing it for God because I want to be closer to him and I want to get more reward, so it's my choice," she says, calling her niqab an "extra step."

She opened her home to CBC to explain her choice, after the custom came under political scrutiny in Canada.

Started after arrival in Canada 

Fatima, 33, has been wearing a niqab for 13 years. She started shortly after moving to Canada from Pakistan.

There her family and friends didn't wear niqabs and Fatima had her own notions about why only a few women did.

"Poor women ... you would only see them wearing a niqab, and automatically you would go 'they're not educated and they don't know much about Islam and what they hear is from their husband," she says.

The Canada I grew up in was never like this.- Ayesha Siddiqui, friend of Mahwash Fatima

But once in Canada, she wanted to embrace Islam in a deeper way. The turning point was enrolling at the University of Ottawa.

"It was a major perception change for me when I saw educated women and professional women [who wore niqabs,]" she says. "Before I hadn't even considered it."

Now she wears the niqab when she goes out in public, removing it only at home and with immediate family. She also briefly takes it off for identification on public transit and for membership cards at grocery stores.

"I feel confident ... I am who I am. This doesn't change me," she says.

Mahwash Fatima, 33, has been wearing a niqab for 13 years and says she does it because she wants to be a devout, modest Muslim. Fatima wears her niqab in public, like at this cosmetics marketing event in Ottawa. (CBC )

She pauses to think when asked if some women in other countries don't have this choice.

"That's why the whole impression came along, [that] it's [oppressive] and everything, because there are people who force their wives. I'm not going to say there are not."  

She emphasizes she doesn't personally know anyone who is forced into it.

Family worried

Fatima first put on her niqab in 2001, a month before the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. Her family was worried.

"Even my extended family, they're lovely, but they were actually scared, [saying] 'Are you sure, do you know what kind of guy you're going to get married to? He's going to oppress you and keep you home.'"  

She had a traditional, arranged marriage. But her niqab actually discouraged some potential husbands who worried about what people would think.

The husband she chose doesn't mind her niqab.

"He gets bad looks from people when he's with me. If people say it to me, I still get it, but when they talk about my husband like that? Honestly, like I'm imposing my choice on him, if you want to put it that way."

Works from home, online

Fatima has a business degree and originally hoped to go into advertising or marketing. But she realized it would be difficult for a Muslim woman who doesn't shake hands with men outside her family.

"You're going to offend people. If they put out their hand and you don't take it, it's just offensive, no matter how sweet you are." 

Ayesha Siddiqui, 18, doesn't cover her face or hair, but she admires her friend for her decision to wear a niqab. (CBC )

Instead she started a home-based business selling cosmetics and health products online.

The day we met Fatima she was running a training course in her home that included her niece, Hdiya Khan, and her friend, Ayesha Siddiqui. 

Siddiqui, 18, doesn't cover her face or hair. She admires her friend for the decision to wear a niqab and she's frustrated with all the fuss.

"You look at a nun. She's modest, she's devoted to her religion, she's pure ... that's what you think when you see a nun. But when you see a niqab, it's a complete opposite? The Canada I grew up in was never like this," says Siddiqui. 

Daughters will choose for themselves

Most days wearing a niqab is not a big deal. But occasionally, Fatima hears nasty comments such as "Really? Is it Halloween yet?'"

"I just ignore them ... I try to take it like a joke," she says.

Fatima has no regrets.

"I do have a life, this doesn't limit us."

She also knows her daughters may face challenges growing up Muslim.

"Niqab is going to be their choice. If they don't choose to do it, I'm not going to get upset about it. If they choose to do it, I'll be more than happy."