Guest post by Saba Farbodkia.
The comments made by Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper have caused a national conversation to form about niqab. The fact that Stephen Harper can use this to collect votes shows that many Canadians do find niqab an anti-woman practice. Even many lefties express their support for Harper “on this one”. So if there are so many people against this practice, how is that we don’t hear much debate and conversation on this at other times? Is that because people rely on law to limit undesirable cultural practices?
But banning someone from doing something that doesn’t harm anyone and is not against the law is not the way to fight an anti-woman or oppressive practice. Talking about it, is.
And the fact that both the leaders of oppositions and the Prime Minister are trying to score political points using topics like this, alone, shows how much people care about the both sides of the debate. Still, topics like this are considered “too sensitive” to evoke conversations and debates around them in a systematic way. People join in these conversations, only when cases like Zunera Ishaq’s turn into a political or legal issue.
As an international student who moved to Canada from Iran around three years and half ago, I sometimes think Canadians don’t appreciate their right to freedom of expression as they should. Although they are legally free, a strongly politically correct culture bounds them by fears of being labeled as racist, Islamophobe, bigot and more.
As a “brown” woman whose fears of Islam (Islam as a set of ideas, as opposed to Muslims as people) are the rational result of her lived experience under the Islamic law, I have the privilege of being able to talk on this, without being afraid of being labeled as racist or Islamophobe. I can’t also be accused of bigotry against Muslims, because, firstly, most Muslims don’t wear niqab, and secondly, even if they did, criticizing a practice and the philosophy behind it is not equal to bigotry against people who do it.
Harper said niqab is an anti-woman practice, and he is right on that. Wearing niqab, whether inspired by the culture of modesty preached by Abrahamic religions, including Islam, which tends to control female sexuality while over-sexualizing the concept of female presence, or as a traditional culture which despite having no direct roots in religion, still dehumanizes individual women and segregates them from the rest, is an anti-woman culture. But so are the over-sexualized ads on the media, porn, and many other things none of which are illegal.
Harper also said it is offensive that someone wants to hide her identity at the very moment that she is joining a nation that values transparency and equality, and this is true as well. Wearing niqab is offensive to all the men present in that room, because its premise is that men are sexual predators that get sexually aroused by just looking at someone’s face. It is offensive to all women everywhere, because its premise is that a woman’s face or merely her non-segregated presence is sexually provocative.
But the right to offend is a direct result of freedom of expression. If a woman has these beliefs, she has all the right to express them, whether verbally or through what she does, as long as it is not illegal. And according to Canadian law, whether someone wants to be topless during her oath or wear a burqa, she should be free to choose so.
Trudeau is right in defending the right of a minority to make her choices. The debate on Ishaq’s case is rightly centered around “choice”, because here we are talking about laws and administration, and it is not their role to make people’s decisions for them.
But we need to understand there is a need for bigger discussions on the topic which are centered on the practice itself, and the inequality that underlies the concept. It is important that liberals denounce the practice as anti-woman, while defending people’s right to make their choices about it. Not banning it is one thing, celebrating it as a form of diversity is another. Because we don’t need “diversity” in the different forms that sexism can take. Canada needs to fight sexism, not import new forms of it to its mainstream culture, which is already fighting with many other forms of sexism.
And the way to fight an oppressive or offensive practice that doesn’t break the law is by discussing it systematically, repeatedly, regularly. Not just when a public figure makes a news out of it.