Niqab: Radical feminism or female subjugation?

Turkish Muslim women in the rural eastern Turkish village of Cumra. Photo by: GREG LOCKE © 20008

Turkish Muslim women in the rural eastern Turkish village of Cumra. Photo by: GREG LOCKE © 2008

By Christopher Majka
October, 2015

Unexpectedly (or perhaps not) the wearing of the niqab has emerged as an issue in the Canadian federal election. Yes, that’s right — the Canadian federal election, not that of Pakistan or Yemen. And in the year 2015, not 1015. How is it that we are even having a discussion about how a very small minority of Muslim women in Canada dress in the context of determining the political future of Canada?

A woman wearing a niqab. Photo by Steve Evans, Citizen of the World, Creative Commons

A woman wearing a niqab. Photo by Steve Evans, Citizen of the World, Creative Commons

The unlikely pretext of this controversy is Zunera Ishaq, a 29-year-old mother of three, a Canadian immigrant from Pakistan, and observant Sunni Muslim who wears a niqab. Accepted for Canadian citizenship, Ms. Ishaq wanted to swear her oath of citizenship while wearing her niqab.

In 2011 the Harper Conservatives issued a directive that disallowed any face coverings during the citizenship ceremony. Ishaq thought the law discriminatory and filed suit to have it struck down. A lower court agreed that this ban violated The Citizenship Act. The Justice Department appealed the ruling, however three justices of the Federal Court of Appeal upheld the original decision — a clear rebuke to the Harper Government. In a legally pointless response, the Harper Conservatives sought a stay of the judgment that would allow Ms. Ishaq to expeditiously obtain her citizenship in time to vote in the October 19, 2015 federal election — something that was again rejected by the courts. And so, on October 9th, Ms. Ishaq, wearing her niqab, to the vow of citizenship and became a Canadian — and the world did not come to an end.

There is no doubt that the wearing of the niqab does provoke a response amongst some Canadians, particularly in Quebec in regard to what is considered religious and cultural “accommodation.” On the one hand, writers like Mobina Jaffer writing in The Vancouver Sun considers Ishaq a Canadian hero, “A strong Muslim woman who is holding our Charter to its word when it says it respects the multicultural heritage of all Canadians.” On the other hand. Margaret Wente writing in the pages of The Globe and Mail says:

“But the people who argue that the niqab debate is irrelevant are wrong. It is really a debate about our values, and equality, and the limits of tolerance. How far are we prepared to go to accommodate religious and cultural differences? At what point must newcomers be prepared to accommodate themselves to Canadian society and values? The debate about accommodation and values will last far beyond this election. It will be among the biggest issues of our future….

“I believe that Canada is strong and confident enough to tolerate a few women in face coverings. I also believe that the niqab has no place in Canada, and that women who wear them should be strongly discouraged (but not, under most circumstances, barred) from doing so. Symbols matter. And this one matters more than most.”

Views on the significance of the niqab differ, however, its emergence as an issue on the national political stage is in large measure due to the expert machinations of the Harper Conservatives who are highly skilled in distracting the electorate from a consideration of their social, political, economic, and environmental record. This is an illustration of the “dead cat” theory of political campaigning as espoused by the “dark arts” practitioner and so-called “Australian rottweiler,” Lynton Crosby, recently recruited by Stephen Harper to salvage his electoral prospects.

The dead cat on the table

According to London mayor, Boris Johnson, who Crosby also helped out of an electoral squeeze, Crosby advised that:

“If you’re losing an argument, if you’re in a weak position, throw a dead cat on the table. Everyone will shout ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”

In Canada the issue of the wearing of the niqab has become a convenient dead cat to throw on the federal election table.

My advice: ignore this dead cat. The only dead (or is it really?) cat worthy of attention belonged to Erwin Schrödinger, and while deserving worthy of attention by subatomic physicists and philosophers, it has nothing to do with the Canadian election either.

Red herrings to feed dead cats

If you still can’t keep your eyes off this dead cat, consider this.

There are legitimate reasons why one might regard the niqāb as problematic. Facial coverings are not mandated by the Quran (the Quran admonishes Muslim women to dress modestly and cover their breasts and genitals; there is no requirement for facial coverings) and a convincing case can be made that they represent an imposition upon women by theocratic authorities whose desire it is to subjugate women, literally and metaphorically keeping them invisible from the public sphere.

Many Islamic countries have deservedly bad reputations when it comes to the treatment of women. In that context, it is not difficult to understand that socially, culturally, and religiously dictated codes of dress and behaviour for women — particularly those like the burka and niqab that cloak the identity of women — should come to be regarded as oppressive instruments of maintaining theocratic and patriarchal rule.

That said, there are alternative views that consider facial and other coverings  (hijab, niqab, burka, chador, etc.) as symbols of modesty and privacy, and in a free society such as Canada, everyone should be free to dress as they please for what they regard as religious, or any other purpose. Canadians are guaranteed freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and surely dressing as one pleases falls into this category.

The Citizenship Act states that states citizenship judges must allow the greatest possible religious freedom when administering the citizenship oath. Two levels of courts have clearly ruled that regulations that would require someone “to violate or renounce a basic tenet of their religion” are impermissible and would violate the Act. At the same time, in situations where establishing identity is required (i.e., at airport security), women wearing niqabs are required to remove them, and routinely do so.

At the end of the day, here is the central principle that needs to be applied in this and many other situations. Although we may not agree in every regard with the beliefs of our neighbours, or share their dress, language, cuisine, or other cultural values, however, living in a tolerant, pluralist, democracy demands that we must find ways to get along. Whether of “old” or “new” stock (to quote our redoubtable Prime Minister) we are all Canadians, or immigrants, or refugees, or permanent residents on the path of becoming citizens, and tolerance of diversity is a requirement of us all.

We need to strike a generous balance of accommodation. We have come (socially and legally) to understand that allowing lesbian and gay couples matrimonial rights does not diminish the significance of marriage for heterosexual ones. So it should be with personal attire. I may have no desire to wear a niqab, but my universe is not diminished if my literal or figurative next-door neighbour does. Vive la différence!

[Note: The idea of cultural accommodation is an important issue to discuss, and its range needs to be clearly delineated. There is no place in the Canadian cultural fabric for “traditional” practices such as forced marriages, female genital mutilation, and honour killings. This is the boundary line between medievalism and modernity which needs to be assiduously maintained by Canadian law.]

Radical feminism or female subjugation?

The issue of religiously motivated dress and facial coverings is certainly a worthwhile one to consider, although for the reasons outlined above, not within the context of a Canadian federal election. It is certainly not confined to Islam as keen observers of the habits of Catholic nuns will recollect. On entering an Orthodox church, all women are required to cover their heads, whereas all men are required to have their uncovered — gender-specific expressions of piety and humility.

This is a vast subject that one can’t even scratch of in the context of a brief article such as this, but I’ll leave readers with a taste of the issues in the form of a fascinating video essay for The Guardian by Hanna Yusuf, a British freelance writer with an interest in feminism, interfaith matters, and the European-Muslim identity. It is called My hijab has nothing to do with oppression. It’s a feminist statement and I thoroughly recommend it to all. [Note: For those unfamiliar with the terminology of head coverings, the hijab is a head scarf that largely or entirely covers a woman’s hair. The niqāb, in contrast, covers almost all of the face with the exception of the eyes.]

Yusuf makes a compelling case that not all women who chose to wear the hijab — as she does — should be perceived as internalizing the oppression of women. That, in her view, it is instead a feminist statement. It is certainly an engaging piece, however, it doesn’t really get to the bottom of some core issues. The commodification of female sexuality is certainly a depressing feature of western corporate capitalism. And Hanna Yusuf’s choice in wearing a hijab is certainly a rejection of those values.

That said, having lived and worked in Iran for half a year and having spent time in both Turkey and Jordan, my experience in talking to women there is that for a large majority of those who wear such garments, their decision to don them has very little to do with rejecting the commodification of female sexuality and a great deal to do with religious, family, and social pressures to conform to what a modest and pious woman should look and dress like [Note: I wrote previously about this issue in my article, Islam, Iran and women: Moving from medievalism to modernity.]

Indeed, in Iran there are now morality police, the Basij, who roam the streets and beat and shame women who they consider to be “immodestly” dressed. In my time in Iran the vast majority of educated, young women that I spoke to wanted nothing more than to foist off the dress and codes of conduct that were imposed upon them by a theocracy that they, as secular citizens, felt little kinship with.

Furthermore, rejecting the commodification of female sexuality can be accomplished in ways other than wrapping yourself up. There is a robust tradition of feminists in the west that refuse to buy into the hyper-sexualization of women, and they do so while dressing as they please.

In the west we have energetic programs that challenge juvenile notions that women are somehow “asking” for sexual harassment if they dress in some way that can be construed as “provocative.”  That the problem with such thinking lies with the men who hold such views, and that the solution lies with changing such male attitudes, not by requiring women to dress and behave in conformity to antiquated sexist notions.

So, while I applaud Hanna Yusuf’s eloquent exposition of why she has made the choices she has, and of course support anyone’s decision to dress as they please, the notion that wearing ahijab (or niqab, or burka, or chador) is a feminist rejection of oppression for the majority of women in the Middle East is, in my view, an argument based on shaky foundations.

However, whether one agrees with Yusuf or not, the personal choices of women in their attire should not be a subject of political discourse on the Canadian electoral stage in 2015. When climate change threatens the future of humanity, when economic inequality oppresses the vast majority of the planet’s denizens, when electoral dysfunctionality cripples democratic expression, when scientists are muzzled, Parliament is hamstrung, aboriginal communities are suffering, our public infrastructure is crumbling, trade deals threaten every aspect of our sovereignty, and refugees are pleading for succor at our doors — these issues urgently need to command our political attention — and not how a woman chooses to dress herself.

Copyright Christopher Majka 2015

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and arts advocate. He is a research associate of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Nova Scotia. This story was originally published in Rabble.ca)

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