Posted on March 26, 2010

The Burka–Not ‘Worn,’ But ‘Borne’

Barbara Kay, National Post (Toronto), March 26, 2010

Chapeau, le Québec! That means, “Hats off to you, Quebec.”

With the announcement of Bill 94, barring the niqab in publicly funded spaces, Quebec has dared to tread where the other provinces, feet bolted to the floor in politically correct anguish, cannot bring themselves to go.

The new bill will proscribe face cover by anyone employed by the state, or anyone receiving services from the state. That covers all government departments and Crown corporations, and as well hospitals, schools, universities and daycares receiving provincial funding.

I can’t remember a time when Quebecers were more unified on a government initiative. Apart from the odd imam crying “Islamophobia!” and a clutch of disgruntled fundamentalist Muslim husbands, all of us–separatists, federalists, left-wingers, right-wingers, Christians, atheists, democratic Muslims, francophones, anglophones, allophones–are happy a line in the sand has been drawn on reasonable accommodation.

This bill has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with integration and equality. As Quebec Immigration Minister Yolande James said when the case of a Muslim French-language student recently brought the issue to a political tipping point, “If you want to integrate into Quebec society, here are our values. We want to see your face.”

It doesn’t matter if there are only 20 women in Quebec wearing the niqab. Even one is too many. When there are few, and the law easily implemented, is precisely the time to grasp the nettle, and send a clear message to those considering it: In our country, the covered female face is incompatible with gender equality, incompatible with our society’s civic ideal of social reciprocity and incompatible with our communal sense of decency.

We will hear criticism of Bill 94 from the usual bleeding hearts, who will bleat that we must respect the “customs” of other cultures. They will say women must be free to “wear” what they want.

They don’t get it. Some of these women may, as in France, have adopted the niqab for ideological purposes (a serious problem in itself), but most niqab-wearing women are virtual prisoners, who have never known, and would be afraid (with reason) to exercise their “freedom of choice.”

For those confused liberals who instinctively hate the niqab but feel guilty about banning it, it will help them if they understand that the burka and niqab are not “worn,” but “borne.” The niqab is not an article of clothing; it is a tent-like piece of cloth supplemental to clothing. Full cover is worn as a reminder to the “bearer” that she is not free, and to remind the observer that the bearer is a possession, something less than a full human being.

The question of full coverage is therefore not one of tolerance, or rights, or choice, or freedom of expression. It is a question of social and civic propriety. No citizens can be said to be free if they cannot exchange a smile with their fellow citizens. And no citizens can be psychologically comfortable sharing public space with other citizens who refuse to be seen.

It is no use pretending fully covered women do no harm to the social fabric. They arouse internal disturbance in others: a mixture of self-consciousness, pity, guilt, fear (of the men who own them) and resentment, the last because in any encounter with them we feel shunned, and cannot “read” their expression, which is a necessity for both social and security reasons.

France is set to ban the niqab and burka completely, a tempting but perhaps a somewhat draconian solution. Quebec’s linkage of a ban to all activities involving taxpayers’ money strikes the right balance between freedoms accorded to the individual in his or her private life and respect for community standards in the public spaces we collectively support.

Democratic Muslims will thank Quebec for the ban, which other provinces should emulate, and as for undemocratic Muslims–well, if democracy wasn’t what they wanted, why are they here in the first place?

The bright green Calvin Klein scarf wrapped neatly around Maryam Rana’s head comes as a bit of a surprise. So do the red flats peeking out from under her black skirt, as she takes a mid-morning walk around her Mississauga neighbourhood.

Rana, clearly, has a sense of style. She is also wearing a black cloth over much of her face.

This is the niqab, Canada’s most controversial article of clothing.

Rana, a petite 21-year-old with bright brown eyes, has worn it for two years. The neighbours still stare.

Rana seems unfazed by their glances, though she says she knows what their looks imply. “People think you are oppressed, that you aren’t from here and that you are forced to wear it,” she said.

Rana confounds those assumptions. She was born in Toronto, attended a local public high school, studies at the University of Toronto and, two years ago, chose to wear the niqab despite the wishes of her family.

Over time, she has managed to win over her loved ones. But for her and other local Muslim women who wear the niqab, overcoming negative public perceptions is significantly more difficult.

In part, this is because of the ongoing public debate that plays out in courtrooms, political arenas and in the press every few months, questioning the presence of a small–some say growing–number of Muslim women who cover their faces in accordance with their devout Islamic beliefs.

It is a practice many Canadians–including some Muslims–consider to be oppressive, offensive and an outright rejection of the West.

“In Canada we recognize the equality of men and women. The burqa marginalizes women,” said Salma Siddiqui, a member of the outspoken and secular Muslim Canadian Congress.

In Canada, few women wear the burqa, a gownlike garment that covers the head and has mesh in front of the eyes.

This month, the MCC called upon the government to ban the niqab and burqa in Canada.

France, Italy and the Netherlands are seriously considering such legislation. Yet in Canada, some academics, activists and Muslims say such a move is perhaps more un-Canadian than the niqab itself.

“There are many people who don’t agree or like the niqab,” said Alia Hogben, executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women.

“But they are totally opposed to the idea that the government should have a say in how women dress,” she said.

THE MCC’S call comes on the heels of an incident this month in which the head of the Al-Azhar University in Egypt, whom many consider to be Sunni Islam’s foremost spiritual authority, asked a young woman to remove her niqab in her all-girls classroom when she stood up to ask him a question. According to media reports, he then told her the niqab was a cultural practice not founded in Islam.

The comments of the university’s Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi quickly reverberated around the world. His opinions sparked intense debate within the community about the religious basis for the niqab and its place in modern society.

Many local scholars adopt the stance that the niqab has a religious basis, but is not compulsory for women.

Others discourage women from wearing it in Canada altogether, for practical reasons.

But Tantawi’s comments especially strengthened the stance of progressive Muslim groups who say the niqab is a cultural practice and a symbol of more conservative Islam.

But in Canada, the debate is not merely about religion. At its core it is about the fight to protect two fundamental Canadian values: gender equality and freedom of religion.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms espouses both equality rights and fundamental freedoms, which include the right to practice one’s religion as one sees fit.

The MCC says the Charter of Rights and Freedoms shouldn’t apply in the case of the niqab, because it isn’t a requirement of the faith.

“People have always argued that wearing the niqab is a religious practice, but here is this sheikh clearly saying it isn’t in the religion,” said Siddiqui. “Now they can’t use that religious argument to defend a cultural practice that is harmful to women.”

But academics say the law cannot be used to solve religious debates within communities. Nor should the courts wade into what exactly a religion prescribes, or how people choose to practise.

“The niqab may not be a religious requirement for you, but that is not really relevant in this debate,” said Natasha Bakht, a law professor at the University of Ottawa. “The fact of the matter is that the Supreme Court of Canada has said that what is a religious requirement is a personal belief and as long as it is sincerely held, that is all that matters.

“Can you imagine what would happen if the courts had a debate between imams as to what the religious requirements were?” Bakht said. “That would be a real problem.”

BUT AS WOMEN CONTINUE to don the niqab, the question remains: In a society where women have all the freedoms in the world, why are they making such a choice?

Some say they see it as a path to piety, a physical manifestation of their faith, and a symbol of their devotion to God. Others consider it a rejection of the West’s obsession with beauty and a way to maintain their faith in a world where women’s bodies are overly sexualized.

Those who choose to wear it are not shy to say why they do. But they also acknowledge that there are women forced to wear the niqab by family members or strict religious and cultural interpretations.

“For me, it comes down to my relationship to God, and my commitment to my faith,” said Rana. “Nothing else matters to me at this moment in my life.”

TINA ASEFFA decided to don the niqab a few months ago, knowing it was her choice to make.

“It is something I feel is Canadian, because the Charter tells me that I am able to express my religion in the way that I see fit,” the single mother said.

It hasn’t been easy. There have been taunts, insults, and “a lot of hate” along the way, she said.

“People always say, ‘Go back to where you came from,’ ” she said, her voice cracking. “It’s hurtful. I am from here.”

For the time being, Aseffa has little to worry about. The government hasn’t responded or even acknowledged the MCC’s call for an outright ban on the niqab.

But Ottawa’s feelings on the niqab are no secret. In 2007, the government pushed for legislation that would have made veiled women show their faces when voting.

“If there are security or identity issues, we have always lifted our veil temporarily. We have no problem with it,” Aseffa said.

Like other women who wear the niqab, Aseffa says she is tired of being sidelined and ignored in debates about her.

“Our voices are not heard. If there are women who are marginalized and oppressed, they should be talked to and helped, not further isolated,” she said.

Such sentiments have led to the organization of the first rally for veiled women at Queen’s Park on Nov. 6.

The rally has been spearheaded by Cheryfa MacAulay Jamal, the outspoken wife of former terror suspect Qayyum Abdul Jamal, accused of being a Toronto 18 member before charges were stayed against him in 2008.

Aseffa, still deciding whether she will attend, said the rally will be a peaceful march to “remind people that we are here.”

“Right now, we are the foreign guys in Canada,” she said. “But really, we are just as Canadian as anyone else. My daughter plays hockey. My neighbours borrow eggs from me.

“No matter what people say, this is where we belong.”