Maria Kari is a freelance writer and lawyer.
Two controversies in December – the removal of Chelsea Elementary School teacher Fatemeh Anvari from her classroom because her hijab ran afoul of Quebec’s secularism law, and the publication of a letter by pediatrician Dr. Sherif Emil in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) calling the hijab “an instrument of oppression” – have cast a spotlight on Canada’s reckoning with the hijab.
Dr. Emil’s letter came in response to an earlier CMAJ publication that featured an image of two young girls – one Black, the other wearing a hijab – reading a book together. This photo, he wrote, “shocked and infuriated many”; to back up his claim, Dr. Emil quoted a tweet by Vancouver-based, formerly Muslim activist Yasmine Mohammed in which she refers to the hijab as a practice “that is only happening in the most extremist of religious homes.” Dr. Emil also cited an anonymous surgical trainee who felt “horror at seeing the image [because it] triggered painful childhood memories of growing up in a fundamentalist Islamic society.”
Indeed, the author goes so far as to declare that little girls such as the one featured in the CMAJ report are “typically also banned from riding a bike, swimming or participating in other activities that characterize a healthy childhood.” He even claims that the mentality that allows for “institutionalized child rape” by the Taliban has much in common “with the one that leads to covering up a toddler.” And while Dr. Emil briefly acknowledges the “real” and “wrong” harassment and discrimination faced by hijabis – women who wear the garment – he ironically proceeds to subject veiled women to the same harassment and discrimination he condemns.
The CMAJ is a peer-reviewed general medical journal that aims to “champion knowledge that matters for the health of Canadians and the rest of the world.” But this letter, in its pages, also sends a clear message of unwelcome to Canada’s veiled health care providers and patients – and should serve as a wake-up call to all Canadians that ignoring the politics of veiling is a luxury we no longer have.
With hate crimes against Muslims on the rise here, and continuing attempts to legislate what Muslim women can wear, Muslim Canadians are finding themselves increasingly on the defensive. While Muslim men have long been likened to terrorists innately prone to violence, the stereotype that follows us Muslim women is that we lack control and agency over our lives. But donning the hijab is an intimate matter of choice for most Muslim women in the West – a marker of empowerment, and an assertion of identity. And while there are some communities and three countries around the world where the hijab has been mandated, making generalizations about the veil and all women who wear it is paternalistic and Islamophobic.
I, myself, choose not to veil. But my best friend, an Alberta-based physician, has worn the head scarf since she was a girl as young as the one pictured in the CMAJ, and I assure you that she bikes, swims and hikes – all while working at a medical clinic started by her mother, herself a hijabi physician. My sister-in-law was raised in a family where no one wore the hijab, and yet made the choice to start veiling shortly before starting her own journey in pediatric medicine. All of us consider ourselves practising Muslim women, doing our best to individually interpret and follow the modesty standards that the Quran asks of all Muslims, regardless of gender.
The letter has been assailed by the Muslim Advisory Council of Canada and the National Council of Canadian Muslims. Hijabi health care workers have taken to social media to share examples from their personal lives. One physician shared the story of her 11-year-old daughter, who has chosen to wear the hijab and loves to skateboard, ice skate, swim and ride a bike. Others have noted that by publishing a non-hijabi, male health care provider’s letter to speak to experiences that are only known to a female Muslim hijabi, the CMAJ has signalled to hijabi health care workers that they have no voice or choice in matters that affect their own lives. The irony is laughable.
The CMAJ has since issued an apology, but anger and frustration continue to spread on social media. I think this is good and necessary, because anger and frustration tell our system that something is wrong – that our equilibrium has been upset, that we are under attack and that action is necessary – and alert us to danger, which in turn helps us seek justice.
And if the recent debates around Quebec’s Bill 21, Ms. Anvari’s case and now Dr. Emil’s letter tell us anything about ourselves, it is that Islamophobia very much has breathing space in Canada. It cannot simply be wished or ignored away.
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