jasmine peterson

Gender Focus Panel: SCOC Ruling on Wearing Niqabs in Court

niqab

This past week the Supreme Court of Canada issued a ruling on whether Muslim women have a right to wear a niqab in court.

Via the CBC:

A Muslim woman who is the complainant in a sexual assault trial in Toronto has lost her bid before Canada’s top court to have an unimpeded right to wear her niqab while testifying.

In a split Supreme Court of Canada decision released Thursday, the seven judges largely upheld a lower court’s ruling that the woman, known only as N.S. to protect her identity under a court-ordered publication ban, may have to remove her niqab.

[...]The Court of Appeal had ruled the woman may have to remove her niqab if her credibility became an issue.

The court also set out criteria that a judge must consider in such cases, including whether the veil would interfere with cross-examination and whether the witness would be appearing before a judge only or before a jury.

Toronto’s Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic was one of three intervenors in the case, arguing that “removal of a complainant’s niqab would be a disincentive to the reporting of sexual assaults and impede access to justice for an already marginalized group.” The Clinic stated they felt the split decision recognized the complex rights’ issues, and they thanked Justice Abella for her dissenting opinion, which stated in part that: “the harmful effects of requiring a witness to remove her niqab, with the likely result that she will likely not testify, bring charges in the first place…is a significantly more harmful consequence than not being able to see a witness’ whole face.”

Here’s what three Gender Focus contributors had to say about the ruling.

Jessica Critcher

I’m an atheist– and a really militant one at that. I even won a scholarship and landed my first publication ever because of how unimpressed I am with god and by extension every religion ever (especially yours).

With this in mind, I would like to express my disapproval for the SCOC’s ruling with regards to NS wearing a niqab, because this has almost nothing to do with religion. Reading the news coverage, it’s obvious what the problem is:

Lawyers for the two men accused of sexually assaulting her when she was a child argued that a fair and open trial means the face of a witness must be seen because facial cues are important to establish credibility.

Bolded for emphasis. Rape survivors have to establish credibility. NS is on trial just as much as much as her rapists. And now, in addition to being assaulted, in addition to facing her rapists in court, she may have to be similarly violated and humiliated by the legal system.

I’m not a fan of gendered religious head coverings. But here’s the thing, my opinion as a white person and as someone who does not participate in that religion is irrelevant. Regardless of whether head coverings are oppressive or not, (which is complicated!) and whether NS wears her niqab as “a religious requirement, or as ‘a personal preference and a matter of comfort’” or not, the legal system is already failing her, and her case hasn’t even made it to trial yet. I’m not literally praying for her, but you get the idea.

Sarah Jensen:

This is a really tough one. I disagree with outright niqab bans, such as those enacted by France and Belgium. I can see the necessity of removal in certain circumstances, though, such as when getting a photo taken for identification. The line blurs for me when it comes to testifying in court. I think that the Supreme Court came to the right decision– that the niqab’s allowance is best decided on a case-by-case basis.

I see both sides of the argument, but in this particular case I would be more inclined to let N.S. keep her face covered. Testifying in court can be extremely traumatic for sexual assault victims, as they must face those who harmed them, while simultaneously recounting the painful details to strangers. Many victims already grapple with feelings of shame and exposure, and forcing N.S. to unveil may amplify these feelings. It may also discourage other veiled Muslim women from pressing charges.

Jasmine Peterson:

The Supreme Court’s ruling on requiring a woman to remove her niqab during her testimony is not only disappointing, but it’s paternalistic and, as far as I’m concerned, an impediment on an individuals’ rights. What is particularly disconcerting about this decision is the composition of the individuals who have passed this ruling – none of whom appear to be themselves Muslim women. I think this is a huge (and consistent) problem in Canada in making decisions regarding minority groups, that those making the decisions are not minorities themselves and therefore lack essential insights upon which to base their decisions in a more nuanced and informed manner.

What is perhaps particularly problematic from my perspective in this case is that the defense lawyers asserted that “facial cues ‘can be significant information that help the observer understand what a witness is attempting to communicate and get a sense of who the witness is and how he or she is reacting to questioning.’” Having studied forensic psychology, I worry that the premise behind this requirement is faulty, at best. It is certainly not supported by research. A witness is not on trial, and this seems to me to be a sort of revictimization. But even more than that, juries are not particularly good at judging a persons’ honesty by their demeanor or their facial expressions. In fact, people are not particularly good at detecting lying most of the time. So the facial cues alluded to by this defense lawyer are likely inconsequential to getting to the truth anyhow.

Finally, I think the idea that the niqab “undermines gender equality” is also based in misunderstanding and wilful ignorance. That is not to say that, for some, the niqab is not experienced as an oppressive garment. However, for many, the niqab is worn not out of some oppressive imposition but because of personal and religious beliefs. It is experienced as a positive thing, not a negative. I find it troublesome when I hear essentialist statements about the oppressiveness of the niqab when I have heard it spoken of very positively by some Muslim women who choose to don the garment for spiritual reasons. Unfortunately, I think this widely held misconception of the niqab as only being oppressive influences decisions like these being made by people who are on the outside looking in. Too often our Western views are imposed upon others; as a multicultural country I think it time we become more sensitive in addressing the diversity which comprises Canadian citizens, and their rights.

(photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Can-Con, Feminism, Racism 4 Comments

Gender Focus Panel: On Reclaiming Negative Words

I was reading one of my favourite blogs, GOOD, the other day and there was an article on “How to Reclaim a Dirty Name”, which particularly focused on the word “slut”. Here’s an excerpt from the intro:

Following the brouhaha in February when Rush Limbaugh called university student Sandra Fluke a ‘slut’ for arguing before Congress in favor of a private mandate for contraception coverage, a handful of campaigns have sprung up leveraging the epithet to further their cause. It’s breathing new life into the decades-long feminist movement to repurpose the word ‘slut’ from a shaming slur into a symbol of sexual choice.

The article listed five steps for reclaiming a negative term (say it first, brace for backlash, embrace the stigma, make it mainstream, take action), implying that it’s possible to reclaim any word no matter its history or how degrading it has come to be. Now reclaiming the word “slut” has been hotly contested by feminists, which the article does acknowledge, and I admit I understand both sides of that particular argument. On the other hand, I would argue that a term like “queer” is an example of successful work reclamation. So I wondered what others thought: is it possible to reclaim any dirty/negative/stigmatized word we want? Are there cases where it’s okay but only if guidelines for use are observed?

Here’s what some Gender Focus contributors had to say: Read more

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Feminism, Politics, Pop Culture 2 Comments

Gender Focus Panel: SFU Men’s Centre

Simon Fraser UniversitySo if women on college campuses get “Women’s Centres” and LGBT students get “Pride Centres”, and there are clubs and groups for students of various ethnicities, where are the men students supposed to go to talk about their problems and find common ground?

Simon Fraser University Student Union thinks it has the solution, and it’s a controversial one. Here’s Jessica Wakeman at The Frisky:

Last month, the student society at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, approved $30,000 to establish a men’s center. The center’s main supporter, a student named Keneen Midgely, said the volunteer-run men’s center would only be equitable, considering SFU already has had a women’s center since 1974. It would be a space, he pointed out, for men to support each other and deconstruct masculinity and gender roles just like SFU women can.

From The Tyee:

SFSS president Jeff McCann said the purpose of the Men’s Centre is not specifically about gender equality, but rather to build a support structure and community for men who’ve come to SFU from out of town and are having a difficult time finding ways to get involved on campus.

“That also ties into men’s issues and mental wellness and all the different things that come along with that,” he said.

The move concerned some feminist scholars and students (watch this video to see a variety of student critiques). Though the SFU Women’s Centre initially reacted with a bit of surprise, declaring “the Men’s Centre is everywhere else”, they have now posted this response on their website, saying their support will be contingent on the new centre’s mandate (no pun intended):

Our support would be contingent on that centre’s mission statement, vision, and mandate. If the centre were about challenging popular conceptions about masculinity, confronting homophobia, sexism, racism, classism, and ability issues then we would definitely be the first to promote and fundraise for such a group. On the other hand we would not be cool with a men’s centre focussed on maintaining the old boys club. We are not interested in seeing a group or centre develop that promotes the status quo, encourages sexual assault, or fosters an atmosphere of competition and violence.

Here’s what our panel of GF contributors had to say on this issue. Read more

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Can-Con, Feminism 15 Comments

A Response to “The Pitfalls of Satire”

by Josh Bowman. Josh Bowman is a professional fundraiser, story-teller, comedian, and blogger. He has worked and consulted in Vancouver, New York, and now Toronto for almost a decade. Josh also runs and writes for tenthingsivelearned.com, and improvises around Toronto, including regular shows with Opening Night Theatre.

I am writing this post as a response to an article that Jasmine Peterson wrote in response to an article I wrote in a response to an article that Mark Radcliffe originally wrote. Jasmine much more eloquently addresses her concerns with my piece than certain other writers who were (thank heavens!) equally concerned. My hope is that this post will create a giant, meta black hole that will collapse the internet in on itself, leaving nothing but the remains of charred servers.

My synopsis of Jasmine’s thesis is taken (roughly) from her article, as follows:

“While I love satire, I do think that satire in and of itself can be extremely problematic…I think this is one of the biggest dangers of this literary form, because too many people interpret these statements at face value, without realizing the author’s true intentions.”

Her thesis is interesting, as it to some extent echoes other discussions which have been happening online. The question becomes, what happens to a joke (and joke-teller) when the audience isn’t in on a joke? When do you stop being ironic, and begin embodying traits you previously identified as repellent? Read more

Posted on by Josh Bowman in Feminism 4 Comments

Panel: Do We Need New Words for Bullying?

Pink Shirt GirlYesterday was Pink Shirt Day or Anti-Bullying Day and it got me thinking about the words we use to describe bullying. Some people have raised the concern that the word “bullying” isn’t strong enough – that it lends itself to to be written off by someone saying “kids will be kids”. Take, for example, the following quote from Jowhara Sanders in an interview with Children’s Voice Magazine:

“I don’t even think the word bullying is a strong enough word for what is going on.” She believes that what doesn’t kill you makes your stronger, she reiterates, “but it is killing them.”

Others – feminist organizations in particular – have brought up the issue that much of what we call “bullying” is in fact sexual harassment. The argument is not only that the word “bullying” is not seen as as serious as “sexual harassment” but that it obscures the sexism and objectification behind the behaviour. Here’s a quote from a related article on the Ms. Magazine blog:

Despite headlines that label all harassment in schools as bullying, there is a difference between sexual harassment and bullying. And it’s an important one. When schools, the media and the public mislabel sexual harassment as bullying, they negate the role that sex and gender play in the abusive behavior. Bullying is not based on a student’s sex; sexual harassment is. Students are bullied because they may be annoying to a classmate, wear their hair differently, don’t wear the “right” brand of shoes or come from the wrong side of town. Their victimization is not based on their sex (or other protected classes such as race, religion or disability). Most significantly, bullying is not a violation of federal and state civil rights laws–but sexual harassment is.

Similarly, some, such as educators Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, feel homophobic and racist bullying would in any other situation be called “hate speech”: Read more

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Feminism 4 Comments