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Respect Women? Say No to the Niqab

I firmly believe that legislation protecting the rights of women who are forced into wearing the niqab is not only desirable but essential. The influence of radicalism grows stronger by the day. These women are not only denied a face, but also a name and an identity.

The following excerpt is from Farzana Hassan's book "Unveiled: A Canadian Muslim woman's struggle against Misogyny, Sharia and Jihad" (available here). It is taken from the chapter "The Burka Debate"

The Supreme court of Canada ruled on Thursday, December 20 that the niqab would not be permissible in courts of law in the majority of cases. The excerpt below explores some of the issues associated with the niqab and face veils in Canada, and explains why the practice of veiling must be discouraged in a free and democratic country like Canada.

I firmly believe that legislation protecting the rights of women who are forced into wearing the niqab is not only desirable but essential. The influence of radicalism grows stronger by the day. As more Muslims become radicalized, the expectation to wear the burka proliferates. This is so because burka advocates are stubbornly doctrinaire and their ultimate goal is to spread this practice among all Muslims by scaring them with hellfire theology. That is why I see an increasing number of burka-clad women in my neighbourhood mall. These swaddled women are barely able to contribute positively to society. They cannot easily become nurses or doctors, bus drivers or electricians. Indeed the impracticality of the burka marginalizes its wearers, and a society that allows such marginalization risks being perceived as dysfunctional. It seems burka advocates are concerned only about the rights of women to "choose" to wear a niqab or burka. The truth is that there are several other rights, of much greater importance, such as the right to choose what career to adopt and whom to marry, that these retrogressive advocates deliberately ignore.

In Canada we must not allow the situation to get to the point Britain has reached on this issue. Because the burka has become so common in Britain, the government is reluctant to pass legislation against it. A similar scenario must be avoided in Canada and the United States, where the observance of the burka thankfully is not yet so widespread. Here the burka is still uncommon enough that courts can still debate whether to allow the testimony of veiled women. The Ontario Court of Appeal debated a test case of a Muslim sexual assault complainant in 2010, who insisted on remaining both invisible and anonymous, yet needed to testify in court. As expected, the woman's stance was supported by feminists, liberal activists and Muslim fundamentalists, all of whom cited her right to religious freedom. The Women's Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) was one such feminist group. Although it cautioned against using this case to set a precedent, the group made it clear that it wanted the court to accommodate the woman's request. I feared that would set the wrong precedent as Islamists would most certainly invoke it to advance their fundamentalist agenda.

This happened around the same time that Quebec also passed Bill 94, which would deny public services to women in veils. I 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) required that 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 insisted that such laws would interfere with her desire to excel in piety and religious observance. According to this woman, therefore, the niqab was clearly a religious preference rather than a requirement.

In April 2011 I was invited by the University of British Columbia to deliver their annual multiculturalism lecture, where I argued that the burka represented one extreme while nudity represented another. Both should be proscribed. Section 174 of the Criminal Code of Canada prohibits nudity in public places. People who wish to walk around nude in public places, including public offices, hospitals and schools, could object to such laws by citing the individual freedoms argument that burka adherents generally cite. They could very well state that their individual freedom to appear naked in public was curtailed. But were their rights absolute? Here we have two extreme situations. One of them entails a complete absence of clothing, while the other hides someone totally from view. If prohibiting the one extreme can be deemed constitutional in the interest of public welfare, then surely its opposite can also be, especially when it has the added disqualification of being a tool in the hands of criminals and terrorists.

At the lecture I delivered at the University of British Columbia, a member of the audience expressed concern that Muslim women would simply withdraw from society if they were forced to remove their veils in public. I responded that such a fear is too pessimistic. Such a conclusion is based on the flawed assumption that niqabi women will refuse to adhere to the law. Even the sexual assault complainant, known as N.S., has agreed to testify without her veil if she loses.

The issue of the burka ban in public would have to be assessed as a matter of common good rather than as a matter concerning the individual rights of a few women, some of whom I knew would be coerced into wearing such attire. I met a few university students at UBC who divulged to me that they were indeed being coerced. Moreover, religious freedoms could not be taken as an absolute.

Restricting certain individual rights to advance the common good is not anti-democratic. People often assert that the right to choose what to wear is a democratic right. Indeed it can be. However, democracy must not be confused with anarchy. Democratic societies must still regulate social interaction in public, and practices deemed detrimental to society must be subject to regulation. Canada has already done so in the case of public nudity. It must do so in the case of the burka as well, which constitutes the other extreme.

Based on the above arguments, I was able to convince many that a burka ban could easily be deemed constitutional. Huffington Post Canada asked me to engage in a public debate with Farah Mawani, a local activist, on who could change the most minds about the burka ban issue. I offered a discourse in the Huffington Post based on the above rationale and won the Huffington Post debate.

The argument from multiculturalism also needs to be addressed, as there are many who defend the burka from this perspective. They assert that different cultures have to be accepted on their own terms. If a culture considers the burka or hijab appropriate or even beneficial (and some Muslim women certainly regard it as beneficial) then this viewpoint must be accepted. Dr. Kathy Bullock, an Australian convert to Islam and an active member of the fundamentalist Islamic Society of North America (ISNA-Canada) devotes pages and pages of her book Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil to proving just how wrong the West is in its perception of the veil as an oppressive garment. Because Muslim fundamentalism celebrates the burka and the resultant seclusion of women, an elaborate rationale exists to justify these practices. From this angle Kathy Bullock writes: "I argue that because of capitalism's emphasis on the body and materiality, wearing the hijab can be an empowering and liberating experience for women." Canadian journalist Naheed Mustafa also writes: "Wearing the hijab has given me freedom from constant attention to my physical self."

In my opinion, such discourse amounts to justifying the unjustifiable. Minorities within the diverse cultures of Canada that rationalize the subjugation of women in this fashion are not equal to cultures that don't. To assert this is not to discredit multiculturalism, which, correctly observed, is a noble concept. However, we must never tolerate the abuse of multiculturalism, and the type of political correctness that turns a blind eye to misogyny is just that sort of abuse.

Women who wear the face veil are in fact denied a face, a name and an identity. As a result of political correctness and narratives advanced by ultra-orthodox Muslims, many young Muslim women have been led to believe that in order to be respected they must assume the anonymity of the niqab or hijab. Such women include Cair-Can's Maryam Dadabhoy, whom I have debated on television. This sentiment is unfortunate. Muslim women must be respected simply because it is their human right to be respected -- for who they are. What the conservatives fail to realize is that the minute they have decided to wear the niqab, they have acknowledged that they are not people but sex objects who need to be hidden from public gaze or else they will most certainly end up tempting men. They have allowed men to define them. Part of this sanctimonious narrative is the preposterous suggestion that the burka does not marginalize women, and that women who wear it can engage fully in everyday life. Yet I have observed the difficulty with which burka-clad women eat in pubic, lifting their veil with one hand while trying to eat with the other. This is all quite unnecessary, as Islam does not even prescribe the face veil.

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