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April 29, 2010

Open discussion on Niqab

Liz Monteiro

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KITCHENER - Mark Cressman is of Mennonite background and he understands how dress can be part of one's faith and culture.

But looking at a Muslim woman with a veil covering her head and face — known as the niqab — makes him feel slightly uncomfortable. When a woman wears a niqab, only her eyes can be seen.

“We communicate by looking at someone’s face. We take all kinds of visual clues from the face,’’ said Cressman, who attended an open discussion at Kitchener City Hall Monday night on the niqab ban which the Quebec government is proposing with Bill 94.

The 65-year-old retired beef farmer decided to attend the session because he wanted to understand why Muslim women cover their faces.

“I came because I need to be educated. I can be really stubborn and a redneck,’’ Cressman said in an interview. “We are not going to overcome our prejudices if we can’t communicate.’’

In round-table discussion, Cressman told the people sitting at his table that his social norms involve speaking with people face-to-face and meeting women who cover their faces challenges his idea of social values.

More than 200 people attended the session — Let Us talk: An Open Discussion on the Niqab ban — organized by a grassroots group of concerned Muslim women. The group wanted to raise awareness in the community about the ban and bring people together to talk openly about how to support one another.

Under the proposed legislation, Muslim women living in Quebec who cover their faces will not be able to access government services such as consulting a doctor in a hospital or attending university classes.

The Jean Charest government has said that the bill was created for reasons of identification, security and communication.

The scarf covering the head is known as the hijab and is more common among Muslim women. The niqab is worn by a small number of Muslim women in Canada.

Panellist Jasmine Zine, a Wilfrid Laurier University professor of sociology and Muslim studies, said the Quebec bill is the beginning of a slippery slope in which Muslim women are being targeted because of their dress.

Zine said the Quebec policies being proposed are part of a “culture of fear” that is gaining legitimacy in Canadian society. She described the bill as draconian and anti-feminist.

Rania Lawendy said the bill violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and marginalizes Muslim women, suggesting they are less of a citizen if they choose to cover their faces.

Soha Elsayed, who recently finished a master’s degree in which she studied the Canadian Muslim sense of identity and belonging, said banning the niqab is a clear contradiction of what makes Canada a multicultural society.

“If we want to liberate women, we need to empower them,’’ said Elsayed, suggesting daycare spaces be increased rather than taken away from women who wear the veil.

Elsayed said as Canadians we need to liberate ourselves from the fear of the other and look beyond what the person is wearing.

Minnat-Allah Aboul-Ella, who wears the niqab, told the audience that she is insulted when people assume she is a victim who needs to be rescued from a fundamentalist husband.

“This is the best way to serve my creator,’’ she said. “This is my sense of Islam and my identity. I’m not a threat or an extremist.’’

Aboul-Ella said she has never refused to remove her face veil when asked for security reasons.

“War has been declared on us. I am demonized for practising my faith,’’ she told the group.

Pastor Rick Pryce of St. Philip’s Lutheran Church in Kitchener, said some Canadians are afraid and fear their Canada is changing. He referred to a man wanting his Canada back, meaning a country of white, Christian, Anglo-Saxon people.

“The biggest challenge is challenging assumptions of what it means to be Canadian. The majority doesn’t like its assumptions challenged,’’ Pryce said.

Reem Alfehid said it was her choice to wear the veil over her face.

“I am not oppressed,’’ said Alfehid, who came to Waterloo four years ago from Saudi Arabia. She started wearing the hijab when she was 14.

Her friend, Amal Zbiri said she, too, is offended when people assume she was forced to wear the hijab.

“Most Muslim women are educated. This is our way of pleasing God, not our husbands,’’ said Zbiri, who has a master’s degree in English literature from a university in France. She left her native country of Morocco in 1998 and settled in Waterloo five years ago.

The KW Record, April 27, 2010.

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