Editor’s Note: Written by @ManaalFarooqi. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
In the past several weeks, Canadian media and the public alike have found themselves in the midst of both a new and tiresome discussion around the niqab. This has happened particularly in light of Quebec’s Bill 62 which passed recently and has reintroduced the issue of policing of women’s bodies. The bill limits anyone with a “face covering” from utilizing or being employees of public institutions such as schools, daycares, hospitals and more.
Interestingly enough, the majority of commentary about this issue centers Muslim women and their bodies, but has come from everyone other than Muslim women, disenfranchising the same women they see to “empower” and “liberate.”
Much of this is the result of Islamophobia.
Islamophobia–defined as the fear, hatred and discrimination that Muslims and groups that are perceived to be Muslim face–also overlaps with anti-immigrant sentiment, xenophobia and racism. It is an issue that Canada has been grappling with, and its results have ranged from the Quebec Mosque shooting to everyday instances of verbal, physical and various other forms of assault.
Bill 62 comes at a time when Canada is reeling from an insurgence of white nationalism in the Trump-era. Adherents of these alt-right groups believe that multiculturalism is “collective suicide” and that “radical Islam poses an active threat to Quebec culture.” Therefore the timing and framing of articles around Bill 62 is more relevant now than ever, but space to write it is often given to the wrong people.
This kind of demeaning discourse is highlighted in Barbara Kay’s op-ed for the National Post, “Let’s Hope the Canadian Court Sees the True Meaning of the Niqab,” in which she policed Muslim women’s bodies as a result of Islamophobia.
Kay begins with a comment that proves particularly stunning given the recent Quebec Mosque shooting and United States Muslim Ban were only a mere several months ago:
“While I make no comparison whatsoever as to motivation or purpose, to me, the niqab is no more an article of clothing than a KKK costume. Both are cause-rooted uniforms, draped over clothing, designed to embody a strong message.”
While Kay might begin with a disclaimer about her intentions to separate the motivations behind the niqab and the KKK costume, her disclaimer is irrelevant considering the deeper significance behind the two separate pieces of clothing. Comparing the two without considering their motivation and purpose is a very superficial and uninformed assessment of the two. She wrongly draws parallels between the niqab, an item of clothing which is what some Muslim women choose to wear for modesty, and compares it to the clothing of the KKK, whose history is one that espouses violence and racism (most recently in Charlottesville). The comparison of the agency of Canadian Muslim women in how they choose to dress to an organization that inflicts violence demonstrates the issue at hand: there is a deep misunderstanding of what self-determination and agency is for Muslim women who wear niqab.
“Likewise, some niqabi women believe they are merely expressing “modesty,” but rightly read, the niqab represents a fundamentalist strain of Islam’s oppression of women.”
The oppression of women is a global phenomenon that is tied intrinsically to patriarchy, not Islam. Patriarchy affects people of all faiths, nationalities and backgrounds, to which Canada is no exception. The niqab doesn’t represent any particular strain of ideology, it is a choice that women from different sects and interpretations choose to wear. Equating an item of clothing to the oppression of women in a faith is not only illogical but is a false equivalency.
Kay then references the WZB Berlin Social Science Center’s report, “Religious fundamentalism and out-group hostility among Muslims and Christians in Western Europe” a study which many found to be problematic and targeted. The study essentially bases its questions on a tone of mistrust of Muslims and ignores racism, Islamophobia, access to education, income and more of the very subjects it is interviewing. It furthermore ignores the histories of certain peoples regarding colonialism and the effects that it has had on generations of people from the global south and within the Muslim world. Delving in deeper into societal issues is important and recognizing that villainizing an entire group of diverse people within a faith tradition is not productive, it’s actually harmful.
It is clear that the narrative around Bill 62 that has led to the policing of Muslim women’s bodies needs to change. Too often, Muslim women and their agency are put at risk by those who use them as props in xenophobic arguments, policy decisions and more. This kind of one-sided discourse should be balanced by the media by giving space to more Muslim women from the most marginalized and stigmatized communities. Canada is meant to be a space where everyone’s freedom is welcomed and encouraged. This is not only a fundamentally Canadian, right but a human right.