It scares me, but it seems that every time I look at the news, there are stories rampant with themes of radical Islam, Islamophobia, terrorism, ISIS and so forth. With large issues such as terrorism and war serving as the political context, in North America, media outlets have seen a very serious rise in violence towards ordinary Muslim people as a direct result of the overwhelming ways in which Muslim countries are presented in Western media outlets. In 2015, the burqa and the hijab became a serious battleground for people in the West, who suddenly seemed both invested and entitled to having opinions about Muslim women's bodies and clothing.
Within these media based dialogues, generally speaking, the hijab is presented as being oppressive to women, as something that women wear because they are forced to do so by their male partners or fathers. I don't mean to deny that some of the time, this is why women wear hijab. Take the case of Aqsa Parvez in 2007, a 16-year-old murdered by her own father and brother for the purpose of saving 'family pride,' for saving them from what they perceived as 'family embarrassment.' Aqsa's brother, Waqas, had strangled her to death, in part because she chose not to wear a hijab. Parvez's death was reported internationally and sparked a debate about the status of women in Islam. This seemed very close to me and my heart because Aqsa, like me, resided in the municipality of Mississauga. There is no arguing the brutality, violence and lack of acceptability of this case. But the mainstream stories that are told about Muslim women are often these sensationalized one-off type of stories that tend to homogenize all Muslim women as being the same - unthinking, oppressed creatures with no will of their own.
After France passed legislation in 2004 banning hijabs in schools, and further, in 2011 passed legislation banning the burqa from being worn in public space, discussion amongst activists erupted in Canada, about what should be considered reasonable accommodation for minorities here. Bill 94 in Quebec stipulates that it is legally required that women must remove their niqab when dealing with the government. In Quebec, whether a woman is accessing government services, or working a government job, she is banned from wearing a niqab. The bill has garnered criticism among wearers of the niqab and feminists alike who say that banning the niqab takes away agency and choice from women in deciding how to dress or present themselves to the world. The bill has been attributed to increasing intolerance in Quebec towards women who wear the niqab.
Recently, the Supreme Court of Canada has been considering the case of whether women should remove their niqabs in order to testify in the Criminal Courts. A Muslim woman alleged that she was sexually abused as a child by her uncle and cousins. She refused to remove her niqab when put on the stand to testify, a choice that was upheld as her right under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada. However, lawyers argued that they could not properly 'read a person' without seeing their face, which is therefore considered 'obstruction of justice.' The Supreme Court decision debated the possibility of forcing women who wear the niqab to remove them while taking a stance in court. Feminists pointed out that this would add more barriers to women attempting to report domestic abuse, sexual violence and other crimes because not wanting to remove the niqab may result in not reporting a crime altogether.
Despite the fact that these provisions make no one safer and create a culture of discrimination, in Ontario, in 2011, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney of the Conservative Party introduced a federal legislation in Canada that would forbid women from wearing the niqab while taking their oath during a Canadian citizenship ceremony. The ban had attracted much controversy with critics calling it 'unlawful' as it restricted one's freedom of religion and was against the basic tenants of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In January last year, Zunera Ishaq from Pakistan challenged the ban and refused to remove her niqab while taking her Canadian citizenship oath, saying it violated her religious beliefs to remove it. Zunera felt that taking off her niqab, even if just for a day, would set a dangerous precedent for all racial and religious minorities in Canada, and the Canadian government had no right to decide what women should wear as a morally acceptable dress code. I have observed myself that more and more women of the younger generation in Arabia, Middle Eastern and Asian countries are wearing the hijab as a fashion statement. This is absolutely their personal democratic decision.
Other than the fact that dictating what women should and should not wear is against the Charter of Rights of Freedoms, and despite the irony that forcing women to remove the niqab is just as fascist and patriarchal as forcing them to wear one (because in both cases, a woman's agency and right to decide how to carry her body are removed), what is the underlying logic that goes behind a hijab or niqab ban? The insinuated premise of the situation is that veiled women are more likely to commit fraud or lie about who they are, because the Canadian Immigration Minister made an argument that we can't really tell who 'they are' unless we can see them. I think we need to open our eyes and see that the banning of the niqab in public spaces in the West is quite central to how states like Canada manage racial minorities. There is a history here. When ISIS horrifically bombed France in November of 2015, it chose to make its statement in a public way in a public space - it was a way of saying that ISIS won't allow France to freely have its public space. The French State then renewed its conviction that minorities will not have their public space by introducing laws and regulations that limited the rights of Muslims. Scholar Sherene Razack, who studies the production of racialized structures of citizenship said in a recent public lecture that "a racial state does its work by banning things associated with culture and religion, like the hijab, as an act or performance of dominance - to show that I (the state) will decide the acceptable cultural norms of the nation." We are told that you cannot truly be a French Muslim because whiteness is the premise of citizenship. Therefore, certain laws, such as the banning of hijab in public spaces, aim to discipline Muslim subjects. Secularism has only meant that the state can decide which dominant religions count, not that religion does not count at all. Traditionally, this has meant that the Catholic religion has had its core values prioritized over all others in Western states.
Why does the niqab unsettle people so much, and whom does it unsettle the most? Why does it make people anxious? If we continue to interrogate the underlying logic of a proposed niqab ban, we can start to see why it unrattles the dominant (white) race. Let's take a moment to consider that the veiled woman makes herself less available for the sexual consumption of men. Something about not seeing someone's face unsettles non-Muslims. So unveiling Muslim women shows a kind of mastery over these women on the part of the dominant class. The veiled woman on the other hand signals the dominant group's loss of control because it disrupts the mainstream notion of what a Canadian should be - and therefore the veiled woman is often labelled as un-Canadian, like in the case of Zunera, who, in my opinion, is perfectly Canadian, but in the eyes of the state, is a rebel. The white Canadian dominant political class feels the urge to remove those things that it imagines to be a threat to its sense of dominant self-identity. Within a racial structure of citizenship such as in Canada, those marked as a threat to the fictitious mainstream notion of being Canadian, frequently end up being unfairly marginalized.
The conversation about women's wardrobes is actually about a deeper conversation about democracy. To take on the banning of the niqab is to challenge the unequal setup of citizenship on a structural and ideological level. It is about challenging a Muslim woman's right to participate in society and participate in democracy. To what and to whom are we pledging allegiance? On the street, women are more likely to be targeted than men. After Paris, we saw that women were repeatedly the targets of Islamophobic violence across Canada - pushed and harassed on the streets, in subways, at the malls. Over 80 percent of these attacks have been on veil-wearing Muslim women - people who visually represent Islam. People who wear veils physically manifest these tensions of identity in our democracy. As Canadians, Muslim or not, we should be celebrating Zunera's actions in challenging the courts in order to fight for a woman's right to wear a niqab. Her refusal to take off her niqab in a citizenship oath ceremony shows immense courage, bravery and resistance. She says "I won't listen to other people and how they tell me to live my life - some of my family asks me to remove the niqab but I don't listen to them either, I like to live life on my own terms. That's why I am challenging the government on this as well." In a world where Muslim women's bodies and clothing have become a site for a number of ideological struggles - citizenship, gender, human rights and more, it is time for women to challenge the discourses which seek to marginalize and regulate them in unfair ways. The world is a scary place, and with groups like ISIS committing monstrous and irrational acts of violence in many pockets of the world, it is important to know that turning against fellow Muslim Canadians is not the answer, and we cannot enable or encourage the practice of surveillance and regulation of Muslims as a solution.
Professor of Sociology at Ryerson University, Amina Jamal teaches us that the west requires the fictitious notion of dangerous Muslim men and oppressed Muslim women in order to successfully complete and justify its narrative for continuing the 'war on terror.' Critics of the niqab ban say that the ban reflected 'contempt for Canadian values.' Many believed that instead of encouraging integration, the ban created more division amongst people and was likely to make people less likely to "want to belong to a society or to a community that doesn't accept them." The burqa and niqab ban shows us that our Canadian-ness can be challenged at any time. The niqab is one part of several Muslim experiences. We have to share our versatile stories and perspectives ourselves - we can't rely on governments and nation states to do this for us. In a rapidly changing world, the stakes are simply too high.
Rummana Chowdhury is a poet, writer, social and cultural activist, and writes from Toronto, Canada