The Niqab: Pushing the Wall Back on My Cultural Limitations

It’s hard when you smash into the wall of you’re cultural limitations. This head-on, concussion-giving mental collision is occurring in me as we speak, with the proposed Bill 94 which would ban any sort of face coverings in any government building (including schools) in Quebec.

Now usually, I wouldn’t feel so conflicted. I am a strong supporter of freedom, whether it be religious, political, anti-sock wearing etc. (I was even ashamed of Ottawa’s treatment of that harpy Anne Coulter– she may be a she-demon from hell, but she should still be allowed to speak her mind without being shut down, otherwise we wander into the realm of the Orwellian- you know, where everyone has freedom of speech, but some have more freedom than others?) And this seems like a pretty clear cut case of a Bill about to restrict freedom. “Cause where will it end? The answer to that, if taken to its logical conclusion, could go far indeed (think of a world where orange t-shirts are banned…)

So why do I feel so conflicted about it? I was talking to a friend whose opinion I respect greatly, and she made a comment about how the ban on the niqab was the move of a police state (not her exact words, but you get the drift) and I hedged. I thought about the case of the woman who sparked this debate- Naïma Ahmed, and of the radio reports I heard at the time that claimed (I tried to find documentation for this online, but couldn’t so I don’t know if my fevered mind has been making up fake news stories or not) that not only did she refuse to take off her Niqab, but she would not do her oral presentations in front of men (once again, I am not sure if this is true). I brought this up to my friend who just looked at me and said, “Why can’t there be French classes exclusively for women?”

Ahh. The voice of reason. How easily it cuts through the fat of uncooked thoughts. Why can’t they? I work at an all girls’ school- shouldn’t I have thought about this seemingly elegant solution? And yet…the part of me that does not understand the idea of the niqab – no – that does not want to understand the niqab, balks at the idea. In the school where I work, parents pay for the privilege of having their daughters attend school in a single sex environment. So this begs the question: Should the government offer this option for an additional fee? But of course, that wouldn’t work either. Never mind the fact that the majority of immigrant women can hardly afford rent, let alone the luxury of expensive classes. It goes against the whole idea of Canada as a tolerant, accepting place to live.

So you see, I am a living, breathing embodiment of the reasonable accommodation debate. And let me tell you, I don’t like it. It’s like wearing ill-fitting pantyhose (for any men out there who haven’t yet donned a pair, I suggest you try them just for the sake of empathy). The question I have to ask myself, and by extension, the question that people in Quebec must ask themselves (perhaps after a couple of drinks when we are feeling honest and brave enough to look at ourselves critically) is why does the niqab make us so uncomfortable?

And, speaking only for myself now, it makes me hugely uncomfortable. I live in one of the most multicultural areas of Montreal, with a huge East Indian population. There are several women n my street alone who where the niqab. As I run past them in my jogging gear, or now as summer rolls around, as I push my daughters in the swing next to them, I am confronted with it everyday. (On a lighter note, I would see one woman everyday at around 5:45 am this winter. As the wind cut through my light coat and lashed at my face, I did wonder whether she didn’t have the right idea). And each time I see them, this question pops into my head: Is it really this particular woman’s choice to don the niqab?

And this is where my problem lies, and I suspect, I am not the only one. I want to believe that it truly is their decision, that the woman wearing the niqab is doing it of her own free will because she feels this is the best way to show humility before her God (or at least I hope that’s the reason- being woefully ignorant of the Muslim religion, I am just spit-balling here).

Man, I even find this hard to write about. It is strange to be split in two like this. All my objections to the Niqab are ones that stem from my own western feminist upbringing. I balk at the idea of religious dogmatism, which is how I can’t help but perceive required attire dictated by any religion.

The other part of me is saying I am being small-minded, that my idea of Muslim women is based on the media and stereotypes and the idea that Muslim men view women as inferior. That is a sweeping generalization that I even had trouble putting into words, but now that it is out, it is because I think part of me believes it.

What makes it harder for me to accept the Niqab? Like everything, it stems from a personal experience: my friendship with a lovely Bangladeshi woman named Nilu. Now, I thought I had written about her before on this blog, but I can’t find it and I am too lazy to go through all of my rants and raves. When my family and I first moved to Montreal, we lived in Little Italy. Not knowing any better, the first thing we did was to find a day care for the youngest and enrolled our eldest in Kindergarten at the nearest school. The first year, she didn’t speak a word of French and had made only one friend. It was hard to meet other parents as none of them came to parent-teacher nights and they all belonged to very tight-knit immigrant communities. Yes, my daughter was the only Caucasian. Far from seeing this as a bad or good thing, we just merely made note of the fact, thinking how different could it be?

When our daughters entered first grade, we would be waiting in the schoolyard together for our children to come out. One day, she gathered enough courage to approach me and show me the agenda (I think she heard me speak English, which she spoke a little ). It was full of red marks from the teacher saying that her daughter hadn’t done her homework. From that day on, she would come to my house every week day for 2 years so that I could help her daughter with her homework.

Well, not exactly. She came everyday as soon as she obtained permission from her husband. And as long as it was just me and not my husband who was helping. And as long as my husband didn’t comment on her appearance.

During the two years, we struck up the oddest but most moving friendship of my life. We had the same stats: same age, same height, daughters the same age, married. Except for some fundamental differences. Hers was an arranged marriage. Her husband was abusive. He had sexually abused a family member which meant that she was ostracized from her family. When her daughter turned 7, the traditional age for girls to begin wearing the hijab, she had promised her she would begin wearing it again too, though she hated it.

This experience has stayed with me. Not only because of Nilu and the constraints of her religion and marriage, but also as an eye-opening glimpse at what it is like to be an immigrant to this country. Her husband might have been trouble, but he was also working two jobs. They were living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment and her job was to serve him hand and foot, even if it meant getting up in the middle of the night to fix him a snack, or entertain his friends whenever he had the mind to bring them to their place. Her days were spent, taking care of her daughter, making food, praying and making sure her husband was happy. And was she happy? Satisfied? Fulfilled? Umm, not exactly. Depressed? Sad? Lonely? That would be closer to the mark.

However, in Nilu’s opinion, I was the one going to hell. Seriously. She told this to me one day while we were sitting in the park. She glanced down at my ankles sticking out of my ugly, brown cords and said you’re going to hell like she was really sorry about it, but that there was nothing for it. Although I laughed, my western brain kept on thinking that she was already there. And bang! I hit the wall again.

This post has taken me several days to write and since I have begun it, another case of a woman being kicked out of her government funded French class for wearing the Niqab happened again. By all reports, she was an eager, motivated student who wanted to learn the language and participate in Quebec society and who had no problems presenting her reports in front of the class. And even though it is not even a law yet, just a proposed bill, the government is acting as if it should be enforced right away. They didn’t give her any warning, they didn’t talk to her about it, they just came into class and told her to leave.

This huge long rambling post is only because I am wrestling with my own limitations. You will be glad to know that I finally came to the conclusion my friend did before I could see past my own cultural blinders: My feelings about the Niqab is not the point. The fact that our provincial government is acting like a police state, on the other hand, most definitely is.

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One Response to The Niqab: Pushing the Wall Back on My Cultural Limitations

  1. Pamplemousse says:

    Oh, Wiremonkey Mama, how I wish we could debate this over fine scotch.

    I am equally torn, and came to a similar conclusion; how can a canadian province have the audacity to present a dress code past the mandatory pants in public law. (For the record, I'm all for everyone brave enough to walk around topless on hot days… though I wouldn't do it myself because I think it's rude. In fact, I don't even really care if people are naked in public even. Gives me one more thing to look at)

    In truth, i was always quite thrilled to see different cultural dress while in Montréal. I wonder what would happen if the hassidic jews were told that a no hat law had been passed. It is equally stupid.

    I do get offended when the gender issue comes into play. Refusing to talk in front of men is a bit ridiculous. Just like race, there is nothing… well nearly nothing, we can do about our gender. Ain't a choice I get to make, so other than different bathrooms, how can anyone justify treating anyone differently because they have different genitalia?

    The sad fact is that I don't know the true meaning of the niqab. I know what most people think, but I'm somewhat sure that it is only a superficial understanding. Reminds me of the old debate about Mounties wearing turbans. This debate returned to my life a couple of years ago when I dealt with a friend that thought this was wrong. When I informed her that the turban is actually a sign of peace and goodwill (I think) not violence and war… and that the precious mountie uniform had changed many, many times… well she was still not convinced.

    Clothing options. Jeez.

    The religious practise that would be more relevant would be circumcision… for either male or female… it ain't right to do that to babies… yet no laws against doing it to little boys.

    what the fuck?

    Québec seems horribly behind the rest of north america in terms of political correctness…. that part I don't miss.

    What I do miss is our scotch fueled debates and non-debates.

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