Regulating the Veil in Canada

by | January 25, 2012
filed under Can-Con, Feminism, Racism

Zaynab Khadrby Sarah Jensen

It’s difficult to write about a subject when your own feelings about it are undecided.  I chose to write this article so I could figure out how I feel about the niqab. Two weeks later, after countless hours of reading, thinking and discussing, my mind is less made up than when I started.

A (highly scientific) Google search tells me that there are about 300 women in Canada who wear veils, such as the niqab and the burqa, which cover their faces. The Canadian government has begun to dictate when and where these women can be covered. In December, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and announced that from now on veiled women would not be allowed to take the oath of citizenship without showing their faces.  He said “it is a cultural tradition which I think reflects a certain view about women that we do not accept in Canada. We want women to be full and equal members of Canadian society and certainly, when they are taking the citizenship oath, that is the right place to start.”

Many people believe that this law may be a first step in the direction of banning all face veils, as both France and Belgium have done. Quebec has already introduced legislation that would bar Muslim women from receiving or delivering public services while wearing a niqab.

While I’m unsure about my own feelings about women who choose to cover their faces, I do believe that they should have that choice. I oppose a ban because government should not be allowed to dictate how women dress. A government forbidding face veils acts with as much intolerance as one that makes women required to wear them.

I find it hard to believe that the politicians creating and enacting anti-niqab legislation genuinely care about the women behind the veils; they seem more concerned about their own discomfort with Islam. Minister Kenney even said that “we are all coming together as Canadians in a public ceremony and if you don’t like it, if you feel uncomfortable, then maybe you chose the wrong country in the first place.”

Banning the niqab will isolate and stigmatize the women affected. If they’re prohibited from wearing it when receiving public services, it may prevent them from seeking medical or social assistance.

As a non-religious person, it can be difficult to understand why a woman would choose to cover. The veil has been used a way to dominate and subjugate women in countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. Most of the knowledge I have about veiling has come from reading books such as Persepolis and Prisoner of Tehran, where the women were forced to cover. When given the choice, many Muslim women choose not to veil. In the US for example, around 48% of Muslim women don’t cover.  To see the perspectives of women who have chosen not to veil, I recommend watching twelve Muslim women discussing what it means to wear the headscarf, and why they decided to stop wearing it in public.

I was discussing veiling with my friend Mark recently and he said “I believe the concept of choice feminism is flawed in its application to the headscarf. The use of the scarf in my understanding is to prevent men from committing a sin. The choice to “voluntarily” wear the scarf is informed through years of religious education that brainwashes women into feeling sinful for not wearing the veil. Note that I believe similar brain washing occurs in pop culture coercing women to disrobe and there is a history of female coercion in the church. In my opinion from a bioethics perspective consent is only possible when the individual is free from coercion. I personally think veils reinforce patrimony throughout the Middle East and reduce women to objects.”

Part of me agrees with him. On the other hand, I’ve been recently reading about women who have chosen to veil as a sign of their faith.  Some Muslim women even consider the veil a form of feminist expression, because it forces people to judge them by their character rather than their looks.  To see the niqab from that perspective; I spoke with a woman who has actually worn one.

Naazira is a 20 year old African American Muslim woman, who grew up in the Detroit area. She works as a dental assistant while majoring in biology at college so that she can one day be a dentist. Though she now wears hijab and abaya (a long robe) she previously wore niqab and loved it. “I wore niqab for about a year and decided to remove it. I don’t believe it is a must for me to wear it. I just missed the regular hijab so it is hard for me to give a particular reason of why I stopped wearing it.”

“I liked wearing niqab because I was able to dialogue a lot with people. I had to approach people first, but once people realized that I was friendly, I was able to talk about Islam, women and everyday life.”

While some women are forced by family to cover, Naazira says the choice was entirely hers “I would say yes the choice is mine and mine alone. I would never do anything that I do not want to do. From what I have seen many women wear niqab because the prophet’s wives wore it and in Islam they are the best of women. So many women follow their example and they know that it is not obligatory for them to wear it. Believe it or not there are women who are forced NOT to wear the niqab and hijab, even if they want to wear it.”

When asked about the recent legislation in Canada, she said “I’m shocked. I always thought of Canada as a liberal welcoming place. But now women want to wear a “cloth” as part of their wardrobes to become citizens and they are denied.  It’s sad.”

We discussed women in Islam; she explained “I believe that men and women are equal! Islam teaches equality between the two. Although in some Muslim countries there are patriarchal societies and women are denied their rights, which is not Islam. The Qur’an never says that men are superior to women or vice versa.”

I asked Naazira if there was anything she’d like to say to the women of Canada, and she replied:

“I want to say put aside your prejudices. Imagine how you would feel if you had to strip naked in front of a room full of people to take an oath. That is how a veiled woman would feel if she was forced to show her face. Embrace diversity, learn about Islam, visit a mosque. Learning about Islam won’t make you a Muslim, just well informed.

“Study for yourselves and don’t let the media spoon feed you what they want you to know. Muslims appreciate meeting people who go out of their way to learn about Islam. I say to the Canadian Muslim women continue to wear what you feel is right. And to every Muslim and non-Muslim–be open-minded and dialogue!”

Naazima defies the stereotype of the victimized woman forced to hide behind a veil. Still, there are other women who are forced to cover their faces. To some women the niqab is a sign of devotion; to other women it is a sign of oppression.

The issue is complex and lacks an easy, catch-all solution. Many feminists (including myself) have difficulty seeing the niqab as anything other than a tool of oppression, however if we want what’s best for the women wearing them, we—men, women, and government–must continue to listen to all the voices in the conversation.


(photo via Wikimedia Commons)

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  • K

    Dear Sarah,

    Excuse me if I come off a little angry, I feel passionately about this.

    It’s laughable for Naazima to say that women are equal under Islam. Try a (highly scientific) Google search before you repeat such nonsense! Like its parents, Judaism and Christianity, but even worse, Islam is a virulently misogynistic patriarchal religion. Islam authorizes wife-beating, gives daughters half the share of inheritance of sons, permits polygyny of up to 4 wives, obliges women to serve their husbands sexually (with no concept of marital rape) and requires 4 male eye-witnesses of actual penetration before someone can be convicted of rape. Don’t even get me started about the habits of the Prophet and his companions with regard to their wives, mistresses, and concubines (sex slaves captured in war).

    For Naazima to compare removing a face mask for a brief official ceremony to being forced to strip naked is absurd and insulting. To buy into her argument, one would have to assume that belonging to a culture that is more religiously extreme than ours leads you to fail to distinguish your face from your genitals. Which is an ignorant and racist notion. We all intuitively know the difference between our faces and genitals, no matter what culture we came from. Not covering your face with a mask cannot be equated with nudity, in any culture.

    Whether Naazima is doing so intentionally or not, she is parroting the line of the Saudi cleric who recently issued a fatwa declaring “a woman’s face is like her vulva”. In other words, the face is a sexual body part that arouses lust in men and must therefore be buried under dark cloth to protect men from being sexually tempted. That is the Islamic logic behind masking women’s faces.

    About those who claim the niqab can be feminist: I laugh and cry. There is nothing empowering or liberating about wearing a black coffin over your entire body and your face. Try it for yourself: spend a day wearing a headscarf and a bandana. See what it feels like to eat and drink, to drive a car, to walk and move, to see and hear properly. Most of all, see what it does to social contact – your ability to communicate with other human beings. It is stifling and suffocating, physically and socially. In fact, its very purpose is to impede your ability to have social contact with other humans, and to make you unapproachable and isolated from others. And it’s very effective.

    Those women who choose to cover up as some kind of statement, and who make themselves poster-children for the notion of a freely-chosen niqab, they should be ashamed of themselves. They are no allies to their oppressed sisters, who are forced to cover up under the threat of physical punishment, violence, social pressure and fear of burning in eternal hellfire. Rather than support their oppressed sisters, they prefer to make themselves into defensive pawns of extremist Islam, shielding it from feminist criticism. Those of them that have any inkling of feminism within them, I urge them to reconsider their stance.

    Sarah, I believe that you are a true feminist. I feel you have a strong instinct that niqab is wrong, oppressive, anti-feminist and has no place in our free, secular, liberal society (or the one we aspire to). I suppose that you are hesitant to trust your instincts because you fear being or coming off as racist, prejudiced, offensive or ignorant. That’s fair – most western liberals are indeed totally ignorant about Islamic culture and religion. So, do educate yourself. (Refer to legitimate sources, not the personal opinions of a random Muslim woman.)

    In the meantime, trust your feminist instincts. And listen to your friend Mark :)