by 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)