Home Opinions Rebuttal: Confronting prejudice in the niqab debate

Rebuttal: Confronting prejudice in the niqab debate

by Maha Ikram Cherid October 27, 2015

Feminists have subverted lipstick and high heels, now they’re taking back the niqab

During the recent election, the Supreme Court of Canada rendered a judgement on a highly contentious case regarding the right to wear the niqab during the citizenship ceremony. This became one of the most polarizing items on the political agenda.

Everyone had an opinion, especially the leaders of the three main political parties. After hearing over and over again the points of view of three white men, I felt an overwhelming desire to express an opinion that has been heard far too little in the public debate surrounding this issue: that of a Muslim girl.

As a feminist, as a Muslim and as an avid supporter of democracy and freedom, I absolutely believe that a ban on the niqab has no place in Canadian society.

It seems to me that current discourse on this topic always positions Muslim women as ignorant, uneducated victims that need to be rescued by the advanced Canadian society and taught better than to believe in their own inferiority.

This type of stereotyping is both offensive and inaccurate. Not only does it ignore the fact that an impressive number of these women have university degrees and are highly educated, it also fails to recognize that they are people and therefore capable of both critical thinking and independent thought.

Yes, of course they are influenced by the culture in which they grew up and evolved all their lives. Spoiler alert: that is the case for everyone in this world, including Canadians of European descent. All of our social realities influence the way we think, speak, act and dress. Yet somehow, no one tries to argue that we should ban fake lashes or skinny jeans because they were imposed on us by higher social forces that are used by some sexist people to assert their dominance over women.

Which takes me to another biased assumption often implied in this debate: the belief that Western attire can be re-appropriated by women, whereas all other types of dress are indications of barbaric cultural practices (as Harper once so poetically put it) from which they emerge, and thus can never ever be dissociated from the unequal realities that they represent.

In this day and age, there is no shortage of women re-appropriating cosmetics and clothing that were, for a very long time, used to oppress them. Lipstick, high heels, corsets, crop tops—the list goes on. Women everywhere are taking back these items and proclaiming that they feel empowered because they choose to wear them, and they do it on their own terms.

I love this movement.

The idea of women reclaiming their culture, thus chipping away at the power of the patriarchy, makes my little feminist heart grow three sizes. However, it always seems to regress back to its original size because the very same women who are so willing to reclaim Western culture as their own are also among the first to shut down Muslim women who try to do the same with their own culture.

I want to emphasize that it is culture that is being re-appropriated. Religion is a part of culture, it’s true, but it isn’t its sole component. Which is why, by the way, different Muslim countries have different religious attire.

In Algeria, for instance, hardly anyone wears the niqab, because it isn’t part of the country’s cultural heritage. In Pakistan, where Zunera Ishaq—the woman who started this debate—is from, the niqab in quite common. Most importantly, even if the niqab has historically been used as a tool of oppression, it doesn’t mean that Ishaq feels oppressed by it, or that she and other women cannot change its cultural meaning and transform it into a source of empowerment for their community.

After all, here we have an immigrant woman who used the democratic tools available to her to fight against a policy made by the state because she believed it infringed on her constitutional right to religious freedom. Maybe it’s just me, but this lady doesn’t really strike me as an oppressed victim waiting for her white knight to come and save her from her evil, bearded husband.

I’m not trying to argue that there aren’t issues with how Islam has been applied in various ways across time and cultural backgrounds. My point is that Muslim women coming from these particular backgrounds are the ones who can most accurately identify the problems that need to be addressed. Their voices are the ones that should be the most heard in this debate, yet they are so often put aside because mainstream society treats them with a condescending attitude that effectively silences any potential solutions they have to offer.

If what Canadians truly want is to ensure that no woman is discriminated against, then their efforts should focus on enhancing economic integration, offering more aid services to those in vulnerable situations and most importantly, making sure that all women’s constitutional rights are protected, including that of religious freedom.

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