In 2006, I was an undergrad at Queen’s University, and British politician Jack Straw wrote the op-ed that was heard around the world. The Member of Parliament revealed that when constituents walked into his Lancashire office wearing niqabs, his policy was to refuse to hear their concerns until they de-veiled.
Why did Mr. Straw feel so offended by the niqab? Well, he argued, “It was a visible statement of separation and difference.”
When I heard this story for the first time, I was in my Introduction to Feminist Theory Class, a non-Muslim woman wearing a denim miniskirt, black suede boots with heels, and a t-shirt. I was wearing clothes that women had fought for the right to wear – and are still fighting for the right to wear – without being condemned as “asking to be raped.” Sitting in that classroom, I called bullshit on Mr. Straw. I knew that if I didn’t want a man to tell me not to wear a short skirt, it had to go BOTH ways, and I couldn’t let a powerful man tell other women not to cover up as they saw fit.
I was so compelled by the campaign to protect women’s rights to dress however they wanted, I actually moved to the UK to study The Jack Straw Incident for my master’s degree in Gender Studies at The London School of Economics.
When I told my Canadian friends about The Jack Straw Incident, how Straw had refused to give women their democratic right to meet with their MP without de-veiling, many were smug. I frequently heard comments like, “Well, Sarah, that would never happen in Canada. We’re a cultural mosaic.” I scoffed. I was fairly certain that Canada as a nation was not as tolerant as we’d all been led to believe in our Civics classes. I strongly suspected Canada was not immune to Islamaphobic politicians.
Unfortunately, I was right. Stephen Harper has just proven to be as ignorant as Jack Straw.
Recently, a court ruling struck down the Harper government’s banning of the niqab at Canadian citizenship ceremonies; however, his government is sadly appealing this decision. How is a man who is supposed to be running the country justifying spending so much time hating on one item of women’s clothing? Well, I’ll let him explain in his own words in the quotation below:
“Why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practice of that time that is not transparent, that is not open and that, frankly, is rooted in a culture that is anti-women?”
I’m going to be blunt here: This is a stupid comment. First off, when has Harper ever been a champion of women’s rights? He’s the one who, for example, believes that the epidemic of missing and murdered aboriginal women is not a problem worthy of consideration by his government. Beyond the hypocrisy, it’s a prejudiced opinion that’s impossible to justify in the Canadian context.
Who is Harper to decide what women should and should not wear? Who is anyone? The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects our rights to religious freedom and freedom of expression. In short, I can wear what I like. So can you! Therefore, the niqab is not contrary to Canadian values as Harper would argue, but banning the niqab from public spaces sure is.
Not only this, but I take issue with the idea the niqab is inherently a tool for the oppression of women. In the research I did on the niqab in the UK back in 2008-2009, I interviewed Muslim women who veiled. One of my interviews with a woman named Laila was particularly memorable.
You see, Laila chose to wear the niqab when she was 18. She was not yet married and her parents were away on vacation at the time. When her mom and dad returned, she had made the decision to change her style of dress. No one had put her up to it. As supportive parents who understood their daughter’s right to freedom of expression, they supported her. It would, in fact, have been paternalistic and anti-woman not to. Laila was an adult entitled to wear what she wanted.
Laila felt wearing the niqab was part of her religious duty according to The Quran. Yes, many other followers of Islam interpret their religion differently, choosing not to veil. Just like many Catholics choose to use birth control; yet we do not force the ones who don’t believe in that practice to get IUDs.
Another interesting point brought to my attention by my Muslim-identified research participants was how the niqab can protect its wearers from objectification. If you don’t want people assessing your body as you walk down the street, the niqab is a protection against that. Depending on one’s perspective, the niqab can then be perceived as liberating women who choose to wear it, from the oppressive force of the male gaze.
Of course, even though I personally know women who want to wear the niqab, I don’t think anyone should have to wear it. Women who are forced to wear this form of veil by their family or partners are frankly in abusive relationships. We as a society should help them if they seek assistance, just like we should all abused women.
However, it must be said that lots of women in abusive relationships are forced to wear lots of things. I mean, there are dudes who force their wives to wear heels and red lipstick, but do we ban those things? The problem is not the existence of any of those garments, and the answer is not for the state to step in and become the arbiter of what women should and should not wear. In those cases, the state becomes the abuser, the dominant party limiting women’s expression. Do we really need more forces abusing women in our world? I think not!
In light of Harper’s sexist crusade against the niqab, many people, including Muslim feminist activist Farrah Khan, are taking to social media. Pissed off people are using the hashtag “#dresscodePM” to voice their objections to Harper’s paternalistic anti-Muslim fashion advice.
“Isn’t there something pretty “anti-women” about dictating how women should and shouldn’t adorn their bodies? In fact, isn’t the whole “anti-women” thing kind of the Harper government’s bag? Creating a culture of fear and shame around Muslim women who wear the niqab will not lead to their liberation, it will only lead to isolation and exclusion. As Canadians, we should be committed to supporting the bodily and personal freedoms of all women, as well as all women’s capacity to understand and articulate their experiences of oppression on their own terms.”
So, on Twitter and/or Facebook, I encourage you to join the dissent. Check out some examples of others’ tweets if you’re looking for inspiration.
Not sure this campaign’s for you? Well, let’s do a little experiment then:
Please walk up to the nearest mirror. Take in your outfit. Take note of every single thing you’re wearing. Is there anything you have on that you feel Stephan Harper ought have the right to tell you to remove, in order to be considered a proper Canadian? If not, then please join the #dresscodePM campaign!