After the Niqab: What Life Is like for French Women Who Remove the Veil

Author provided

Author provided

Islamic headscarves and veils continue to be the subject of intense debate in Europe. Countries’ approaches toward the burqa and niqab, which cover the face, range from tolerance in the UK to an outright ban in France. Reactions of Muslim women to restrictions have varied, including protests by some, reluctant acceptance by others and also support for bans.

But what happens when a woman who has worn a niqab, sometimes for years, makes the decision to leave it behind?

Hanane and Alexia – whose names are pseudonyms to protect their identity – were both born in France. Hanane grew up in a non-practicing Muslim family, while Alexia converted to Islam at age 22. For five years they both wore a niqab. Hanane began in 2009, just before France banned the full-face veil, while Alexia adopted it later. Once ardent defenders of the right to wear the niqab, both women have now completely abandoned it. But the transition took place gradually and was accompanied by a growing distance from extreme Salafist ideology.

Hanane today. Agnès De Féo

Hanane today. Agnès De Féo

‘Start living again’

On January 10, during the New Year’s discount sales in France, Alexia and I met near Paris’ Gare du Nord train station. She wanted to buy clothes and “start living again”. In the first shop she bought four slim pairs of pants and a trim jacket. She then tried out some Nepalese clothes designed for Western tastes, including a colourful jacket and pants with huge bell bottoms.

As she came out of the dressing room, Alexia gauged herself in front of the mirror: “It’s really me, I finally feel like myself again after years of being locked up.” With her hair brushing her face, she looked like a modern woman, fully alive. I was impressed with her metamorphosis: it’s hard to imagine that she wore a niqab for five years and was one of the most radical women I’d ever met.

I met Alexia in August 2011 in the context of my research on the full-length veil during a demonstration by the Salafist group Forsane Alizza(literally Knights of the Pride) in a city near Paris. She was wearing a niqab and presented herself as the wife of one of the group’s leaders.

Event of the Salafist group Forsane Alizza in August, 2011. At the centre is its leader, Mohamed Achamlane, who was jailed in 2015 for criminal conspiracy in connection with a terrorist enterprise. Agnès De Féo, Author provided

Event of the Salafist group Forsane Alizza in August, 2011. At the centre is its leader, Mohamed Achamlane, who was jailed in 2015 for criminal conspiracy in connection with a terrorist enterprise. Agnès De Féo, Author provided

Alexia remembers that time:

We considered all Muslim supporters of the French Republic to be unbelievers. We were doing the takfir (excommunication) against those who did not practice like us. We were opposed to the taghout (idolatry in the broad sense), i.e., the state and institutions. We defined ourselves as ghûlat, which means ‘extremists’ in Arabic.

Estimates of the number of women who wear the niqab vary widely, from a few hundred to several thousand. In terms of even France’s Muslim population the percentage is tiny.

Hanane, whom I met on the side-lines of a demonstration in front of the French National Assembly, 2010. Agnès De Féo, Author provided

Hanane, whom I met on the side-lines of a demonstration in front of the French National Assembly, 2010. Agnès De Féo, Author provided

‘The niqab was protecting me’

I’ve known Hanane even longer than Alexia. We met during a January 2010 demonstration of women in niqab at the Place de la République in Paris and then in front of the National Assembly. She and others were protesting a proposed measure that would outlaw concealing one’s face in public.

At the beginning of 2017, Hanane reached out to ask me to help her write a book about her life. In the book she’d like to write, Hanane doesn’t want to denounce the niqab, but to tell the story of the rapes she says were repeatedly inflicted by her father-in-law. To her, they help explain her involvement in Salafism.

Religion brought a lot that helped me escape from the trauma of rape. I was 19 to 20 years old when I started wearing the niqab, I took it off when I was 25. The further I went, the more I wanted to cover myself. The niqab protected me, I liked hiding from men. I could see them, but they couldn’t see me.

Unlike Alexia, who decided on her own to begin wearing a veil, Hanane remembers the influence of her social circle at the time:

We were a bunch of girlfriends and wore niqab almost all at the same time. In our group the earliest was Ayat Boumédiène, who adopted it more than two years before the law. At first everything was normal with her, and then she started to organise gatherings to encourage us to take up arms. It was her husband, Ahmadi Coulibaly, who turned her head – he was low-key until he went to jail. Ayat wanted to introduce me to a man she said I should marry, she really pushed hard. He was later imprisoned for murder. Thank goodness I didn’t give in – I’d be in Syria today.

On January 9, 2015, Ahmadi Coulibaly attacked the Hyper Cacher market near Paris. Boumédiène left Paris one week earlier, and was spotted at the Istanbul airport. She remains at large. Coulibaly killed five people during his attack and died when the police assaulted the grocery store in which he was holding hostages.

Trailer of the film Forbidden Veil, directed by Agnès De Féo and produced by Marc Rozenblum, 2017.

‘I felt like I was getting out of jail’

When France banned full-length veils in 2010, some of the women who wore the niqab switched to the jilbab, which covers the whole body except the face, while others gave in to public pressure and ceased wearing it. Both Alexia and Hanane are different: they say they’ve turned the page completely.

Alexia has even become a fierce opponent of the Islamic veil and Salafism. She continues to define herself as a Muslim but reads the texts with a critical eye. Hanane admits that she has become less diligent in her rituals: “I often skip prayers or make them late. Some days I don’t even have time to pray. When I wore the niqab I was a little more regular, even though I was often late.”

Both say they’ve put aside the more radical texts they once favoured, and no longer frequent fundamentalist websites. But this process didn’t happen all at once – it took several months. Alexia says she decided to remove the niqab on the advice of the man who shared her life at the time. A convert to Islam and Salafism, he was a supporter of conservative dress for women, but nonetheless suggested she cease wearing the niqab:

When he saw my physical condition, he asked me to remove the niqab – he feared for my health. I had worn it to please Allah, but because of the lack of sunlight I wasn’t synthesising vitamin D any more – my health was failing. I followed his advice, but it’s been long and hard.

Alexia remembers:

When I took the niqab off, I felt like I was getting out of jail. But that doesn’t mean I was released – I still felt bad. It takes years to get by and I haven’t finished cleaning my head yet.

Hanane abandoned her veil after the attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015 because she feared for her safety, facing more and more insults in the street. She said the hardest part has been the exclusion from her social circle:

Since I removed my veil, many of my Muslim sisters no longer want to talk to me. I find them stuck-up and unfair, because anyone can choose to take off their veil. A few rare ones talk to me, but it’s not like it used to be.

For a long time Alexia would put her veil back on when returning to her old neighbourhood in northeast Paris where social and religious conservatism is strong in certain communities. Then she finally changed her life entirely.

My life began to change when I enrolled in a gym, which allowed me to get out of the Salafist social networks that were my only source of socialisation before. Then I got a job and then I finally said goodbye to my past.

And it was at this job that she met the man whom she would marry. He is not Muslim and the civil marriage took place at city hall, an unthinkable choice for this woman who once hated French institutions.

Alexia visits a booth at the annual salon for French Muslims at Le Bourget, north of Paris, 2017. Agnès De Féo, Author provided

Alexia visits a booth at the annual salon for French Muslims at Le Bourget, north of Paris, 2017. Agnès De Féo, Author provided

A bitter taste

In hindsight, neither Alexia nor Hanane spoke of their “exit” from the niqab as a liberation. Instead, the experience has left them with a bitter taste. They say they were convinced at some point in their lives of the importance of wearing a full-length veil: Alexia believed that she was achieving Muslim perfection and giving meaning to her life – she imagined meeting the pious and virtuous man who would save her from her life as a single mother. For Hanane, the goal was to heal the wounds of an adolescence torn apart by family trauma and foster care.

Alexia now feels that this period cost her years of her life and expresses anger at the propaganda coming from Saudi Arabia. She blames the entire system that indoctrinated her, even though she acknowledges it was, in a sense, voluntary. According to her, the Islamic State benefits from the naivety of those who believe they are committed to Salafism for legitimate reasons.

Even if they’ve both renounced the niqab, neither Hanane nor Alexia support the 2010 ban. Hanane told me recently: “The law is counterproductive. The only way out is by yourself. The ban will never convince any woman to take it off.” Alexia has the same reaction, saying that the law that has led some women to cut themselves off from society and that some might adopt it as a rebellious gesture.

Testimonies of those who’ve chosen to “leave the niqab behind” are rare. The number of women who have adopted it is extremely low, and the ones who then choose to renounce it must often sever their old relationships and adopt what is in many ways a new identity – they change their e-mail addresses, phone numbers and move on completely. For them the full-length veil has become something firmly in the past, representative of a transitional stage in their lives.

Translated from the original French by Leighton Walter Kille.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.




Agnès De Féo is co-founder of Sasana Productions and teaches at the journalism school CFPJ.

A Refugee-Run Restaurant in Lisbon's Mercardo de Arroios

Mezze: Rebuilding, with Food

mezze 4.jpg

In a market as diverse as Lisbon’s Mercado de Arroios, where people from all over the world shop, Mezze doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. But the small restaurant deserves a closer look: it’s not only one of Lisbon’s few Middle Eastern restaurants, but, more importantly, its staff is almost entirely made up of recently arrived Syrian refugees. For them Mezze represents both a link back to the country they left behind and a crucial aid for putting down roots in their new home.

The idea behind Mezze is one that’s being tried out in other countries. Refugees, particularly those fleeing the war in Syria, are given the chance to earn a living and get established by sharing their culinary heritage, either by opening or working at a restaurant or catering business. The benefit is not just for the refugees, who are able to earn some money while at the same time preserving a taste of home, but also for their new communities, who can support those displaced by war and gain insight into their cultural heritage through the universal language of food.

Mezze’s start, though, was motivated by something simpler – the desire for bread. Alaa Alhariri, a 24-year-old Syrian woman who came to Portugal to study architecture in 2014 after a brief time spent studying in Egypt and Istanbul, was missing the flatbread she used to buy back home. “Bread is the beginning of everything, it exists in every culture,” she says. “In the Middle East it means family, it means sharing. Syrians open bakeries as soon as they arrive in Turkey and in other countries as well.”

mezze 1.jpg

Alaa is one of the four founders of the non-profit Pão a Pão, which means “Bread by Bread,” a name inspired by the Portuguese saying “Grão a Grão” (“Grain by Grain,” which has a similar meaning to “step by step”). The organization was the brainchild of Alaa and Francisca Gorjão Henriques, another cofounder and Pão a Pão’s current president. Francisca and Alaa met by chance – Alaa was living with Francisca’s aunt. Pão a Pão was originally created with the intention of opening a bakery.

“Refugees [from Syria] started to arrive in Portugal in 2015 under the European Union program to relocate them,” explains Alaa, whose eyes shine with enthusiasm when talking about the project (while she’s heavily involved in behind-the-scenes work, she doesn’t work at the restaurant). “They only receive state assistance for two years, after which the funds stop.” The aim of Pão a Pão is to help young people and women, in particular, integrate into the work force. “Some of these women have never worked before,” says Alaa. “They’ve been housewives all their lives.”

But the team at Pão a Pão began to think bigger; the bakery plan was scrapped and their new aim was to open a restaurant. They organized a series of successful test dinners in December 2016, which took place in an old covered market that had been converted into an events space. Buoyed by the positive response, Pão a Pão felt confident in taking the plunge. They were able to crowdfund just over 23,000 euros (around $30,000) – almost 10,000 euros more than the initial goal – over the course of 2017, with the restaurant finally opening its doors in September, serving such classic Syrian dishes as moussakakibbeh (fried balls made of bulgur, minced meat and walnuts), kabseh (rice with vegetables and chicken) and baba ganoush.

“The people working here feel like they’re doing something useful. So the more people we can help feel this way, the better.”

“People’s reactions have been amazing, it is better than we could expect, we’re always busy,” says Francisca, who recently left her job as a journalist at the Público newspaper to concentrate on her work with the organization. “We have improved a lot since our first test dinners, especially considering that 90 percent of the team had no prior experience.”

Mezze has also been extremely well received by the Mercado de Arroios’s neighboring shops and stalls, which supply the restaurant with its ingredients. Everything Mezze cooks with comes from the market except the meat, which is sourced from a halal butcher in Almada, south of Lisbon.

Perhaps more significantly, the refugees employed by Mezze take pride in their work. Serena, a 24-year-old from Palestine who has been living in Lisbon for one year now, loves the atmosphere at the restaurant. But, more importantly for her, she values the chance to show that refugees are the same as everyone else: “We work hard, we love life and want to be part of society as much as anyone.”

While we talk, she welcomes people to the restaurant and explains the menu. “The Portuguese ask a lot of questions because they don’t know these dishes but everyone loves the food,” she says. Although she finds the language difficult, she considers Portugal to be her home now. “It’s my home, where I find myself,” she explains. “It still has traditional a family structure, family bonds, and at the same time, more freedom of movement and speech.”

mezze 2.jpg

Rafat Dabah, 21 years old, has been in Portugal for just under two years, after being relocated with his family from Egypt, where they first moved after leaving Syria. “My father had a restaurant in Syria and in the school holidays I would work there with him,” he tells us. “Here in Portugal I worked in a kebab place in a shopping center.” This experience seems to have served him well. He began working as a waiter at Mezze, but is now the restaurant’s manager – he eagerly explains the improvements they have made at the restaurant and the positive feedback they’ve received from diners.

Originally from Damascus, he lives in Lisbon with his younger brother and his mother, who also works at Mezze. His older brother, 24, lives in Turkey. His father died in the war. Living in Loures, a suburb north of Lisbon, Rafat can’t image going back home to Damascus anytime soon. “It’s tough there. Sadly things are still dangerous.”

As for life in Portugal, he doesn’t feel quite at home yet, although it’s getting better. He tells us how he’s enjoying learning so much, including the Portuguese language. “To integrate you need to learn the language, I’ve learned a lot and I’m practicing more now,” he says. “Once I could communicate, life became much easier.”

This isn’t the first time refugees have made Portugal their home. Because of its neutrality during the Second World War, the country saw a large influx of exiles from other European countries as well as North Africa. Likewise, hundreds of thousands fled to Lisbon after the independence of Angola and Mozambique in 1975. More recently, 1,659 refugees took shelter in the country as a result of the Balkan wars in the early 1990s.

In the last two years, 1,507 refugees (mostly Syrians but also some from Iraq and Eritrea) were relocated to Portugal from Greece and Italy, according to the Portuguese Council for Refugees. The Portuguese Government announced recently that they would receive 1,000 more currently residing in Turkey (again, mostly Syrians but also some from other Middle Eastern countries). Although small in number compared to the massive number of refugees being sheltered in the countries bordering Syria, they are being welcomed warmly. The extraordinary success of Mezze speaks to that.

mezze 3.jpg

The support of the Portuguese people has been fundamental to the realization of this project, which leads us to wonder if this openness would have been possible, say, even 20 years ago. “Maybe 20 years ago, without social media amplifying this disaster at the gates of Europe, this wouldn’t be possible,” admits Francisca. “At the same time, today’s Lisbon is much more cosmopolitan than it was 20 years ago. Diversity is now a prime feature in some parts of the city, like in the Arroios neighborhood.”

The ongoing support of Lisboetas, many of whom felt a wave of solidarity with the refugees after Europe initially bungled the refugee crisis, has inspired Alaa and her colleagues to think bigger. “We’re thinking of opening another location. The Portuguese love to eat and we’re lucky that they love our food,” says Alaa.

Francisca confirms the plans to open another place. “We’ve developed this project with the hope of replicating it in Lisbon and other cities in the country. We’re still starting out and we want to improve, but we think we might be able to open in other locations in a year. We also hope to expand our current Mezze to include a take-away and catering service.” They also have plans for debates and workshops, with Pão a Pão hosting a conference on integration at Mezze on Friday, January 26.

According to Alaa, the people working at the restaurant “feel happy, they feel like they’re doing something useful. So the more people we can help feel this way, the better.”


culinary backstreets logo.png

This article originally appeared in Culinary Backstreets, which covers the neighborhood food scene and offers small group culinary walks in a dozen cities around the world.




Célia, CB’s Lisbon bureau chief, is a freelance journalist, writing mostly about travel and food, and is the co-author of the book "Eat Portugal", winner of a Gourmand World Cookbook Award. Her work can be seen in such publications as The Guardian, Eater, and DestinAsian. In 2014 she started leading food tours in Lisbon through Eat Portugal Food Tours and now does the same with CB. She wrote the Portuguese entries for the book "1001 Restaurants you Must Experience Before you Die" and keeps searching for the best pastéis de nata so you don't have to.



Photographer Rodrigo Cabrita was born in Oeiras, Portugal in 1977. He started his career at the daily newspaper Diário de Notícias in 2001 and has worked at a variety of publications since then. He is now a freelance photographer and takes part regularly in exhibitions. Rodrigo has won several photojournalism awards, most notably the Portuguese Gazeta award. You can see more of his work at his website and his Instagram page.