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March 31, 2010

Niqab ban - a tyranny of conformity

Shahina Siddiqui

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I have been reading in horror, sometimes with nervous laughter, the many tirades against the face veil that a tiny number of Canadian Muslim women wear in public.

The arguments against the niqab range all the way from the despicable to the ridiculous.

Read the blogs or comments in major national and local papers in Canada and you would think that we lived in the most bigoted, intolerant nation in the world.

Of course, that is not the case, and I am encouraged by the voices of reason, however few and far between they may be.

Now that the Quebec legislature has passed Bill 94, which essentially bars veiled women from public services, it almost seems as if war has been declared on Muslim women.

We must ask ourselves why a woman in Quebec, a mother of three, is being put through a public lynching for exercising her right to practise her religion as she sees fit, and being assailed for exercising her right to file a grievance through a government agency.

We should be ashamed of how we have bullied and demonized this woman.

Imagine what her children must feel as they see their mother denied the right to an education just because of the way she dresses.

The pain we have inflicted on this family is unforgivable.

As a Muslim woman and spiritual counsellor, I see the pain, the anguish, and the paralyzing fear that Muslim Canadian women feel.

We have been dismissed, stigmatized, and relegated to the position of second-class citizens. As one young woman stated to me: “I do not wear a veil, but this attack is very personal. Under the guise of ‘empowering’ us they have totally shredded our confidence.”

In Canada, all citizens have the right to personal freedom that does not infringe on others’ rights.

However, when it comes to Muslim women we have convinced ourselves that she is a victim of her husband’s dominance and so we do not believe her when she says “this is my choice.”

What a cunning circular web we weave.

We discredit her as an intellectual being, ridicule her as a free-thinking human being, demonize her for practicing her faith, and then smugly claim to be emancipating her.

I am sure that some women are forced by their male guardians to wear the niqab; however, banning the niqab amounts to banishing these women to house arrest.

Wilfully ignored in all of this is that Muslim women deserve to be treated with dignity regardless of whether we agree with their choices.

The claim that to teach a language the teacher needs to see a student’s mouth amounts to saying that blind people cannot teach or learn a language, and that on-line language classes are bogus.

If the issue is pronunciation, guess what—we all have an accent! Ask someone from France if they approve of Quebec French.

As for the veil being a security threat, how many niqab-wearing women have held up banks?

Notice should be taken of the fact that women who wear the niqab are also obligated to remove it for reasons of necessity, security or identification, and they do.

Whether a classroom setting represents such a necessity could be mediated with the help of Muslim community leaders and the student in question. Instead, the school and Quebec politicians chose to turn this into an us-vs.-them fight.

Unfortunately the frenzy around this issue has taken on Islamophobic undertones.

The holier-than-thou slogans of “our values are better then theirs” being chanted by so-called pure Canadians has serious social consequences.

What law gives Canadian society the right to impose our biases, transfer our ignorance, and impose our fears on these women?

Furthermore the argument based on comparisons between certain Muslim countries and Canada is also a red herring.

Do we really want to model Canada on the standards of human rights in Egypt or Afghanistan?

We claim to be better than the Taliban because we do not tell women what to wear, yet we have no problem telling them what not to wear. What hypocrisy!

This outrage is not over a piece of cloth on my face or head; it is about what I believe and the lifestyle I have chosen.

It’s about my refusal to be exploited because of my physiology, my refusal to be forced into a frame that society imposes on me, and my courage to demand my rights as a Canadian.

Unfortunately it is socially acceptable to belittle Muslim women, and make political gains at their expense.

This is not something to celebrate. Au contraire— it’s time to mourn the Canada we may be losing.

Shahina Siddiqui is President/Executive Director of Islamic Social Services Association Inc. Canada. She lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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