The niqab, burka and, to a lesser extent, the hijab are utterly symbolic items of dress. Despite what people think, even in the Arab world (as well as in Iran) the burka and niqab didn't start being widely worn until the late 1970s. In the UK itself, it's a very recent phenomenon. The burka and niqab only began to be worn in the late 1990s or early 2000s – and often much later than that.
The niqab is a symbol of Islamism and of self-conscious difference. It's a symbol of the Muslim woman's complete separation from non-Muslim society. In other words, the wearing of it is a political and religious statement.
In Islam, politics and religion are already fused. It can even be argued that all believing and practising Muslims are Islamists in the sense that Islam itself – not Islamism – happily fuses religion and politics and has done continuously since the time of Muhammed.
Women who wear the niqab most certainly fuse Islam with politics – with totalitarian politics.
Considering the blatantly political nature of the niqab, it's interesting to recall that Muslim women began to wear the niqab – mainly under Hamas direction – in the West Bank during the 2001 intifada. In addition, all the female candidates in the elections which brought Hamas to power in 2006 wore niqabs. As one would expect, the longer Hamas's harsh rule has continued, the more women have worn the niqab.
The strange thing (at least it may seem strange to some Western non-Muslims) is that the niqab is actually banned in some Muslim countries because they too recognise the political implications of allowing people to wear it. They realise that it is a statement of Islamist intent. Consequently, the niqab has been banned in Azerbaijan, Tunisia and Turkey (though often only when the Muslim woman is working as a public servant). In Syria, for example, 1200 niqab-wearing teachers were transferred to administrative duties in the summer of 2010. However, possibly under Islamist and Sunni pressure against the Shia-Alawite-Baathist regime, this position was apparently reversed when it was reported in April 2011 that teachers would again be allowed to wear the niqab.
Just as non-Islamist Muslim states ban the niqab, so Islamist and Wahhabi states legally enforce its wearing. This again stresses the political nature of the niqab.
For example, in Saudi Arabia women are required to wear the niqab; or at least they are so required in the main cities (e.g., Mecca, Medina and Taif).
In the case of Iran, the Shah (pre-1979) banned all Islamic dress or at least all head-coverings. The clerics, of course, were very much against this because they deemed it obligatory (in Islam) that women cover their hair and faces. Needless to say, after the 'Islamic Revolution' of 1979, the niqab came into fashion.
Muslims will make the pedantic point that non-Muslims often mean niqab when they say 'burka'.
There is indeed a very small difference between the two. The burka is literally like a prison in which the Muslim woman is caged. You can't even see her eyes. With the niqab, on the other hand, Muslim men are kind enough to allow Muslim women to show their eyes (“the niqab liberates Muslim women”). In point of fact, however, one translation of the Arabic niqāb is actually 'mask'.
Another way of distinguishing the niqab from the burka is that Western Islamists tend to wear the niqab; whereas Muslims in tribal countries (such as Afghanistan) wear the burka. The other thing is that the burka is said, by Muslims, to cover the entire body; though this isn't true of the niqab. Yet those Muslims in the West who wear the niqab also wear a full Islamic uniform (what better way in there to describe it?) which similarly covers the entire body.
Islamic Justifications for Wearing the Niqab & Burka
Although I said that the wearing of the niqab is a new phenomenon in the West (as well as in most of the Muslim world), there are still lots of Koranic and Islamic backings for the covering of the hair and face; if not specifically for wearing the niqab or burka. So this doesn't mean that there wasn't “Islamic dress” before or that hair and faces weren't covered in Muslim countries. Again, the niqab is a very specific (indeed political) Islamic dress.
In the Hanafi (Sunni) and Hanbali (Sunni) schools it is obligatory (wajib) for a woman to cover her face and indeed her entire body. The Salafis (Sunni) also believe that a woman should cover her entire body other than her eyes and hands.
The Sunni Muslim position is fully understandable when you consider various Koranic and Islamic texts.
For example, the wives of Muhammad covered themselves when in the presence of other men.
Muslims also cite this passage in support of the hijab, burka and niqab:
"O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters, and the believing women, to draw their cloaks (veils) over their bodies. That will be better that they should be known (as respectable women) so as not to be annoyed."
Some Muslims, however, claim that the above doesn't say anything about covering the face itself. Nonetheless, there are tens of passages in the hadith which say precisely that.
For example, in Bukhari 6:60:282, Sunnan Abu Dawud, it reads:
"Narrated Aisha: The woman is to bring down her Jilbāb from over her head and [then place it] upon her face."
There's also this passage (1:1833):
"Narrated Aisha: ... each of us would lower her Jilbāb from her head over her face, and when they passed by we would uncover our faces."
Finally, Asma bint Abi Bakr (a “companion of the Prophet”) says:
"We are used to cover our faces from the men, and cut our hair before that in Ihrām [for Hajj]."
In terms of the political fuss that has been made about the niqab and burka (as well as their deeply political nature), it can safely be said that rather than Muslims not wanting the niqab or burka to be banned, this is precisely what they do want. Or, more correctly, through the wearing of these clothes, and the resulting political uproar, Muslims – or at least Islamists – can both assert their identity and challenge the secular state.
Take just one of many examples of this.
Sultaana Freeman, in 2003, sued the state of Florida for the right to wear a niqab for her driver's licence photo. She lost the case. Nonetheless, she gained the concession of making sure that the photographer was female. That was just one more victory for Islamism and possibly (depending on how you view the difference) for Islam itself.
Finally, even if the banning of niqab and burka does raise issues of freedom and personal rights, we still mustn't forget the utterly political nature of these garments. In fact they are the exact equivalents of swastika armbands or hammer-and-sickle badges.