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Sheema Khan on Muslims, the veil and fitting into Western societies Add to ...

For the past two weeks, the image of Islam's most iconic symbol, the black veil drawn across the face, has been plastered all over British television and newspapers.

But it gained new urgency Tuesday when Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair waded in, calling the veil a "mark of separation" that makes others feel uncomfortable, as Hamida Ghafour reports in her story in Wednesday's Globe U.K. targets the veil, and critics are asking why

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The debate is not limited to Britain, however.

Globe columnist Margaret Wente stirred up a hornet's nest last week in her column Let's raise the veil on veils when she wrote: "To me, the niqab - the face veil - is deeply alienating. Yes, I know some women wear it out of choice, and some say it gives them freedom. But to me, it's a powerful symbol of cultural separation and gender oppression. Am I wrong to feel so uneasy? Who should adapt - the veiled ones, or me?"

Both Blair and Wente touched off furious reaction. But little has been heard from Muslim women who choose to dress in accord with the Koran's advice to both men and women to dress "modestly."

So we at globeandmail.com are pleased that Globe columnist Sheema Khan is on-line with us now until 3 p.m. EDT to take your questions on the issue.

Join the Conversation or submit a question or comment . Your questions and her answers appear at the bottom of this page.

Ms. Khan writes a monthly column for the Comment Page of The Globe and Mail on issues pertaining to Muslims and Islam.

In her column today No veiled threat Ms. Khan writes: "The niqab has been in the news recently, often in the most unflattering terms. These new WMDs (women in Muslim dress) seem to evoke the same fear once reserved for real WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) . . . Few (critics) have taken the time to understand the issue from veiled women themselves.

"I respect women who wear the niqab. At Harvard, after much spiritual reflection, I donned the hijab (headscarf) and also tried the niqab - for all of one hour. I found it stifling and unnatural. Yet others don't. And their choice should be respected."

Some of the topics Ms. Khan has tackled recently include:

Why our actions abroad anger so many

We all have to confront contempt for 'the other'

Muslims must work twice as hard to counter extremism

Ms. Khan came to Montreal from India at the age of 3. She obtained a Masters degree in physics and a Ph.D. in chemical physics from Harvard.

She writes: "It was at Harvard that I embarked on a spiritual quest which led me to strenghthening my devotion to Islam. It was at Harvard that I began to wear the hijab (headscarf), after much research and reflection.

She returned to Canada to work in R&D for a pharmaceutical firm and is an inventor of a number of patented inventions in drug delivery. After that, she worked at a couple of law firms in intellectual property law. She is a certified patent agent, acting as a consultant with a law firm in Ottawa.

Ms. Khan also served as chair of the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN), a grassroots advocacy group from 2000-2005.

She is married, with three small children.

Editor's Note: globeandmail.com editors will read and allow or reject each question/comment. Comments/questions may be edited for length, clarity or relevance. HTML is not allowed. We will not publish questions/comments that include personal attacks on Globe journalists, the guests or participants in these discussions, or questions/comments that make false or unsubstantiated allegations, that purport to quote people or reports where the purported quote or fact cannot be easily verified, or questions/comments that include vulgar language or libellous statements. Preference will be given to readers who submit questions/comments using their full name and home town, rather than a pseudonym.

Jim Sheppard, Executive Editor, globeandmail.com: Good afternoon, Ms. Khan, and thank you very much for joining us today to discuss this fascinating and - now - controversial issue.

In your column in today's Globe, you wrote: "At Harvard, after much spiritual reflection, I donned the hijab (headscarf) and also tried the niqab - for all of one hour. I found it stifling and unnatural."

Our readers have a large number of questions for you about the niqab and how it is perceived in the West. Before we get to those, I'd like to ask you to talk a bit more about the spiritual reflection at Harvard that led you to don the hijab and to follow the path you now follow in Islam.

Sheema Khan: Thank you, Jim, for the opportunity to participate.

When I entered Harvard, I immersed myself in scientific inquiry. In particular, physics was my passion. However, with time, I realized that it failed to fulfil an inner spiritual need. Furthermore, the scientific community was quite hostile to belief in God. I never saw a contradiction between the two, and was happy to know that such a contradiction never existed in Islamic history.

Furthermore, the spiritual dearth in a rarified atmosphere such as Harvard was taking its toll on me. I wanted to know where I came from, what was my purpose in life, and what would happend to me when I died. I wondered if universal truths existed.

At the same time, the U.S. had bombed Lybia. I was appalled at the ignorance of so many Harvard students about basic facts of Islam and Muslims. So I became involved in the Harvard Islamic Society to increase their awareness of us. But in fact, it was my awareness that increased. I realized I knew so little about my faiith. I searched more and more in the Koran.

The more I read, the more I humbled I became, realizing that all that I had - my intellect, my health, my financial and professional success - were all at the mercy of a compassionate creator.

It was I who had to change - who wanted to change - in appreciation and in humility of God's favours.

The first step was to observe the five daily prayers, and to understand their meaning. The rest followed, including the choice to wear the hijab, which I believe is part of Islamic teachings of modesty.

The spiritual journey is still continuing, I am happy to say. And I am grateful to have lived in lands of peace (Canada and the U.S.) where such a journey can take place.

A.D., Toronto: Why does it matter so much what some people choose to wear? While I personally wouldn't wear a veil, I would be as offended by someone telling me I couldn't wear one as I would be if you forced me to wear one. I have heard some people say that the veil is like the bikini or miniskirt, but at the opposite end of the spectrum - worn to made a statement. But if society banned those forms of clothing, it wouldn't have the undertones of xenophobia that banning the hijab or niqab does. Shouldn't Western countries allow newcomers to integrate at their own pace and not force them to abandon any cultural or religious practices?

Sheema Khan: Thank you for your insightful comments. The question of integration is complex, and each country's policy varies. In Canada, our official policy of multiculturalism essentially allows newcomers to integrate at their own pace. Immigrants are allowed to retain cultural/religious practices, provided these do not contradict our Charter (an example of an exception is the cultural practice of female genital mutilation). This allows people to gradually adapt to the new society, which, I beleive, makes for a more deep-rooted citizenship. Personal identities are a continuum. We can't expect people to simply discard their cultural identities at the drop of a hat.

Kitty Kat, Edmonton: Dear Sheema, thanks for taking questions on this controversial and timely subject. Until quite recently, nuns in the Catholic religion were required to wear headscarves full-time, and Catholic women worshipping at church on Sundays were required to cover their heads as well. So I don't think the issue of women being required by a religion to cover their heads belongs just to Islam.

Here's my very basic question. Do we think God makes mistakes? Do we think God made women beautiful by mistake? Did God give women luxurious hair without thinking about the consequences? If we answer by saying that God is all-knowing and perfect, then I think we have to rethink why we are so arrogant to think we should be covering up one of his most perfect creations. God made us in God's image. Why should we cover ourselves up in shame? Or in modesty? Or in safety? No other creature on earth covers themselves up, not the gorgeous leopard nor the lowly brown mouse. Why should women?

If the answer is that men will be tempted, then perhaps men should cover their eyes and be secluded, because then they are far too driven by emotions to run the world. I would love to hear your comments. Regards, Catherine.

Sheema Khan: Thank you, Catherine, for your thoughts. Yes, we believe that God made women and men in the best of moulds. And, the All-Knowing Creator, in our belief system, has provided guidance for us as to how best to attain happiness. Modest behaviour is ascribed to both men and women, while God-consciousness is described as the best raiment in the Koran. The key is to treat each other with dignity and respect. Yes, our hair is beautiful, and forms part of our beauty. But I don't believe in sharing all aspects of this beauty with everyone. There is a wonderful hip-hop ballad called "I am not my hair," with the refrain "I am the soul within." I can relate to these lyrics.

Archie Halliwell, Halifax: The wearing of the niqab or the burka should be banned in Canada. I realize this infringes on religious freedom . . . [and]it may be politically correct to say that this is a country that embraces everyone. But there has to be a limit somewhere.

Sheema Khan: Thank you, Archie, for your forthright comments.

The question is: Who decides on the limits? In our constitional democracy, it is the courts. But aside from legal arguments, we, as Canadians, should always discuss what values are central to our identity. These may evolve over time. But by all means, let's arrive at a consensus in harmony with our values of tolerance and inclusiveness.

Michael Russo: I am proud that Canada is a multicultural country. Although I am an open-minded person, I find it hard to understand each diverse culture. I grew up in a Canada where it was hard to find a black person. Once we were used to seeing this type of Canadian more frequently, I became accustomed to them. I don't want to make it sound like I am referring to this race only, because I am not. I also am not naive enough to think Canada doesn't need more ethnic people. Diversity is what makes Canada so great. Unfortunately, world events make us look at ethnic Canadians in a different light, whoever they are and wherever they are from. I want to believe that everyone of our people are Canadians first and whatever their background is next. I want to understand why you would like people to think that you are still trying to segregate yourselves from the mainstream by not integrating yourselves more fully as a Canadian. This is exactly what makes people edgy. Please help me understand.

Sheema Khan: Thank you, Michael, for your insights. You mention a key point - namely, knowledge and familiarity of people.

In this day and age of "edginess," it becomes all the more important for us to reach out to each other, in order to understand and appreciate our common humanity.

Muslims are people like everyone else. We pay taxes, and complain about them. We raise our famiiles here. We work, go to school, etc. What does it mean to integrate more fully? Participation in society is pretty much an individual choice. Look at the Hassidic and Amish communities.

Finally, it would not be a stretch of the imagination to say that a veiled Muslim woman and her bearded husband - Monia Mazigh and Maher Arar - have strenghthened our Canadian democracy by courageously standing up against the excesses of our security agencies.

Michael Peters, Toronto: Per my understanding, the veil is not a tenant of the Muslim religion since the Koran merely states that men and women should dress modestly. Therefore, this is not a religious issue but a cultural one. Some civil libertarians have come out swinging on the side of those who chose to wear the veil under the guise of freedom of religion: This is a free society so you can wear whatever you want without consequence.

If this is the case, what if I, as a 31-year-old white agnostic male, would like to start wearing a veil in an effort to dress more modestly? Should I too, expect these same people to defend my right to veil myself? After all, isn't this country all about acceptance and non-discrimination? I should fully expect my employer and the rest of society to respect my choice, right? If this sounds ridiculous, explain to me why it would be acceptable for some members of our society to veil themselves while not being acceptable for others.

Sheema Khan: Hi, Michael. You raise some interesting points.

In theory, yes, your right as an agnostic male to veil yourself is enshrined in our Charter. You may face discrimination along the way [as many veiled Muslims do when going for job interviews] but you have the tools to fight it.

Our history is replete with examples of discrimination against various groups. When each group stood up for itself, it contributed to the evolution of social justice in this country, and entrenched itself into the Canadian mosaic. This is what is happening with Canadian Muslims and Arabs now.

Diane Schweik, Edmonton: I would like to ask Ms. Khan why Muslims demand tolerance from others when they themselves are so intolerant towards others? Mild criticism of her faith can be met with threats of harm and even death. Non-Muslims can find it difficult or impossible to practise their faith in Muslim countries. Acceptance and tolerance is a two-way street.

Sheema Khan: Diane, thank you for your observations.

First of all, I don't agree with your generalizations regarding Muslims as being intolerant. Historical facts, and current studies do not support that. Just yesterday, the British Home Office released a study showing Muslim high school students to be far more tolerant than their non-Muslim counterparts.

Nonetheless, there are a few Muslim countries that do curtail non-Muslim religious practice. These are the exception, rather than the norm.

David Pollack, Toronto: Considering all the controversy surrounding the veil in Europe, and the current wave of "integration and assimilation," do you feel that the veil is dividing the Canadian Muslim community into those who have integrated (i.e. do not wear the veil) and those who have not integrated (i.e. do wear the veil)? In addition, given the security and safety issues, how realistic is it to require ALL Canadians to fully show their faces for government documentation (passports, drivers licence, OHIP, etc.)

Sheema Khan: Thank you, David.

First, I don't think the veil is as divisive within the community as some would like to think. We all realize, that in the post 9/11 era, all Muslims - veiled or not - are under the microscope. If anything, there has been a coming together of sorts.

As to the second question, yes, I think all Canadians should be required to show their faces on identity cards.

George B., Lebanon: It is my understanding that the veil and the various forms of dress for Muslim women was a pre-Islamic practice in the Arabian Peninsula where it was mainly reserved for wealthy women as a symbol of social status. Since it was only wealthy women who could afford luxurious fabrics to fashion the veils with, the practice was not widespread until the emergence of the Islamic empire . . . and emphasized the notion of class separation. So my question is: Since Muslims believe in social equality amongst all people, why was the veil adopted as a prominent symbol for the religion. Thank you for your time.

Sheema Khan: "Marhaba," George.

The veil is also based on religious jurisprudence. Many Islamic scholars believe the veil is part of the belief system, based on their interpretations of the Koran and the authentic traditions of the Prophet Muhammad.

Marge Buckholtz, Kingston, Ont: I do think Muslims need to make more effort to fit into Canadian society, whether the issue is veils or not. I will give you one example: I used to talk to a Muslim woman who regularly passed my house with her child. I could see that she enjoyed the chance to practice her English. However, one day she passed the house with her husband and looked right past me, and never spoke again. I am sure that her husband had forbidden her to talk to me and probably other Canadians. What other group of new Canadians would take such an attitude?

Sheema Khan: Hi, Marge. It's too bad that the two of you never spoke again. I also wonder why you would assume that her silence was due to her husband. Perhaps she was having a bad day.

I'll give you a personal example. A few years ago, we were at the airport to see my husband off for his pilgrimmage to Mecca. I was tired, and lagged behind him in the airport. I immediately realized that people would assume that this was another example of a Muslim woman walking several paces behind her husband. So I quickly caught up.

Here are a few questions: Why take an attitude that assumes the worst about Muslims? Why generalize?

Black Adder, Toronto: Hello Ms. Khan. I enjoy your articles, although we do have some differences of opinion. As a global-village citizen, I feel there are so many bigger issues to get all in a knot about than this one.

As a Muslim, I have one point to make on this subject and a question for you. I don't agree with the niqab but do believe in the right of the woman to wear it, provided it is her choice.

For the Margaret Wentes and Tony Blairs of the world who find it offensive, I liken it to the same-sex marriage debate - nothing more than prejudice veiled as some grander religious or social concern.

Do you agree with this analogy? If so, then do you find it ironic that the conservative Muslims, the primary supporters of the niqab, wish to gain acceptance/to be left alone, yet are the very same group who are the most vocal about issues such as same-sex marriage and promoting women's rights? How can you have it both ways?

Sheema Khan: Great question! I have grappled with this question, along with many of my friends. The answer, I believe, lies in reciprocity. In particular, it lies in Section 15 of our Charter. This is the section that protects against discrimination. One cannot ask to be protected from discrimination, while denying that very right to other members of society. Also, Muslims are required to abide by the law of the land. In this case, the Charter.

Karin Pasnak, North Vancouver: Why would anyone care if a Muslim woman has a veil on? I just don't understand it at all. It sure does not take anything away from me if that is what they feel they have to do. Are we asking Jewish men to remove their scull caps? I actually think they look rather silly.

Sheema Khan: Thank you, Karin. Personal feelings aside, your comments go to the heart of our great multicultural project. Let's live together based on broad, inclusive principles. We may not necessarily agree with particular choices of religious apparel, but so long as they do not harm anyone, why ban them?

Kate L.: I am doing a research paper on "The Place of Women in the Islamic World." Any comments?

Sheema Khan: Hi, Kate. I would highly recommend the book "Gender, Women and Islam" by Harvard's Leila Ahmad. I may have the title wrong but it's similar at least.

Henry Allen, Toronto: Thank you, I very much appreciate this opportunity to speak openly. As I understand, there is nothing in the Koran specifying women must be veiled. So, the veil appears to be a cultural adaptation that arose from a belief that women must bear responsibility for men's sexual desires and, thus, women must cover up . . .

Frankly, I don't get it. Why would someone who must wear a veil immigrate to a country like Canada to live as an isolated, fully covered small island in a perceived sea of sinners? We have no intention of changing our culture to accept Islamic values about sexuality and personal responsibility.

Sheema Khan: Henry, thanks for your observations.

The topic of sexuality and personal responsiblity is quite deep, and deserves a proper hearing. Unfortunately that can't be accomplished in this forum. However, I would like to address your generalizations.

First of all, many would argue that there is a basis for the veil in the Koran and the authentic traditions of Prophet Muhammad.

Next, many women who do immigrate to Canada, actually take off their headscarves, veils etc, since they no longer feel the necessity of wearing it in a non-Muslim cultural environment.

In fact, it is primarily women who have been born and raised in Canada, who are choosing to cover in increasing numbers - based on their belief that this is an act of devotion to God. They see it as their responsibility to follow God's commands as best they can. Nothing more, nothing less.

Finally, there are a few who take that responsibility as including not tempting men. I don't agree with that. Men have their own personal responsibility to behave and act modestly.

Mary Marino, Saskatoon: Four decades ago, it was entirely common to see fully-veiled Roman Catholic nuns going about in the U.S. and in Canada. When I was an undergraduate, I had a Muslim friend from Pakistan who asked me about them in tones of shock and disapproval. He was as chilled by veils and wimples as Margaret Wente reports herself to be by the niqab.

I feel the same about multiple face-piercings, but I find the niqab a lot less-distressing than lip rings and tongue studs.

There is a paradox in this, though, and I would like to hear an explanation. The niqab and hijab make the wearer more conspicuous in North American public contexts, not less. How does this serve the cause of modesty? Women wearing the hijab are sometimes strikingly beautiful and, to me, their garb accentuates their beauty rather than hiding or detracting from it. It certainly rivets attention. Surely this is not the intent of either scripture or Muslim tradition?

Sheema Khan: Thanks for the interesting insights, Mary.

True, the hijab and niqab do stand out here. But the objective is to be as modest as possible in public. And, yes, some of us like to be fashionable in our modesty, by choosing scarves that match exquistely with the rest of our attire. I guess the key is to find the balance.

Jason Wright, Ottawa: Sheema, thanks for being strong enough to take questions on this topic.

I know that numerous Westerners are concerned with people who are different from themselves - the veil being but one difference.

But isn't the root of the problem a demographic one? All Western nations are in decline because of extraordinarily low birth rates. And because of this, we need large numbers of immigrants in order to provide skilled labour and taxes, which we need for our lucrative social programs and services. Should we not be thankful for people wearing veils in the sense that it shows us that these people are here to pay for our benefits and do much of the necessary work which has to be done?

Sheema Khan: Thank you, Jason, for raising the raison d'etre for immigration. It is primarily a tool to maintain the economic standards of so many European nations and Canada.

The European countries have treated immigrants as "guest workers" - either segregating them into banlieus, or expecting them not to stay for too long.

In Canada, our policy has shifted to the "points" system, whereby skills, education and financial entrepeneurship are sought. Nonetheless, we seriously need to think of immigrants as active participants in nation-building, and not just sources of labour to maintain our living standards.

Shawn B., Toronto: I must agree with Margaret Wente with regard to her views on the niqab and I would be hard-pressed to believe an argument to the contrary. The full veil is just that - a wall, a division, between the woman and the outside world. It states that she is someone's property, and they do not wish her to be displayed. Is it fair for a person to cover herself from our view and not expect some to think it is strange or alien?

Sheema Khan: Shawn, I agree with part of what you say, and disagree elsewhere.

First, please don't assume that a woman who wears the full veil sees herself as someone else's property. Many of the niqabis I know are quite assertive and have strong personalities. They view themselves as servants of God - not their husbands. Finally, it is understandable for people who are unaccostomed to the full veil to view it as strange. That's only human.

Avril Deloeuvre: Hello, Ms. Khan. Do Muslim women choose freely to wear the niqab or because their "choice" is severely constrained by family and community expectation? Does dressing decently equate becoming completely anonymous?

Sheema Khan: Hi, Avril. I don't have any hard data on this. It varies. But most of the women I have met, have freely adopted the niqab - in some cases against the wishes of their family. But I cannot deny that in some circles, external pressures from family may exist. Also, anonymity is not the issue. Rather, many niqabis believe that they are emulating the wives of Prophet Muhammad, who are regarded as the best examples.

Pradhan Prabhakara, Toronto: Why don't Muslim men also cover their face or hair just like women?

Sheema Khan: Thank you, Pradhan.

The injunction for modes attire is found in the primary sources of Islam - the Koran and the authentic traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. As far as I know [and my knowledge on this is limited] a man's modest dress should not accentuate his body. However, he is not required to cover his face or hair. However, in parts of the Arab world, you will see men covering their heads in public.

Jim Sheppard, Executive Editor, globeandmail.com: Ms. Khan, thank you again for taking the time this afternoon to discuss such an important topic from your unique perspective. Any last thoughts?

Sheema Khan: I would like to thank all of the readers who took the time to provide such insightful questions and comments.

We need to continue such dialogue, especially in times like these. We are all part of the human familiy. Let's not be afraid of one another. Let's get to know one another.

Jim Sheppard, Executive Editor, globeandmail.com: To our readers: And thank you for submitting almost 100 questions for Ms. Khan. That's a strong testimony to the public interest in this issue. We're sorry we could not get to all of them.

If I may add a personal note, I was also very impressed with the high quality of the questions you submitted on such a sensitive topic.

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