Guest post: Canada needs to fight sexism, not import new forms of it

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.


  1. maudell says

    I agree with the overall idea of the post of the need for a larger discussion on sexism in Canada. It’s also tiring to see politicians jumping on these exceptional cases to rally their base.
    However, Canadian law is not clear in this specific instance. First, we don’t have full freedom of speech. Being topless is not officially legal (it depends on the definition of ‘indecency’) outside of Ontario and BC. But a woman cannot enter a government building topless anywhere in the country. And if we narrow things to the citizenship ceremony, there is a dress code (business attire, or ethnic dress which is appropriate). The point of contention being ‘appropriate’.
    I also don’t see how freedom of speech has anything to do with citizenship oath. For example, if someone refuses to take allegiance to the queen (which is ridiculous enough), they won’t get their citizenship. That might need to change, but it’s well within the Charter of Rights.

  2. ChainRing says

    Excellent post. One of the problems here is that many Canadians, myself very much included, hesitate to give the Harperites even a little credit because we know it will be twisted out of context and used to support yet another racist foray. So even though I heartily agree that the niqab is an anti-woman practice, it’s impossible to support that stance when it comes from the Conservatives. I think this post outlines an great balanced view that I can support.

  3. Eric MacDonald says

    I have a few problems with Saba’s take on this issue — and it is, I believe, a genuine problem when some women, whether out of choice — or as I suspect, often as a result of cultural and family pressure — insulate themselves (or are forcibly insulated) from their surroundings, making it impossible for them to have meaningful communication with other Canadians. One thing that seems not to be recognised is that this wall of separation which some Muslims set up between themselves and others is also oppressive and insulting to Canadian women and men for whom this is not a cultural practice, and who have no desire to be part of a society where their neighbours separate themselves from the wider community by engaging in this practice. Saba thinks that discussion will lead to change. I do not. I think it is wrong for people to immigrate to Canada and not accept the cultural mores of the country, which not only does not seclude women in this way, but thinks this kind of seclusion is not only anti-woman but anti-social. I know a woman who lived in an Ontario neighbourhood where almost all the surrounding houses shut out the surrounding world with blinds and curtains, and all the women wore niqab, shuttling quickly from their houses to their cars and then quickly back again on their return. The sense of oppression was so great that the woman of whom I speak felt unable to go into the garden to sun or to read, and felt distinctly uncomfortable in the presence of the men for whom the seclusion of women is culturally or religiously required. This is not only un-Canadian and anti-woman, it is anti-social, and limits the freedom of others to live and dress as they please. That a woman would object to having her face seen while taking the oath of allegiance to Canada is an outrage. That she should choose to seclude herself from her neighbours is also an outrage, and I would gladly see the practice outlawed. There is no reason why women, if they choose, cannot dress modestly, even covering their hair if they choose, but that they should isolate themselves from their fellow Canadians is contrary to Canadian social practices and culture. It is a culture of freedom worth preserving, and it is offensive that anyone coming to this country should think so little of their fellow citizens that they feel they must seclude themselves in this offensive way. There are plenty of countries where they can do this; indeed, where they would be given no choice but to dress this way; but there is no reason that anyone should do this who comes to make this country their home. Discussion will not change this, because those who dress in this way deliberately shut themselves off from the possibility of open discourse.

  4. Eric MacDonald says

    ChangeRing. I am not a Conservative, and I think the only way that change will come about is when politicians take note of the wider effects on our society of religious forms of anti-female practice. One thing upon which I agree with Harper is this very limited stance about the preparedness of women to show their faces when taking the oath of allegiance to Canada, but I hope he will eventually go even further. To make this anti-social practice a matter of human rights is, it seems to me, the tip of a much larger iceberg which will have a tendency to undermine our cultural values of respect for persons. If we allow this practice here, how can we condemn it in other countries (as we should)? To erect a wall of separation between Muslims and other Canadians is implicitly to state that those who do so do not value either the culture or the citizens of Canada. If they do not, why do they come here. As the Muslim Mayor of Rotterdam said, “If you don’t like this culture, then go somewhere where your cultural values will be unheld.”

  5. quixote says

    Eric, you’ve articulated something for me I felt but never put my finger on. When I see niqab’ed women, it puts me off, and I’ve never quite understood why. I assumed I objected to wearing misogyny like a flag, but that never felt like the whole explanation. I can see women turned out like a TV anchor, which is another form of misogyny made visible, of women au naturel being intolerable, but I just don’t like it. I don’t have that undercurrent of offense.

    But I think you’re right. It’s the in-your-face refusal to be a member of the society they’re in. As an immigrant myself, I know that assimilation is difficult and not always welcome, but there’s a difference — which I also can’t articulate — between retaining your identity and love of the Old Country and rejecting everything your new home stands for.

  6. A Masked Avenger says

    I think Eric’s comments illustrate how one can object to a misogynistic tradition and still be racist about it. Eric’s ultimate objection seems to be that weird foreigners should renounce their weird foreign ways and be normal Canadians. If their culture involved hiding their face for non misogynistic reasons, or wearing clown makeup when out in public, or preferring to speak their own language rather than English or French, or eating food with an off putting smell, it sounds as if Eric would ban that too, because it’s weird and not neighborly in a nice Canadian sort of way.

    But they’re not there to provide you with playmates. They’re free to live their lives as they see fit. The only legitimate beef here is with cultural structures that oppress others, and with any effort to influence others to adopt those norms or tolerate that oppression.

  7. Eric MacDonald says

    A Masked Avenger. I have no problem with different races (suppose there are any such). I have no problem with Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and members of other religions. I have no problem with Muslims who come to Canada to make a home here, and respect the openness of Canadian culture and society. To be Muslim is not to be a member of a race; it is simply to be a religious believer. However, Islam itself claims to be the last and perfect religion, and Muslims are commanded not to make friends with non-believers. The best way to do this, and to express your sense of superiority, is to insulate yourself from other people. Why don’t we speak of Muslim bigotry and racism? For that is what it is. For some reason were are simply to accept Muslims at their word, without criticism, on penalty of being called bigoted and racist, and allow ourselves to be treated as unworthy of fellowship with Muslims, and permit Muslims to import anti-woman prejudice into this country. There’s enough of that already, and we should deplore that. But we certainly should not allow in Canada practices which we appropriately condemn in Muslim countries. Allowing Muslims to come here an express their distaste of other people, and their valuation of non-Muslims as filth and dogs — which is certainly expressed by this kind of seclusion — is something that is contrary to liberal values, and should not be condoned. You can speak whatever language you like, but if you don’t speak English or French in Canada you’re not going to be able to communicate with your fellow citizens, and of course, those who seclude themselves by wearing niqab, will have little occasion to speak one of our national languages, but will isolate themselves in communities in such a way that they may as well have stayed where they were, for there is little difference living in a Muslim enclave in Toronto, and living in Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Not only that, but men who think that women must be so secluded and sealed off from the surrounding world are a threat to all women who are not so secluded (as has become cruelly evident in Britain). Why should this be welcome in Canada? However, I am offended that you should take my carefully expressed condemnation of purdah and think that that makes me a bigot and a racist. I grew up in India, and still India seems far more like home to me than Canada, but India, in those years immediately following independence, was a largely secular country, and very few Muslim women adopted the niqab. I find your accusation offensive and childish, a kind of reflex reaction to anyone who questions Muslim seclusion and separatism. I am not speaking about playmates. I am speaking about citizenship, equal citizenship, and about the conditions that are necessary for that to develop. I resent your implication.

  8. Decker says

    Your comments are very informative Eric.
    First of all there are laws on the books that forbid people from covering their faces in public for security reasons. Bank robbers and jewel thieves come to mind.

    Secondly, why move to Canada and react to your adopted country by erecting a barrier between yourself and your new society?

    How will she ever find a job? How is she going to support herself? In what possible way can individuals who refuse to reveal their faces ever contribute positively to Canada’s development?

    She hasn’t even been sworn in as a citizen and already her ridiculous stance is abrasive and divisive.

    Forcing her to reveal her face at the swearing in ceremony doesn’t go far enough, in my opinion.

    I think that an example should be made of her and her request to become Canadian refused outright.

    A shot across the bow is needed here.

    Lastly, that people have a right to dress they please ( going bare breasted in public), though true, nonetheless has its limits. One cannot be nude in public…even if going nude is required by one’s ‘religion’. So anyone seeking to recite their citizenship oath in the buff should perhaps ( seriously!) be refused entry into Canada as well. There are social norms that HAVE to be respected and so if, for some reason, a prospective immigrant cannot respect those norms, then it’s right and reasonable to refuse them entry into the country. After all, an individual’s ability and willingness to adapt to the values of their adopted society is perhaps the most important criteria when selecting immigrants.

    Eric’s ultimate objection seems to be that weird foreigners should renounce their weird foreign ways and be normal Canadians.

    That’s dumb. Eric is saying that immigrants should demonstrate a desire to integrate as seamlessly as possible.

    Your attitude reminds me of a local radio commenter here ( Montréal) on this issue. She’s a muddled leftist who claims she personally dislikes the niqab, but quickly followed up by saying she also hates seeing men who wear socks in their sandals! Yes…as though honest and transparent communication always involves assessing the expression on someone’s toenails…

  9. L.A. Julian says

    So should Orthodox Jewish women also be forced to uncover their hair in public? It’s the same Abrahamic misogyny at work. Should Orthodox men be forced to give up their peyot, in order to show that they are assimilating into Canadian culture correctly? What about Hindu saris and bindis and Sikh turbans? Or Buddhist monks’ saffron robes? Or traditionalist Catholic nuns’ veils or Amish headscarves? Where is the line drawn, Eric, and can you explain the difference? You cannot say “misogyny” as if it were not equally found in all these religions, and the Sikh and Hindu and Jain and Buddhist clothing sets them apart from the European colonist/conqueror descended mainstream as much as any of the formerly-banned in Canada outward signs of Abenaki heritage. So why allow those, and not Muslim clothing? And how will your enforcers determine the difference between your acceptable Sikh turbans and your unnacceptable Muslim ones — or are you only going to enforce secular Western dress on women?

  10. Decker says

    So should Orthodox Jewish women also be forced to uncover their hair in public?

    This posting is about face coverings, not hijabs or nuns habits

    Where is the line drawn, Eric, and can you explain the difference?

    It’s very simple–the line needs to be drawn when it comes to face-coverings. If people cannot see your face, then how on earth can you properly interact with others? Human beings need to see each others faces when communicating so that a minimum level of trust can be established.

    All of the other distractions you’ve thrown in– nuns habits, Sikh turbans, saffron robes, bindis etc– in no way impede exchanges between individuals based on trust and transparency for the very simple reason that they DO NOT cover the face.

    You cannot say “misogyny” as if it were not equally found in all these religions, and the Sikh and Hindu and Jain and Buddhist clothing sets them apart from the European colonist/conqueror descended mainstream

    I’m glad you brought up the theme of European colonialist/conqueror attitudes.

    Islam always was, and still is, the vehicle par excellence for Arab imperialism/colonialism/supremacism. Bindis and saffron robes were once the norm in what was the Sindh, now referred to as Pakistan. Many Pakistanis are the descendants of enslaved/forcibly converted Hindus and Buddhists and in Afganistan many of the inhabitants are the offspring of Greek, Bactrian Buddhists. The Buddhist Statues at Bamiyan were destroyed by the arch islamic Taliban because they feared the locals were still ‘contemplating’ them.

  11. Eric MacDonald says

    Come on, LA Julian, I made it very clear that I have no objection to distinctive clothing. I have no beef with hijabs, Sikh turbans, Jewish yarmulkes, or nuns’ habits. What I object to is the derpersonalising wall that separates some Muslim women from the society around them, and the men who support this. I am not suggesting for a moment that there is no misogyny in religions other than Islam. That would be not only wrong, but a stupid thing to say, and I did not say it. Indeed, I quite clearly stated the contrary: “There’s enough of that [misogyny] already, and we should deplore that.” But I do not think that misogyny is equally found in all religions. It is certainly found in all religions, but it is found in Islam with a vengeance. And let’s stop with the colonialist nonsense. Said’s book has been well and truly refuted. And the suggestion that my opposition to niqab is colonialist is nonsense. Besides, as Decker rightly points out, Islam was imperialist and colonialist long before Europeans got into the game. Indeed, so colonialist are they still that they would have you bow in the direction of Arabia when saying your prayers. They kept an active slave trade going well into the twentieth century. Actually, though, you will find the many Muslim men, whose women are kept in niqab, dress in ordinary European clothing, and enjoy shorts and T-shirts in the summer, while their women are closeted in black tents. So don’t come the heavy colonialist-conqueror with me. I lived in India for 12 years. I sometimes wore a “pugri” (or turban), and admired, but never got to wear, the loose white clothing that many Indian men wore against the summer’s heat. My mother sometimes wore saris. I celebrated Indian independence, and heard Nehru speak on several occasions, once on the maidan in Ujjain, a city on the Sipra river famous for its bathing ghats and temples which I loved. I also learned about the devastation that Islam brought to India, and the vast numbers of Hindus and Buddhists who were killed during the period of Islamic hegemony, and the number of Hindu temples that were razed to the ground. I agree with Terek Fatah when he says that it is not enough for Muslims in Canada to condemn ISIS, they must also condemn the Sharia law which enables the kinds of brutalities and horrors that ISIS commits. Don’t forget, please, that Islam made several attempts to conquer Europe, went on slaving expeditions as far north as Iceland, and in one case, left an Irish village a ghost town, having kidnapped all the inhabitants while they were sleeping for sale in the slave markets in Tangier. There is nothing in contemporary Islam that suggests it has given up its aim to conquer the world for Allah and for Islam, and we must insist that the conditions that lead to radicalism amongst Muslims be surrendered if they are to live amongst us as citizens. I view the niqab as a sign of a refusal to give up the fundamental Islamic quest for conquest, because it is an expression of disgust at our culture of freedom which I believe is worth protecting.

  12. sambarge says

    The fact that Stephen Harper can use this to collect votes shows that many Canadians do find niqab an anti-woman practice.

    Or he can do it because many Canadians are quietly racist and they are threatened by brown skinned people immigrating to Canada. First Nations people are so over it, of course, but white Canadians get their knickers in a knot.

    Things Harper can do to actually curb anti-women actions in Canada:

    1. hold an inquiry into the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women,
    2. follow the recommendations of that inquiry, when they are presented,
    3. reinstitute the funding he has cut from Status of Women Canada, an organization that tracked and worked to actually increase the status of women in Canada and which Harper defunded in 2006,
    4. reinstitute funding for the Court Challenges Program, which gave Canadians without unlimited finances the legal assistance they needed when challenging discriminatory laws and which Harper dismantled in 2006,
    5. reinstitute the principle of pay equity for women in the Federal Public Service, which he removed in an omnibus bill in 2010,
    6. reinstitute protections for pregnant and nursing women in Federal health and safety legislation and regulations which Harper removed in 2014,
    7. refuse to entertain legal and parliamentary challenges to a woman’s right to choose from his party,
    8. welcome new Canadians into Canada’s culture, confident that our way of life is sufficiently superior to win them over,

    I can go on but if Harper was serious about protecting Canadian women, he would stop attacking them at every turn. He’d act like a person committed to social progress, not social regression. Harper has picked on women in niqabs because he hopes he can take advantage of the under-current of racism in Canada. I refuse to assist him in that.

    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.

    Of course, this would be more compelling coming from a Prime Minister who actually practiced transparency and equality, rather than deceit, corruption and anti-equity programs. But hey, why let facts get in the way of politics, right?

  13. chrisdevries says

    I agree with Eric and Decker. The niqab is not required by the Islamic faith; only modesty in dress is prescribed. Canadian culture isn’t perfect, and we have a lot of mostly unacknowledged sexism and racism still to deal with, but I think the guest post author has it wrong – by allowing the niqab, we are importing sexism from another culture in which misogyny is par for the course, not even a bad thing that is being worked on to correct, just a way of life. I obviously don’t know how it feels to be raised in such a culture and shrouded in this way, but I can imagine that people in this situation begin to internalise a great deal of the prejudice that requires them to wear this garment. Already, they are raised to believe they are second-class citizens, and then they are told exposing even an inch of flesh is sinful because it leads other men to think bad thoughts…man, they must be supremely evil beings to be so corrupting. Cultural diversity can be a wonderful thing, but may I be so racist to state that our goal as a progressive, liberal society should be to ensure that the Canadian children of people who have immigrated from Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, girls and boys (and other genders) alike, should believe in the complete equality of all genders, should have a positive, healthy body image, and should see other people’s bodies as off-limits (except in consensual activities), no matter how much skin they are showing. Frankly, that’s a good goal for children of Canadian-born individuals too. And when we have such a goal, we shouldn’t just write off the parents, be they immigrants or third-generation Canadians; if we can reduce the internalised misogyny of all women (and sexism/misogyny of men) raised in illiberal ways by bigoted parents, and help everyone to have more options and more ways to live better lives, we should take every opportunity to do so.

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