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 activities.
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 gender equality.
Canada's courts must set precedents discouraging this trend rather than accommodating it to satisfy the most retrogressive segments of Canadian Muslim society.
Farzana Hassan is author of Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today and past president of the Muslim Canadian Congress.
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