Issues: About face

Considering the role of the Niqab in Canadian Democracy

By Samia Madwar

Banning a face-covering garment during a citizenship ceremony has little to do with religion and everything to do with democratic values. Those who demand to cover their faces during a public legal procedure are undermining the equality that is integral to democracy.

The Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration has been accused of Islamophobia in its recent decision to ban the niqab from citizenship ceremonies. I can’t speak for the government or its motivations. In media reports, Minister Jason Kenney has stated several reasons for the ban, including some judges’ observations that it is difficult to confirm whether women whose faces are covered are, in fact, reciting the oath.

 As a Canadian citizen, I view those reasons as secondary to the fundamental point that all those who participate in a democratic society, including a ceremony that recognizes their induction as citizens, should have nothing to hide.

As a Muslim woman, I not only accept the ban; I applaud it. I do not wear the niqab, or the veil for that matter. That is because I do not see either as religious duties; I consider them modes of repression.

Having grown up in Syria, where the government is secular but society is not, I know what can drive some women to hide behind a barrier, whether physical or psychological. The law did not require that I dress or comport myself any more modestly than I already did, yet I could sense a constant gaze of disapproval when I wore T-shirts and bared my arms, or if I was seen in the company of a male who was clearly not a relative.

When I ran errands or walked to school by myself, I had to endure catcalls and jeers from men on the street. I didn’t have to do anything provocative to earn them; those men would whistle at anything that appeared even remotely female.

I knew of women who wore the veil not out of conviction, but to avoid those demeaning experiences. I do not presume that all women who wear the veil do so for the same reason, but it disturbs me that some women succumb to the notion that they need to compensate for their gender.

I myself found other ways to hide. I kept my head down while walking, my eyes glued to the pavement. I learned to block out the wolf whistling. In social gatherings, I rarely voiced my opinion if I thought it might be too controversial. I was deferential and docile even to those who were disrespectful to me. I never considered that I was stifling my freedom of expression.

Women who wear the niqab need to appreciate that in a progressive, democratic society their faces and their bodies are not objects. Women are subjects, on par with men, and will be treated as such. The law sees as equal the women and men who participate in a democratic society.  Those women and men should extend the law that same courtesy by showing their faces to the judges who administer the law.

The outcry from some members of the Muslim community, including the Canadian Islamic Congress, would be justified if the ban were an attack on religion. I do not see it as an attack on religion; I consider it a form of passive resistance against those who seek to perpetrate the notion that a woman’s physical features reduce her to an object of desire.

It is only now, after living in Canada for seven years, that I have begun to understand what freedom of expression in a democratic society entails. In pursuing higher education, voting and contributing to the independent body of media whose goal it is to hold those in power accountable, I have come to value my role in Canadian society. I no longer eye the pavement. I speak my mind without fear and am ever so gradually learning to make my voice heard.

That is because this society encourages me to do so. This is the society that new Canadians are becoming part of. Facing that new reality should be their first step.

An editorial in the Toronto Star recently asked, “Is the citizenship ceremony the place to demand that newcomers give up deeply held religious or cultural practices that are perfectly legal and don’t hurt anyone else?”[1] I say the practice does hurt someone. It hurts women like myself who hide their faces in unjustified shame.

The ban of the niqab does not strip women of their rights. I see it as an invitation to exercise their democratic rights, make their voices heard and demand the respect they deserve.

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3 Comments on “Issues: About face”

  1. Zoe
    March 7, 2012 at 1:26 PM #

    Interesting that women in Islamic countries use the niqab to conform, but in Canada some women wear it as a political non-conforming symbol. Though I’m sure that many new Canadians must wear it because they are force to — the oppression continues. Funny how religion that can be very respectful to women, is twisted around to destroy them.

  2. Sister
    March 8, 2012 at 7:05 AM #

    So your experiences = the universal experience? This is the problem with anecdotes. There are women who will say that wearing the niqab is their own choice and one they believe is their democratic right. As someone who writes about agency and safety, do you not reckon that women are capable of making the decision to veil? Or do you, despite your claims of liberation, equality, democracy (i.e. right to choose) and progressive values, believe that women who veil are somehow inferior or less enlightened than you are? Do you not consider it possible that one can simultaneously wear niqab, pursue higher education, vote AND contribute to the independent body of media whose goal it is to hold those in power accountable?

    Anyways, some things to think about. Sorry if it came off as harsh, I am just tired of the tendency of some to impose their life experiences onto all, especially when the odds are stacked against niqabis.

    • March 9, 2012 at 6:41 PM #

      Hi Sister,
      I can’t speak for Samia, but just based on reading and editing the piece, I think she made it clear that this was her experience and her experiences are part of why she doesn’t equate the niqab with freedom and democracy. I don’t think the intent is to represent her own, very personal, experience with the experience of every person faced with having to cover up their bodies for whatever reason be it cultural, religious or any other. She’s offering a perspective, one I found to be enlightening, fair and thoughtful. I’m glad it got you thinking that was the intent.

      Chantaie

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