Monday, April 19, 2010
Quebec's Proposed Law to Ban the Niqab: "You are as stupid as the ones who wear that rag on their face"
I wrote previously--The Niqab: Quebec/Canada's "Two Solitudes" and "medieval kingdoms like Saudi Arabia"--on the current issue in Quebec about whether women should be allowed to wear the niqab, or face veil, which was sparked by an Egyptian immigrant to Canada, pharmacist Naema Ahmed, who had been suspended from a government sponsored French language course because she insisted on wearing a face veil, and who had filed a human rights complaint in response.
Quebec has proposed Bill 94, a law which states that women are not allowed to wear a niqab or a burka in government offices--whether employees, or seeking government services. Unlike the French ban on ostensible signs of religious affiliation in any government building (including schools), the Quebec ban affects only the niqab and the burka, not hijab (a head scarf) or a pendant in the form of the Star of David, or the Crucifix, or a kippah (Jewish skull cap), or a Sikh turban--only the niqab and only in the name of defending Quebec values, including preventing the oppression of women.
The response to this proposal has been one of both acceptance and rejection, including within the Muslim community, which is diverse in Canada in terms of ethnicity, country of origin, degree of integration into Canadian society (primarily related to time in Canada, and generational), cultural beliefs, religious fiqh, and degree of conservatism. Irshad Manji is not the only Canadian Muslim with a very liberal view of Islam, and not the only GLBTQ Muslim either. Tarek Fatah, the founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, is a South Asian Muslim who argues for rejecting the supremacy of Arab culture and language in Islam, and against the extremism he sees coming out of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Mohamed Elmasry is the considerably more conservative President of the Canadian Islamic Congress.
Somewhere in between, usually, is the Canadian Arab Federation which in fact aims to represent all Arabs in Canada regardless of religion, yet at times is more involved in Muslim issues than others. Post 9/11 and with new laws allowing special detention without the normal rights to legal protection for suspected terrorists is one of those times. Current President Khaled Mouammar, and Vice-President Ali Mallah have both objected to the current government's policies on immigration, extraordinary detentions, and failure to protect Canadian Muslims overseas. They are also involved in a war of words with Tarek Fatah.
As one journalist points out the proposed ban is about persecution and bullying; another suggests that where Quebec previously had problems with the integration of immigrants because of its own religious rigidity (Jansenist Roman Catholicism) it now has difficulty because of its overzealous secularism with religious immigrants. The expulsion of women students from language classes is spreading to students who were well accepted in their French classes previously. There is also a spreading protest campaign against the proposed Bill 94. The Anglican Church is supporting the freedom to wear the niqab, as is the de Beauvoir Institute of Women's Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, both described here.
Wendy, a Canadian commentator who has been very civil in her disagreements with me on the Quebec niqab issue in the previous post, kindly sent by email this excellent, and short, report from Montreal for Aljazeera on the proposed Quebec law banning the niqab:
This weekend the niqab became a more personal issue for me, and in a very unpleasant way. I thought I was going out to dinner with a friend who is also a psychiatrist, and who lost her mother a month ago--a girls' night out of errands then dinner, with a lot of conversation along the way. We had talked on the phone and agreed it would be good to spend the evening together, catching up and sharing our grief. Unfortunately, as she often does without telling me, she invited her friend along--a male friend with whom her relationship status is "complicated", and one with whom it has been difficult in the past to have a friendly 3-way evening.
We went to one of the Middle Eastern areas of the city so that my friend could buy pastries and groceries for the reception she was holding after a memorial mass for her mother the next day. He made a number of comments about stores where I could buy myself a niqab, which I laughed off. Unfortunately, he and I were alone in the car for a few minutes while she went to take money from a bank machine. He asked what I thought of the Quebec proposal to ban the niqab, knowing full well the general idea of what my reply would be.
I trust I didn't disappoint when I said I thought it was much ado about nothing and a political ploy to win the favour of a certain type of Quebec nationalist and social conservative. Needless to say he had other ideas, and for some reason, no matter how calm I stayed, got very angry and kept escalating. He was saying that women who wear the niqab should not be allowed in the country, and those who decide to wear it while here should be deported. His arguments were that it is unCanadian, and that the niqab represents an extremist religion which should not be allowed here. He did pride himself on his beneficence toward the hijab though.
I suggested that wearing a niqab harms no one and does not pose a risk to Canadians. However, this inspired him to flights of fancy about bombings overseas. When I pointed out civilian casualties, as in Pakistan from US drones, he shouted "I don't care, good for them, that is war!" When I mentioned again the low statistics on women in Canada who wear the hijab, he told me I was in the same infinitesimal minority with my beliefs, and then said "You are as stupid as the ones who wear that rag on their face!".
My friend heard the last 2 comments and his shouting, was displeased with his attitude, and let's just say the evening went downhill from there, even though we all did manage somehow to have dinner after more "hostilities" between the 2 of them, and some harsh words by all (mine were limited to suggesting the need for a police officer if things didn't settle--yes it was a really relaxing, fun evening!)
In my opinion, my male dinner companion said 2 particularly hideous things about women who wear the niqab: that he felt like running over the one (!) we had seen in the Middle Eastern grocery store; and, when I said "What about her 2 adorable sons with her? [about ages 5 and 7]", he replied "They don't even know what her face looks like anyway". My protestation that of course they do, the niqab is not worn in the privacy of their home fell on belligerent, rather than deaf, ears. So, to conclude, maybe a visual is better:
How should a society handle immigrants with obviously different customs?
On what grounds should anyone be deported?
Given that each successive immigrant group meets with similar suspicions and calumnies, is the current attitude toward Muslims any different? Why/why not? How/how not?
Why might one religious groups support the rights of another?
In what way is wearing a niqab, or the right to wear one a feminist issue?
Why would the niqab spark such rage where the hijab doesn't?
Should any man have the right to tell Muslim women how to dress? See also Jehanzeb's new post on Muslim Reverie--Stop Telling Muslim Women How To Dress
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?