Crime wave by men wearing the khimar

As a result of criminal activity, traditionally veiled women now say they are being treated with suspicion by shopkeepers.

A Veiled woman with niqab makes her way with other women in a market at al-Jabal al-Shamali near Amman, Jordan August 02, 2009. (Photo by Salah Malkawi/ The National) *** Local Caption ***  SM012_Veiled.jpg
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AMMAN // Over the past month, Dalal Abbadi, a 30-year-old woman who wears the khimar, an Islamic veil that fully covers the face, has felt uneasy when stepping out to do the shopping or visit a clothes store, following a recent spate of robberies by criminals wearing the garment. While women who wear the khimar and the niqab - the latter covering the face but leaving the eyes exposed - are highly respected in Jordan as devout Muslims, the recent robberies have subjected them to an unusual level of public and police scrutiny and even distrust.

"Before, the owners of the store didn't look at me or even ask me what I needed, but now when I enter they stand next to me right away," Ms Abbadi said, after attending a religion lesson at an Islamic centre for Quran recitation on the outskirts of Amman. In the past two years, police have dealt with 170 crimes committed by 50 people who wore concealing Islamic clothing to hide their identities, according to police officials.

Police are still looking for two men who were wearing the niqab when they opened fire on policemen in a western Amman neighbourhood in July and escaped. It was not clear if they were militants or robbers. Last year, two niqab-wearing men were arrested after robbing Société Générale Bank in Amman at gunpoint and taking US$37,000 (Dh1360,000). "Using the niqab as a means of disguise is very harmful to this dress, which is revered in our Islamic society. But it is evident that the number of criminal cases where the niqab is used has increased," Jamal Bdour, the director of the Criminal Investigations Department at the Public Security Department, told a press conference in July.

Public cautions by the police regarding the niqab and khimar have triggered a debate in the country over how to tackle the use of the garments in crimes, with some calling for them to be restricted or even banned. Mohannad Mubaydeen, a columnist with the daily Alghad, angered religious pundits in a column last month titled Corruption under the niqab. "The issue is not the philosophy of the niqab nor it's legitimacy, but it lies with how it has become invested in malpractices that lead to disastrous results," he wrote.

"Has it become a safety tool to conceal any act that is above the law and public morality?" Imad Hajjaj, the country's leading cartoonist, joined in, publishing a controversial cartoon in Alghad depicting Abu Mahjoob, a famous Jordanian cartoon character, and his big-bellied friend, Abu Mohammed. Both were disguised in niqabs, making a list of the things they can evade, from police and money lenders to swine flu and social kisses from men.

But proponents of the niqab say critics have used the police warning as a pretext to denigrate the Islamic dress. "Commentators are trying to take their revenge on the niqab," said Hayat Museimi, a shura council member for the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood. Ms Museimi wears a hijab but is frustrated at how the niqab has become associated with criminal acts. Criminals "can disguise in any clothing and take advantage of people. We would have liked commentators to focus on those who deceive people rather than focusing on the niqab."

Ms Abbadi agreed. "There is nothing wrong with the police issuing warnings and people taking precautions, but one shouldn't think badly of the good [religious] woman," Mrs Abbadi said. "It has really became annoying." Hardline Islamists have also weighed in to the controversy. Khaled Hayek, a commentator with the Islamic daily Assabeel, wrote last week: "The niqab is a symbol of purity ? and we will not abandon it. These individual incidents will not affect us, God willing."

There is a perception among the country's Islamists that the niqab is just the latest religious value to be targeted following a decision in February by the government to allow women the freedom of mobility outside of the home and to choose their residence without the consent of their spouses or male family members. Hamam Saeed, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, told an Islamic weekly, Fact International, last month that the debate over the niqab was part and parcel of the government's attempts to secularise society.

The government "wants to force decently-dressed Arab women to remove their dress of chastity and purity and to [blindly] pursue the latest in fashion and globalisation".