Once again, the niqab looms large over an Ontario
court as a symbol of Islamist oppression of Muslim women.
Cultural theory suggests symbols and artifacts, such as the
face-covering niqab, reveal the deeper sentiments
underlying a culture. These include the values we hold dear.
They also include the norms and assumptions that drive our
behaviour. The niqab to many symbolizes deep-rooted
sexism, patriarchal control and inveterate misogyny. By far,
it remains the most pernicious symbol of female subjugation,
as many believe the niqab greatly stigmatizes and
marginalizes women in society.
That perception is hardly
mistaken. Despite pronouncements by niqab-clad
women to the contrary, the niqab is just that – a
means of control over women’s bodies, movements and
The Ontario Court of Appeal is
debating a test case of a Muslim sexual-assault complainant
who insists on remaining both invisible and anonymous, yet
needs to testify in court. Interestingly, the woman enjoys
support from a motley group of activists. As expected, they
are citing her right to religious freedom.
Although the Women’s Legal
Education and Action Fund (LEAF) cautions against using this
case to set a precedent, the feminist group wants the court
to accommodate the woman’s request. If the court does,
Islamists will most certainly invoke this as a precedent to
further their fundamentalist agenda.
Islam does not require a woman
to cover her face – that the niqab must be worn is
a minority view held by a segment of the community whose
values remain diametrically opposed to Canadian values. The
niqab for these groups is more of a political tool
to enable Islamism, for its artifacts to define Muslim
identity in Canada. Even Islamists know the religion does
not mandate the niqab. Why then the fuss?
I recently sought an Islamist
woman’s opinion on Quebec Bill 94. She responded that, while
religious fatwa (religious verdict) did not
necessitate the niqab, religious taqwa
(the desire to excel in faith) demanded she don the face
covering. With this in mind, she would abide by any laws
requiring her to relinquish some of her religious freedoms,
but that such laws would interfere with her desire to excel
in piety and religious observance.
According to this woman,
therefore, the niqab is clearly a mere religious
preference rather than a requirement. It is obvious the
niqab inspires loyalty among fundamentalists, not
because it is a religious imperative, but because it
advances a political agenda. Why, then, is the law bending
over backward to accommodate a mere religious preference
that has the serious potential of becoming a norm? Why is
the law even considering accommodating a symbol of women’s
subservience? Why is the law so tolerant of Islamism?
For groups who fear forced
sequestration of women as a result of state legislation,
suffice it to say they are assuming the worst. Their
conclusion is based on the flawed assumption that niqabi
women will invariably refuse adherence to the legislation.
Even the woman known as N.S. has agreed to testify without
her veil if she loses. She must be encouraged to overcome
her discomfort in facing her alleged attackers. She cannot
live her entire life hiding behind her niqab. More
importantly, public institutions must not enable Islamism
and its symbols.
Ideologies preached aggressively
often result in larger followings. It is only a question of
time. A society that permits the marginalization of women is
indeed a dysfunctional society. The proliferation of the
niqab, and all it stands for, spell serious
repercussions for Canadian society and its values built on
Canada’s courts must set
precedents discouraging this trend rather than accommodating
it to satisfy the most retrogressive segments of Canadian
Farzana Hassan is author of
Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today and past
president of the Muslim Canadian Congress.