Niqab discrimination does not foster social cohesion

Op-eds Opinions

The niqab is a veil, worn by some Muslim women, that covers the whole body and provides a thin slit for the eyes. Many Muslim women state that they are not forced to wear a niqab by their fathers and brothers, and that covering up is an individual choice. Despite popular opinion, most Muslim women in Canada voluntarily wear the niqab.

Cultural tension between immigrants and the settled descendants of colonization is more and more noticeable in Canada. The American “War on Terror” has contributed to the stereotype of Muslims as extremists; however, to be clear, a Muslim is simply a follower of the religion of Islam. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Muslims have had to deal with the politicization of their faith. According to Mahmood Mamdani, serious attention has been diverted from identifying who are terrorists and who are simply civilians. Unfortunately, an inordinate level of attention has been placed on making value judgments about individual Muslims.

The primary argument against facial veils is that they conceal identities and oppress women. Non-Muslim Canadians who judge or pity women who choose to wear the niqab are misinformed about the role the veil plays in Muslim culture. Traditional Muslim teachings from the Quran (33:59 and 33:53) say that if the wives of the Prophet, as the best of feminine examples, were required to wear niqab, then that ruling falls on all women.

There are many reasons why contemporary Muslim women choose to wear niqabs. Muslim women boast that the veil keeps them cool in the sun, and that it frees them from hours of worrying about their hair and makeup. Although the veil can attract negative attention in the western world, some women counter that it in fact commands respect.

Muslim women who choose to cover up are often trying to observe their religious convictions; however, they can feel as though they are somehow imposing upon Canadian society, and that they are somehow a problem. This attitude isn’t conducive to integration or belonging in their new home. Making assumptions about Muslim women who wear the niqab does not foster social and cultural cohesion; it stifles healthy discussion and debate between Canadian immigrants and Canadians who have settled over generations.

The anti-niqab mentality has played out on a larger scale, impacting policy and decision-making at the provincial and federal levels. The 2007 banning of niqabs from Quebec polling stations, the Quebec Bill 94 (2010) requiring the public sector to remove face coverings, and the outright banning of any face covering while taking the Canadian citizenship oath in 2011, all targeted Muslim women who choose to wear the niqab. In effect, these bans refuse reasonable accommodation to women, based on specific religious beliefs, and consequently strip them of certain constitutional freedoms.

Muslim women who choose to cover up have historically been victims of racial profiling in Canada. When supported at the federal level, racial profiling contributes to immigration tension in Canada. By way of politically structured racism, visible minorities have often been treated unjustly in Canadian society. Government policies and programs that are based on processes such as racial profiling must be revised in the true Canadian spirit of freedom, equality, and reasonable accommodation.

Associate Professor of Law Reem Bahdi from the University of Windsor affirms that racial profiling takes the form of a vast and complex array of laws, regulations, policies, and practices that target specific minority groups, such as Muslims. Racial profiling cuts across sectors including criminal law, employment, intelligence services, and airport security. Racial profiling harms the minorities it targets and is also considered to be generally ineffective. Most Canadians do not recognize, for example, that based on the last available national census for Canada, approximately 62 per cent of Canadian Arabs are Christian, not Muslim.

The niqab is not worn with the intention of being threatening or frightening, even though it may appear intimidating to other Canadians. People often fear what they have no knowledge of; quite simply, the niqab is only a piece of clothing that should not warrant fearful reaction.