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The Veil Has No Place in a Democratic Society

12/12/2011 03:07 EST | Updated 02/11/2012 05:12 EST
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Immigration Minister Jason Kenney made the courageous announcement today that henceforth, new female Canadians will be forbidden to veil their faces when taking the oath of citizenship. His reasoning was two-fold: the first out of concerns over fraud; the second (and to my mind more important) out of respect for the democratic freedoms these women will now enjoy as Canadians.

As Kenney said:

"Starting today, any individual will have to show his or her face when taking the oath of citizenship. Recently I received complaints from members of the Parliament, citizenship judges and even participants in citizenship ceremonies to the effect that it is difficult to ensure that the individuals whose faces are covered are really taking the oath.... But this is not a simple or technical measure, far from it, this is really a matter of pure principle which is at the very heart of our identity and our values with respect to openness and equality.... The oath of citizenship is basically a public gesture, a public declaration that shows that you are joining the Canadian family and this has to be done freely and openly, not secretly. Isolating and separating a group of Canadians or allowing that group to hide their faces while they are becoming members of our community is completely counter to Canada's commitment to openness and social cohesion."

Four years ago, I wore a full Saudi burka for a week as I went about my daily life in Washington, D.C. (where I live). As a Western woman and journalist, I was curious about what this would be like -- not least because the sight of fully veiled women has become increasingly common in democratic societies.

I wore it grocery shopping and to spin class; I figured out how to drive in it. I wore it during rush hour on the Metro, and even through security at Reagan National Airport. I reported the results in a series for the Huffington Post called "Islamic Like Me." Interested readers can find it easily in my Huffpost archive here.

The upshot of this experiment confirmed what I'd suspected at the outset: Far from being merely a "cultural" or "religious garment" -- as benign, say, as a headscarf (hijab) or a yalmuke (both which do not constrain the wearer in any way, or cut him or her off from interacting with others), it proved to be a portable prison. As I wrote then, "Wearing the burka day in, day out reduced me to feeling like a 'social paraplegic,' in which I couldn't convey to others even a simple smile of thanks." So difficult and messy was it to eat in public, I simply gave up and waited until I got home. Indeed, I gradually realized that was the point of the burka: Going out in the world wrapped in head-to-toe sheets became such a hassle, it was better not to do so unless strictly necessary (i.e. Stay in the house).

Moreover, the Koran does not insist upon full cover-up for women. This is purely an interpretation by Islamic extremists; non-extreme North American and European Muslim leaders will tell you that if you wish to be observant, little more is required of a woman than modest clothes and a headscarf.

But whether or not veiling is a political or cultural statement, we in the West have to ask: Is this a statement that is tolerable in a free and equal society? Does our deference to minority cultures require us to acquiesce in the subjugation and intimidation of women?

That's what is so impressive about Kenney's stance. He is saying, unequivocally, "No." Accepting veiling implies acceptance of a larger ideology of female subordination. And that ideology too is one that is increasingly finding a receptive audience in our own society. In the free and equal societies of North America and Europe, we are hearing of more and more cases of forced marriage, confinement of women to their homes, honour killings and female genital mutilation.

Like most women, I am appalled by these trends. And now the Canadian Supreme Court will hear a case as to whether a woman may wear a niqab (face-covering) when she testifies in court. Huffpost contributor Mubin Shaikh asserts the woman should be able to do this, especially as the case in question concerns sexual abuse:

It just so happens I know this woman personally I will say nothing else because of the publication ban that prevents identifying her in any way. I can reiterate the allegations: that the woman alleges she was sexually assaulted when still very young. After years of torment, she finally decided to bring the matter before the courts.

It is a full and complete travesty that this case has been made out to be about the face covering and not about the sexual abuse this woman alleges she suffered. It is a travesty because this woman has come out against all odds, against the threat of being "shamed" by her community, against the monumental pressures of having to testify against these alleged attackers, and we have fixated on the dress of the woman making the complaint.

In this case I disagree with Mubin. The identities of sexual assault victims are legally protected, and they are habitually shielded during their testimony. That is not really the issue here. I would reply that if the woman insists upon wearing a niqab in a democratic court, maybe her case should instead be tried under Shariah law--in which case her testimony will only be given half the weight of a man's. And she'd run the risk of having the assault case thrown out altogether if it turns out her attackers are related to her, and thus have proprietary "ownership" of her (as in cases involving a husband and a wife).

Tolerance of other cultures and religions is one of the founding pillars of a democratic society. Certainly I found the tolerance with which I was greeted all week in my burka to some degree heartening: Whatever thoughts, opinions, surprise, fear, or anger my appearance provoked in others, was, with rare exception, suppressed; everywhere I went most people went out of their way to be polite -- when they weren't utterly indifferent to how I looked.

Yet tolerance in a free society should not extend to accepting (or ignoring) practices that violate our laws and our norms. Honour killings; female genital mutilation; female illiteracy; women forced to hide their faces in public; women forbidden to leave the house without the company of a man: these are phenomenon which we, in the West, imagine happen in other places, to women far away in the Middle East or living among distant Muslim tribes.

But we are out of touch with what is happening in democratic societies -- until it is shockingly brought to our attention, as in the horrific ongoing "honour killing" trial, in which a father is accused of murdering his three daughters and ex-wife.

The only societies in which women are forced to wear a burka are those with heinous records of female oppression. And it is only worn voluntarily by women who subscribe to an extreme, and highly controversial, interpretation of Islam -- one at war with a democratic understanding of human rights. There are many ways to observe hijab without turning yourself into a walking cocoon.

Bravo to Minister Kenney for recognizing that, and showing the right sort of "intolerance" towards anti-democratic, anti-women customs.