In the article “Banning the niqab harms an open society. So does wearing it,” from yesterday’s Globe and Mail, Omer Aziz begins an elliptical critique of the niqab open-mindedly enough. He states, correctly, that the state has no business in the nation’s dressing rooms, echoing Pierre Trudeau’s famous line with respect to his reforms in support of Canada’s LGBTQ community.
However, Aziz, a law student writing from George W. Bush’s alma mater, quickly steps into sleight of hand. The reasonable accommodation provision, bounded in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not refer to wether majority Canadians feel its reasonable to accommodate someone’s weird cultural practice. The Charter was in fact created in order to protect minority rights (i.e. sexual, religious, gender, ability, and other minorities), from oppression by the majority. Reasonable accommodation refers to the level of hardship it is reasonable to expect an employer or service provider to bear in order to make accommodations to protected groups under the charter.”
Aziz then goes on to critique the niqab as illiberal, without explaining that assertion. Occultation is no longer as familiar as it was once was, now that religion has taken a somewhat more amorphous, less institutionalized form in Canadians’ lives. Monks’ habits, nuns’ garbs, and other religious clothing articles that cover the body were once quite common. On my weekly walks in Ottawa, I used to pass by a nunnery, which was recently demolished. It had high brick walls, and was set back from the street. Sisters were cloistered there. The niqab, when taken up freely, can be viewed from a similar perspective, an attempt to diminish the physical, in order to take a deeper plunge in the inward spiritual pools of contemplation.
Mr. Aziz, again, has not done his research. He argues that the niqab shouldn’t be worn at Canadian citizenship ceremonies because of reasonable accommodation. He is imprecise here, but presumably is referring to the formal aspects of the ceremony in which the recipient of citizenship identifies themself and receives their formal citizenship documentation. It has been repeated over and over again, but niqabis have been – and are willing to – identify themselves in this manner. It is only during the public aspect of the ceremony that they wish to appear in their usual manner. EDITOR’S NOTE: this paragraph has been striken, as it misrepresented Omer Aziz’s position. Aziz in fact wrote that he does support the right of women to wear the niqab at citizenship ceremonies, but that “necessarry caveats” must accompany any defence of this right. CANADALAND regrets this unintentional mischaracterization.
Aziz then goes on to assert that the niqab has nothing to do with Islam. This kind of statement is catnip for liberals who are somewhat uncomfortable with the practice of niqab-wearing, but who also find Stephen Harper’s Islamophobia distasteful. It allows them to support and defend ‘moderate’ Muslims, while demanding that Muslims who make them feel uncomfortable get in line. Aziz repeats the tired tropes that you can pull from any orientalist’s website or Tarek Fatah’s articles about the origin of the niqab at the time of the Prophet. Veiling is a common practice in Abrahamic religions. As a Muslim living in a sufi/Hasidic area of Montreal, I would often see pashmina-wearing dervishes walking briskly past covered Jewish women.
Aziz uses the late Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi of Al Azhar to bolster his argument against the niqab. Tantawi did indeed issue a fatwa banning the niqab. This fatwa was issued after Tantawi toured a school in Egypt and noticed a teenage girl wearing it. In front of everyone, he defied that young person’s individual agency, and demanded that she remove it, reportedly remarking afterwards that she was not beautiful enough to need it. This is the same Tantawi who issued a fatwa supporting the construction of an iron wall between Egypt and the blockaded Gazans.
Given the demeaning and humiliating context within which Tantawi called the niqab a folk practice, and his eery ability to issue fatwas on political message, not many within the Muslim community digest Tantawi’s pronouncements wholesale – though the wider Canadian public could. With regard to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the strong man of Turkey, his flirtation with traditionalism, as evidenced by his new Ankara palace, and his recent photo op with Turkish warriors (and the endlessly amusing memes this scene produced), he is not the ideal candidate to represent what Muslim women want for themselves.
Omer Aziz’s ‘vigorous contest’ about the niqab can be reduced to an on-message scholar and a strong man president. While most Muslim women do not wear the niqab or may not even like it, it is at one end of the spectrum of accepted Muslim practices, the way that monasticism is in Christianity. A few lone voices, usually disembodied, omniscient, and Orientalist, issue fiat declarations that the niqab has nothing to do with the Islamic tradition, peddle their short careers in Islamophobia, than fade from real scholarly debate.
With regard to the spectre of the controlling Muslim ‘patriarch’, I would like to challenge Aziz to identify even one Muslim Canadian woman who is currently wearing the niqab and who has been forced to do so. I’ve never heard of such a case, and I have been involved in the Muslim Canadian community my entire life. Forcing girls to wear the hijab, yes, I have a case in my own family, and I am completely opposed to this behaviour, which tramples the ability a woman’s ability to choose. However, Aziz’s analysis of the hijab as a quasi gateway-drug to the niqab is odd, fear-mongering, and again, denies the ability of young people to sort through their own decisions about their bodies.
Whether a young person wishes to wear a cloth veiling their face, or to jab a metal rod through their septum, or perhaps permanently cover their forearms in tattoos, these are their intensely personal decisions to make. To be simple, everybody is conditioned by their social milieu. If Aziz wishes to get existential about his argument, and imagine what choices a woman would make in a culture-less, class-less, genderless environment, he can parse that thought experiment out, but I doubt it will yield any practical results. Whether you’re an Evangelical Christian (like our Prime Minister), or a lesbian (like Ontario’s Premier), or differently abled (like MP Steven Fletcher), your circumstances inevitably influence you and your decisions.
Aziz goes on to wonder whether the niqab is a marker of ostentation. I could stop and conduct a Freudian analysis on that, but I will leave that to the psychoanalysts as to why men think that women’s dressing practices have everything to do with them and what they are thinking. Aziz then goes one to argue that the niqab is inherently misogynistic, or women-hating. This from the midst of a society that has used the unimpeded male-gaze to justify everything from plastic surgery, pornography, domestic abuse, and rape culture. If anything is illiberal, it would be a culture that allows this gaze to flourish, infiltrating women’s magazines, Hollywood movies, children’s programming, and politics – and neutering women’s choices in life by reducing them to sexual objects.
Aziz argues that the niqab diminishes liberal democracy. It is a wonder to think that a rare religious garment has the power to diminish a vibrant global institution. Wearing a few extra thread counts around your face doesn’t seem, to me, to inhibit a woman’s ability to have her vote counted. He goes on to prioritize the usual Cartesian, visually-based perspective – that which kills in order to understand – in his version of so-called Liberal Democracy.
If Aziz has not personally had an informal conversation, or exchanged natural empathy with a niqab-wearing woman, he, like the Western explorer-scholars of before, assumes that this intimacy must not exist. It frustrates Aziz that a woman’s agency over her own body has removed the choice, as a man, to either ignore or engage, belittle or praise, sexualize or repudiate the niqab-wearing woman. There is a physical barrier, a pause that intervenes. For Aziz, niqabs have no place in classrooms or where free discourse flourishes. Attached to these niqabs, of course, are women who would be excluded by such a bigoted and close-minded policy.
There is one last red herring to note in all of this: the idea that ‘multiculturalism’ is failed, and is a construct created by white people. Our Canadian multiculturalism, as restless as it is, is far preferable to the colonial bad conscience now wracking Europe and America.
Aziz ends his divisive article with the literal bogeyman of a guy with burning eyes and a serious face. Well, I have yet to meet a father matching that description forcing Muslim Canadian girls to wear the niqab. But, perhaps, if Canadians are scared enough, they’ll ban the niqabs that Muslim women don’t wear, and they’ll imprison the non-existent dads who introduce their children to that notorious gateway-drug, the hijab. Then, maybe on that great day, when all the uncomfortable people are tucked away, then the rest us can live freely in our very liberal, not at all illiberal, liberal democracy.