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Sheema Khan

Beyond the veil in the courtroom Add to ...

Recently, the world learned of a shocking incident of " niqab rage" in France. A 63-year-old retired teacher, Jeanne Ruby, told Shaika al-Suwaidi to remove her veil in a store outside Paris. When Ms. al-Suwaidi, who was shopping with her two young children, refused, Ms. Ruby chased her through the store, ripped off her veil and scratched and slapped her. She then proclaimed, "Now I can see your face," and, according to Ms. al-Suwaidi, bit her hand. Ms. Ruby told police she "snapped," because "for me, wearing the veil is an act of aggression. I felt attacked as a woman." She told the newspaper Le Parisien, without a hint of irony: "I find it unacceptable that someone should be wearing a niqab in this country of human rights."

While Ms. Ruby may be a heroine to many in the land of liberté, égalité, fraternité and beyond, her actions mirror those of extremists who throw acid into the faces of women who refuse to wear the niqab.

No one is calling for the veils to be ripped away in Canada, but there've been renewed calls for their banishment in the wake of last week's decision by the Ontario Court of Appeal regarding niqabs in the courtroom. In this case, a Muslim complainant alleged that she had been sexually abused between the ages of 6 and 11 by a relative and another man. At 16, she revealed her terrible secret to a high-school teacher. Since then, she mustered up the courage to bring forth charges in a court of law. She started to wear a niqab five years ago.

And now, in 2010, we have a sexual assault case in which the alleged victim is pilloried for her choice of dress. While there are legitimate questions about witness credibility and the niqab (masterfully addressed by the Court of Appeal), the complainant has been attacked for undermining liberal democracy; for being brainwashed; for unwittingly advancing the march of political Islam; and for negating womanhood.

We admire the courage of Theo Fleury, Sheldon Kennedy and Nathalie Simard for refusing to play the victim any longer. And we know that, for every high-profile case of sexual abuse of minors, there are others who suffer in silence, too ashamed, perhaps too broken, to pursue this path. And that's why we extend our moral support to these brave souls. Yet, apparently not if the alleged victim wears a niqab.

True, many Canadians feel extreme discomfort with the niqab, as it often evokes negative images of the treatment of women in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Many assume that women are forced to wear it in Canada, and are often incredulous when informed otherwise. Others see no need to balance values of the Charter of Rights - a position at odds with the Supreme Court of Canada. And many are ready to deny basic rights of a liberal democratic society, such as access to health care and education, to niqabis (see Quebec's proposed Bill 94). How far are we willing to go?

To those who believe the niqab is a tool of oppression, isn't "freedom of choice" the answer to oppression? Outspoken Afghan critic Malalai Joya dislikes the burka, but she fights for the rights of women to make personal choices. "It is against the very basic element of democracy to restrict a human being from wearing the clothes of his/her choice."

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