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'my face veil is part of my faith and part of my identity'.

THE burka is a head covering worn by some Muslim women that covers the full body and face, with a mesh screen that covers the eyes.

But it seems Mr Johnson, who described it as being like a letterbox, may have confused the burka with another type of clothing - a niqab.

The niqab covers the face, but the eyes remain visible. The burka is therefore less revealing and often worn when women leave their home.

Muslim women can also wear a hijab, a scarf that covers the head and neck; a chador, that covers the full body; or a shayla, which is a long scarf wrapped around the neck.

Women can also wear an alamira, a two-piece headscarf, or a khimar, a cape-like head covering that covers the hair, neck and shoulders.

There is debate among scholars about whether women should wear the burka, but the Koran advises both men and women to dress modestly.

For women, the holy text has been interpreted to mean that they must cover up all of their body, including their face, hands and feet when they are in the presence of a man they are not married to.

Veils are believed to date back to as early as 622 CE in areas of India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.

For Muslim women, it is their decision which, if any, religious headwear they pick.

Some opt for the burka, others the hijab, but others might prefer not to wear anything at all.

Although figures for women who wear the burka or other head coverings are hard to find or not thought to exist, the number of women who wear them is thought to be low.

A study in France in 2009 found that out of a population of 1.5 million to 2 million, about 1,900 wore burkas or niqabs - around 0.1%.

Around 150-200 Muslim women in Denmark wore the niqab or burka in Denmark before it was banned, The Guardian reported - around 0.1% of the population.

Figures for the UK are unknown.

Wales is home to 45,950 Muslims, according to figures in the 2011 Census. Just over 23,000 live in the Welsh capital, with 6,859 in Newport and 5,415 in Swansea.

That means around one in 60 Welsh people is Muslim, slightly lower than the equivalent figure for England, where around one in 20 are Muslim.

In Cardiff, the figure is around one in 14.

Sahar al-Faifi has worn the niqab since she was 14 years old.

The things Sahar will tell you she is most proud of are being Welsh, being Muslim and being a skydiver.

She is bubbly, opinionated and passionate, and is a trained geneticist currently taking a career break to work in the community trying to tackle Islamaphobia, through MEND (Muslim Engagement and Development) and Citizens UK.

She has been inundated with requests for interviews since Boris Johnson made his controversial comments, but says it is important to her to use her voice to speak out.

She just hopes that it will encourage other Muslim women to do the same.

No one forces her to wear it. She has five brothers and a father but it is not because of them she wears one and nor is she married.

Her mother and sister do not wear a face veil and many of her friends don't.

"When I was growing up, there were some women in my circle who chose to wear a face veil," she said.

"They explained their reasons, because at that point I was beginning to do my research about them. I decided that for me, that to be closer to God, the best act of devotion, was, for me, to wear the face veil.

"In the Quran, when it says for women to 'lower down their garments' it means to cover up.

"That's why there is diversity in Muslim women. Some do that via the hijab, some of the niqab and some woman don't wear either."

"If I choose to wear it, that definitely doesn't mean I am better than someone else who doesn't," she says.

"This is my spiritual journey and it is totally my personal choice but gives me freedom, I feel liberated and enlightened."

When people trot out the line that women who cover their bodies or faces are pressured to do so, she says: "Anyone who knows me, knows no one could tell me what to do. That's the huge irony."

She says Boris Johnson's comments are "Islamaphobic, racist and nothing but a dog whistle statement".

"Our lives are already much harder. The environment around Muslims is very hostile, especially with Trump winning the election and the rise of far-right extremism in Europe.

"A lot feel demonised already and then Boris Johnson comes out and says women like me look like a letterbox.

"It's sad because I am actually a geneticist who is working with community organisations, I am not a bank robber."

Sahar adds: "It will make our lives harder. We already face discrimination against our gender, our faith and now we have to deal with his comments.

"We already get verbal abuse and called terrorists and bombers."

Sahar can list incidents of abuse she has faced. One, while giving an interview on camera with the BBC, where a man walking past abused her on camera.

Another was just weeks ago in Whitchurch where she was called a "terrorist". She has reported it to the police.

"Sadly, it's part of my life." I asked if she has ever considered not wearing her face veil or changing her image.

"Life would be easier because I am a visible Muslim but I am still sticking to what I believe in because the last thing I want to do is to stop doing something I believe in because of others.

"I am not forcing anyone to wear it. I don't have a problem with people disagreeing with me wearing it but it is my choice.

"A lot of people say what Boris Johnson said was freedom of expression and speech.

"Having freedom of expression comes with a responsibility and freedom of speech doesn't mean freedom of hate and bigotry, especially from someone high profile like him".

She is aware that wearing a face veil makes her a more obvious target for Islamophobia but it doesn't and won't stop her.

"It's part of my faith, part of my identity.

"People see me and know I am a Muslim.

"I am proudly Welsh, unapologetically a Muslim and a Cardiffian. "At the same time I can share my brain and identity with the world without superimposing it in any way.

"I want everyone to be confident within their identity, regardless of their faith, race or background or wherever they come from."

Although it is a choice for Muslim women to make, several countries have banned the burka and niqab.

So far, France, Belgium, Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark and Bavaria in Germany have said they will fine anyone wearing a burka in public.

France was the first country to ban full-face veils in April 2011.

Most recently, Denmark introduced a new law on August 1. In Iran, however, women are required to wear modest Islamic clothing - including covering their heads.

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Sahar Al-Faifi, of Whitchurch, Cardiff, has worn the niqab since she was14 ROB BROWNE
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Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 12, 2018
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