This post is late. It was due in October 2015, during the Canadian federal elections. The now-defeated Conservative government, led by then Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, sought a judicial decree to get the niqab banned from all citizenship ceremonies. The issue, deemed a ploy by the Harper-led Conservatives to deter the populace from real issues (climate change, Syria, federal debt/budget), took on brief dominance in the press.
The Niqab debate spawned a Twitter-trending hashtag, and later was framed as a “women’s right to choose” issue. While the niqab debate was indeed meant to distract voters from Harper’s terrible record, I was disturbed by the framing of the issue as a “right to choose” issue.
The supporters of Zunera Ishag — the woman in whose name the federal bill was challenged–took her word for it that she freely chose to cover herself in many layers of cloths, hiding everything except her eyes. I am all for giving the benefit of the doubt and respecting her choice; however, no one considered the complexity behind “her choice.” That, in a liberal society, freedom of choice can be burdened and compromised by culture, peer and family pressure.
Zunera Ishag can “freely” remove her niqab in a liberal society like Canada; however, there are circumstances that may prevent her from doing so. Does she have a husband/father/brother at home bullying her into wearing it? If she chooses to defy her religion/family and remove it, what may happen to her? At best, she’ll be ostracized, and at worst, she faces abuse and death.
And then, there is the history behind the niqab. The Quran does not force women to wear it, but various Muslim societies do, with the countries of the Arabian Peninsula exacting the worst form of covering for women: the burqa. The history of the niqab/burqa, and head coverings for women is rooted in paternalistic beliefs in female virtue and sexuality.
Basically, an uncovered woman will attract the sexual interest of men. In the name of protecting women from male lust, the women must be covered. It stems from the same belief that if women don’t want to be raped, they should dress modestly. This is the same belief feminists frequently wail over–victim blaming. Punishing women for the behavior of men; compromising female freedom/independence under the guise of protecting them (from men)–patriarchy.
Despite this, feminists, failing to acknowledge their own hypocrisy, throw their support behind the niqab (or perceived choice of the wearer in wearing it).
Liberal values (freedom of choice) is used to defend an illiberal practice (niqab/burqa). As a society, we’ve become tolerant of intolerance.
- A History of the Niqab: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niq%C4%81b
2. A Brief History of the Veil in Islam: https://www.facinghistory.org/for-educators/educator-resources/readings/brief-history-veil-islam