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The Reem Island Ghost: Niqab, National Security, and Murder in the International Media


CCTV of the attacker fleeing the mall after the fatal stabbing of Ibolya Ryan.

CCTV of the attacker fleeing the mall after the fatal stabbing of Ibolya Ryan.

On Monday, December 1st 2014, something terrible happened. Ibolya Ryan, an American teacher and mother of two, was stabbed to death in the ladies restroom of an Abu Dhabi mall. Surveillance video shows the attacker entering the mall, walking into the bathroom, and a few minutes later, running out of the mall with eye-witnesses in pursuit. The attacker was wearing an abaya, niqab, and gloves, and escaped through the same mall entrance from which they had entered.

By Wednesday, Dec 3rd, the Abu Dhabi police had released surveillance video of the attacker, and by December 4th, the suspect had been caught. The criminal case of the niqab-wearing killer may soon come to a close, but the media case against niqab is far from over.

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Banned in France and debated worldwide, the niqab has become the Muslim world’s most instantly recognizable and controversial fashion statement. While the religious opinions about it vary, the matter remains that a large number of Muslims believe it is their right to wear a niqab regardless of whether it’s an obligation, and here is where modesty and security collide. Or do they?

The Slippery Slope of “Gender Unknown”

A casual slippery slope argument implies that if you let one thing happen, it will inevitably cause a series of events that probably won’t be pleasant. It’s like how your auntie once said that you if keep crossing your eyes they’ll get stuck that way and then no one will ever marry you.

When it comes to niqab, the media version of this is:

If we can’t tell what gender a person is by looking at them, THEY COULD BE A TERRORIST AND THEN THERE WILL BE JIHAD AND YOU WILL BE MURDERED IN YOUR SLEEP.

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 9.12.49 PMGranted, some of these arguments involve slightly less capslock and slightly more tact, but the gist is that women who wear niqab might not be women. They could be men pretending to be women, who are actually (ominous music here) jihadists.

Or, they could be hiding their faces because they are lady jihadists. Jihadistas, if you will. One way or the other, we are supposed to accept that the inability to confirm a person’s gender and identity by their face alone is apparently an affront to national security. And, as Christopher Dickey of The Daily Beast wrote just two days after the killing, this presented a “nightmare for investigators.”

If the Abu Dhabi Police had a nightmare catching the Reem Island Ghost, it must not have been a very scary one.  The attacker was apprehended within three days using the same CCTV that recorded her fleeing the scene of the crime, with such high-tech, non-face related tactics as checking parking lot cameras, following her movement to her car, and then tracking the car back to her house.

The police don't get this lucky every day, ok?

The police don’t get this lucky every day, ok?

Criminals are seldom thoughtful enough to pass within a few feet of CCTV cameras with their faces uncovered as a courtesy to investigators, so most crime isn’t actually caught on tape and doesn’t have eyewitnesses.  That is why police rely on such wizardry as fingerprints, forensic evidence, and good old-fashioned investigation.  That means that not being able to see the Reem Island Ghost’s face – whether because it was covered in niqab or because the video quality was poor, would not have hamstrung the police’s investigation.

Conversely, being able to clearly see the attacker’s face wouldn’t have freed investigators from having to do any real investigating, either.   Unless the attacker happened to be family, friend, or neighbour of the investigator reviewing the tape, they wouldn’t have been able to ID her from sight alone. Further research would be necessary to put a name to the face before they would be able to say “Look, it’s Dalal Al-Hashemi! I always knew she was two khubuz short of a shawarma platter, let’s get her!”

Akhi, don't worry. The man on the right is Ru Paul, and so is the man on the left.

Akhi, don’t worry. The man on the right is Ru Paul, and so is the man on the left.

Yes, she was a she. Sorry internet, I know you’re a little disappointed.  You knew it was coming though, because in local news stories following the attack, eye witnesses reported hearing an argument “between two women.”

In spite of this information, the news was spun to include ambiguity about gender, but given that the line between genders is enthusiastically blurred in the Western World in the name of arts, rights, and freedom, it’s beyond hypocritical for people in these same countries to point at Muslim women in mock fear and cry, “We can’t let women dress like this! How do we know they’re not really men!”

And this man is the transgendered woman Laverne Cox. Since you can’t tell from looking at him/her immediately, he/she is a threat to national security?

Had the attacker not been wearing niqab, would international news agencies still be calling it a case of gender unknown? After all, a man wearing only a hijab could easily have made himself look and sound like a woman if he had intended to deliberately infiltrate a women’s bathroom. But in countries across the world he could’ve done it in stilettos and a mini-dress as well, and would probably have the calves for it too.

Murder happens, people die, and it’s nothing less than tragedy.  Unless the person killed is of international recognition or familiarity though, it’s not usually newsworthy.Would this attack have made the international media rounds if the attacker hadn’t been wearing a niqab? I supposed that’s a difficult question to answer, so here’s another one.   Are there any other international news stories this week where an otherwise unknown woman was killed by an unknown attacker for an unknown motive?

All squirrels die. Socrates died. Therefore, Socrates was a squirrel.

"Is this the new face of modern medical terrorism? Muslim women permitted to cover their faces in public health institutions are a threat to national security and- oh wait, she's a doctor? Sorry. Nevermind.

“Is this the new face of modern medical terrorism? Muslim women permitted to cover their faces in public health institutions are a threat to national security and- oh wait, she’s a doctor? Sorry. Nevermind.

Lots of people conceal their faces, lots of people conceal their intentions, but not all concealed faces are the result of concealed intentions.

Take, for example- a surgeon. Everyone understands why a surgeon covers their face. Unless you haven’t caught up on germ theory, you know that people have germs and germs make other people sick. Furthermore, people who are cut open are particularly vulnerable to said germs, and that is why surgical masks in hospitals are not up for debate.  Yes, wearing a mask does make it easy for someone to infiltrate the hospital and pretend to be a surgeon and who knows what sort of evil they can get up to, but we can confirm identities and ensure security without banning medical face-coverings because we are creative and smart and not Surgeonophobic.

Motorcyclists- especially the non-pureed variety- cover their entire heads, and while thousands of crimes are committed by fast-moving motorcyclists with unknown and impact-protected identities, helmets are not considered a threat to security. They’re actually a legal requirement.  The point I’m trying to make is that allowing someone to cover their face doesn’t actually threaten national security unless we allow them to evade identification, and identification can be confirmed very simply by asking the wearer of the helmet or niqab to show their face when requested by an appropriate authority when confirmation of identity is required.  Once identification is confirmed, they are then free to flip their visor – or veil – back down, and be on their merry, non-threatening way.

Motorcycle safety and Islamic modesty rolled into one from

Motorcycle safety and Islamic modesty rolled into one from

In the event that crime is committed by a person of unknown identity wearing a motorcycle helmet, police would have to do the same thing they did in the Reem Island case – investigate.

Where there’s a will…

France has over 5 million Muslims, but fewer than 2,000 of them are estimated to wear a niqab. The Netherlands tried banning it in 2005 and 2010 although less than a hundred women cover their faces in the entire country. Compare this to the Middle East, where niqab is a norm, not an exception – and you have to wonder why the law enforcement officials that regulate hundreds of thousands of women in niqab are not nearly as freaked out as their European counterparts.

The foundation of the Niqab vs National Security argument is based on a flawed premise: that niqab prevents women’s faces from being seen for the purpose of identification.  If the niqab were permanently affixed, or women adamant about not uncovering their faces to relevant authorities when requested, they might have a point.  But that’s not the case at all.  Women throughout the Muslim world show their faces to establish their identity, and niqab removal for driver’s licenses, national identification cards, student IDs, etc,  is a non-issue.

While major schools of Islamic thought may exercise a difference of opinion on whether the niqab is obligatory or optional, they all agree it can be removed for legitimate reasons, specifically things like identity and national security.

Law enforcement throughout the Muslim world is able to navigate issues of security without needing to ban the niqab, and that is a point that other governments should take note of. If they say it can’t be done, then they are implying that all of the intelligence, resourcefulness, and technological capabilities of modern law enforcement are apparently no match for a handspan of black chiffon.

Face coverings and security are not mutually exclusive. Both can – and currently do – coexist in regards to surgeons, motorcyclists, firemen, hockey goalies, and people who wrap scarves around their faces in the winter to keep their noses from falling off.  The same coexistence is already present in the Middle East, and all it takes is a female police officer and a screen.  Or a fingerprint scanner.  Or two working brain cells and the willingness to rub them together.

Socrates The Squirrel

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Zeba Khan is the Editor at Large - Special Needs for, as well as a writer, speaker, and disability awareness advocate. In addition to having a child with autism, she herself lives with Ehlers-Danlos Sydrome, Dysautonomia, Mast-Cell Activation Disorder, and a random assortment of acronyms that collectively translate to chronic illness and progressive disability.



  1. M

    December 10, 2014 at 5:32 PM

    Jazak Allah Khair sister, your articles always make my day!! Now the next time someone starts arguing about the security issues of niqab I’ll know how to respond.

  2. Amatullah

    December 11, 2014 at 4:56 AM

    Allahumma Baarik Laka!
    Am amazing perspective. May Allah preserve you.

    • Amatullah

      December 11, 2014 at 8:09 AM

      *An amazing perspective

  3. Umm Safa

    December 11, 2014 at 4:19 PM

    Awesome awesome awesome!
    *grins widely*
    JazakAllah Khair!
    You are one of my favourite writers Allahumma Baarik Laka..

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  5. Saad

    December 12, 2014 at 10:23 PM

    The Socrates picture did it for me. Nice blend of sarcasm and wit.
    Jazakumullah kheyran.

  6. Nudrat Farheen

    December 13, 2014 at 3:31 AM

    This is the best article i hv ever read on any muslim current era issues. Barak Allah feeki dear zeba. May Allah increase your knowledge and abilities and make you a useful muslimmah always in service of defending Allah’s deen, and may you be among the most favourites of muslimmahs for Allah who will enter jannah without accountability ameen… keep up the good work… kindly excuse me forgive me for this long admiration note i couldnot stop myself even though i know too much of admiration is a poison….. but here u got only 3 responses, while i can see that your article is a big defender of islam….. keep up good work dear. May Allah save u from satan and bad people.ameen

  7. Hibaysh

    December 13, 2014 at 11:38 AM


    Hit the bullseye on every point, sister Zeba.

    I’d like to know your opinion on a similar issue. I don’t know if you are familiar with this, but for certain official requirements, sometimes Hijabis are asked to show their ears in their ID photos. Yes, basically made to look like Mickey Mouse. The intention behind it was never truly clear for me. *Security*, again, perhaps. This is in the Indian system, not sure if it’s practiced elsewhere.

  8. Umm Hadi

    December 13, 2014 at 3:23 PM

    Masha Allah, we need a case to mould our thoughts. Well written and directional.

  9. Ibn Mahmood

    December 14, 2014 at 1:00 AM

    Sister Zeba you are by far none my favorite writer on here. Patiently waiting for your next article!

  10. Zeba Khan

    December 14, 2014 at 1:09 AM

    Thanks, image changed!

  11. mezba

    December 15, 2014 at 1:22 PM

    Salaams. Fantastic article, very well written!

  12. Saliha

    December 15, 2014 at 4:20 PM

    it is a strong logical argument, but we have to learn to operate in a world in which logic is not the dominant manner of understanding things. you cannot call people to such a high standard, in order to ask that they accommodate you. our goal should not be being right, and pointing out inconsistencies in the other’s argument, but recognizing legitimate cultural discomfort with the practice of covering the face, and realizing we have a greater duty than individual desire to practice an optional (admittedly virtuous, but optional) form of modesty when that turns so many people off and scares so many people. Emotions and perceptions are as relevant as logical reasoning, if not more.

    • Hibaysh

      December 16, 2014 at 10:05 AM

      There is a lot of wisdom in what you say. It maybe unrealistic to expect such a high standard of logic from the average person on the street. However, the same person might stumble across this article and be forced to rethink his/her emotional attitude. And if such an article could influence a *single* person’s perception of a deed that pleases Allah, and he/she, may, at the very least refrain from staring with horror at a woman who practices this deed, then I’d say every word used and effort made to write this article was worth it.

      Also, the type of audience who would mostly read through this article carefully, and appreciate what the author has to say would be making use of their logic. I have noticed that when something makes a person think, he/she tends to give his/her emotions a backseat. Such articles can cause a much-needed attitude shift.

      Also, the observation you made about niqaab scaring off people can also be applied to the Hijaab and the beard, albeit not on the same scale. They are also individual deeds. Granted, some scholars don’t consider niqaab obligatory, but people’s sentiments should not be a dominating factor in one’s decision to practice a good deed that one feels can have a positive effect on their faith. There are a lot of other voluntary deeds that can scare people. Like reading Qur’an on the bus. Or prostrating in the middle of a crowded street.

      Being careful about people’s sentiments is a different context altogether. A person reading this article is not going to feel scared about the idea of niqaab, as he/she might feel when seeing a niqaabi.
      Yes, we should be wise, but in that process, let’s not discourage such wonderful efforts that will in sha Allah have a very positive impact on perceptions of Islam at large. And help discourage the very fear that we are concerned about.

    • Inqiyaad

      December 16, 2014 at 10:18 PM

      Niqab is obligatory.
      Admittedly, to some it is supererogatory.
      It is obligatory, indeed obligatory.
      I will say it once more, to make it four, and obligatory for sure.
      Only if saying once more, would mean more.
      Obligatory it is for sure.
      For some who bother to ponder and pore!

      It is a season of emotion.
      For people who shun,
      Islam, a means of emancipation;
      Islam, they shun;
      For desires and life fleeting.
      My sister, consider this feeling;
      And abandon niqab as a consideration!

      To please your Lord, to avoid fire;
      To something higher, you aspire.
      But, “No”, they say;
      “Yours is a desire!”

      Fear is an emotion;
      But, admittedly,
      To fear fire, eternal and dire, is a desire
      Love is an emotion.
      But, admittedly,
      To fear your Lord, Lord of the universe, entire;
      is a desire.
      Cultivate this desire!

      Of emotion this is a season.
      Yet, some reason,
      Dawah, you should not spoil and;
      in consideration recoil.
      They put you down!

      But, our Lord’s beloved
      Did not put any soul down
      He did, once, only frown
      And for this;
      His Lord sent down;

      Wama ‘alayka alla yazzakka!
      Wama ‘alayka alla yazzakka!

      • Zeba Khan

        December 17, 2014 at 9:56 AM

        Salams Bros & Sis’s- As I mentioned earlier, there is a difference of opinion of niqab and this article isn’t actually the place to discuss it, and nor is a poem likely to solve what 1400 years of scholarly discourse has yet to resolve. ;)

      • Inqiyaad

        December 17, 2014 at 9:51 PM

        You are right!
        1400 years of scholarship, I cannot overwrite
        with rhyme that is banal and trite.
        For this reason, I did write,
        “For some who bother to ponder and pore!”
        Not, for all who bother to ponder and pore.

        Shaking off my cheap stardust, now.

        Concern for security is only one of many ways in which opposition to niqab is articulated. Some appeal to ‘higher’ and subtler objectives like, ability to communicate in an effective manner, or simply, “it makes me uncomfortable, can you not be considerate?”

        Some Muslims take it to another ‘higher’ level, which is concern for how the niqab will affect Dawah. No, Saliha is not the first person I have heard this argument from. Subtler arguments are more difficult to recognize and address head on, I guess. More importantly, I agree, this is a tangent.

        Sister Zeba, this was a very well written article from you, as usual! May Allah accept your efforts.

        RuPa tickles are invaluable!

    • Abu Milk Sheikh

      December 18, 2014 at 2:44 AM

      Which culture’s discomfort are you referring to? The Niqab is ubiquitous in Emirati culture. Though they are not perfect Emirati women, even the non-niqabis, are generally women of modesty and piety. Interestingly, the problems that Emirati women have are mostly related to anti-Islamic influences such as feminism, materialism, Western popular culture etc.

      In a secular society either

      a) People should be free to dress however please as long as they don’t break the law or

      b) People should dress in a manner that takes common weal into account.

      It’s one or the other. You can’t have both. In reality the former standard is applied to every sub-culture except Muslims. In secular societies, all manner of dress is permitted that offends the sensibilities of someone or the other, yet there are no calls to restrict freedom of dress (expression.)

      Furthermore the call to ban the niqab by some Emirati commentators, some of them scholars of Islam, for the sake of National Security is quite odd. The books of fiqh state that is obligatory on the Muslim ruler to mandate that Muslim women cover their faces when out in public, for the sake of common weal. The niqab was widespread throughout the Muslim lands from the time the ayaat of hijab were revealed up until the early/mid 20th century. In 1400 years, didn’t women commit crimes? Didn’t men commit crimes while disguising themselves as women in niqab/jilbab? I’d like to see statements from medieval or even modern Islamic scholars opining that the ruler has a right to ban the niqab for the sake of national security, if they exist.

      Their (the disbelievers) problem is not really a piece of cloth covering the head or face. The distinction between covering the hair being oppressive and uncovering it being unoppressive is totally arbitrary, as demonstrated by “indecency laws” in the West. Their problem is the symbolism behind the piece of cloth – Tawheed (Islamic Monotheism) and Islam (Submission) – because it represents the human being in its rightful, ennobled state, in comparison to their debased state of moral degeneracy.

      What did the people of Lut alayhi’s’salam say to him when he censured them for their moral degeneracy? “But the answer of his people was only that they said, “Evict them from your city! **INDEED, THEY ARE MEN WHO KEEP THEMSELVES PURE.”**

      Finally, our goal is not to be right. It is to call them to the Truth and to be a witness over mankind. “And thus we have made you a just community that you will be witnesses over the people and the Messenger will be a witness over you.” Allah put us on this Earth to show these people how mistaken they are and to teach them a better way. One of the ways this is done is by challenging their beliefs and pointing out the irrationality behind them.

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