When I first started wearing a hijab about four years ago, I remember people asking me, "Aren't you afraid?"
But I told them I wasn't going to be intimidated. In fact, wearing a hijab in a brewing climate of global Islamophobia was my own protest of sorts. I wanted to show people (and prove to myself) I could do everything I dreamt of doing with or without a hijab. After all, why did it have to matter what a woman wore?
No, I wasn't a daredevil or asking for trouble. Truth is, I felt quite confident that discrimination would rarely be an issue in Canada.
Fast-forward four years; an entire federal election campaign is suddenly riding on one issue -- the niqab. I'm starting to realize how wrong I was about that whole discrimination thing.
At first, the issue began with a few individuals that the public largely agreed were racist and should be ignored. Soon after, Quebec's Charter of Values came up. Now, our Prime Minister is targeting niqab-wearing women in citizenship ceremonies and threatening to ban the garment for public servants. While I don't wear the niqab, I feel as a hijabi that every word Stephen Harper utters against it is targeted to me personally. Telling women what to wear is a slippery slope, it has always been. I know it's only a matter of time until Harper declares wearing a hijab a "barbaric cultural practice."
As Harper uses the niqab debate as a political weapon, and as we say the practice makes us uncomfortable and call it strange, let's not forget Harper's words and our own are hurting real women. The women behind those veils are someone's loved ones. They have feelings and emotions, and are no less human than we are. These women are educated, ambitious, hardworking individuals. But most of all, they are incredibly strong.
Women like Zunera Ishaq are braver than me, and I would argue most Canadians. Feminists in the truest sense, they have the strength to be unapologetically themselves. Like Ishaq, they're fighting for their right to choose how to live their lives, and it's not easy. They leave their homes every day knowing they will face stares, they will be taunted, and now, they may even be physically abused.
Harper has said niqab stems from an "anti-women" culture, a culture where women are told to stay at home and not pursue careers. Well, I know a few niqabi women myself, and I can attest to the fact that if these women are afraid to leave their homes it's not because of an abusive, controlling husband inside the house. It's because they're worried there are hateful people like Harper outside the house.
Women who wear the niqab choose to wear it because like my hijab it symbolizes something far greater than it is. A niqab isn't just a piece of cloth, it's a complex, emotional commitment to one's faith. It's something that is beloved to these women and is completely non-negotiable. Each woman that wears a niqab has a deep personal relationship with the garment; it represents integral aspects of their identity. And in this hate-ridden political atmosphere, to me, it represents unbelievable and honourable strength.
I can only hope that if my deeply personal choices were targeted with this much hostility I would be as strong as they are. While niqab-wearing Canadian women are becoming the centre of animosity in this country, their peaceful protests, their legal battles and unwavering determination to be accepted is both admirable and inspiring.
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