The great niqab debate

The great niqab debate

Over the last couple of weeks we have seen countless reports, articles, and political debates over a woman wearing a niqab to the Canadian citizenship ceremony. A young woman by the name of Zunera Ishaq challenged the government ban on preventing her from wearing the niqab to the citizenship ceremony. Prime Minister, Stephen Harper and the conservative government have made their voices clear on their stance of the niqab. Earlier this year Harper stated, “It is offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family.” However, what the Prime Minister fails to recognize is for many Muslim women part of their identity lies within the niqab. The conservative government and some others have chosen to use identity politics to allure the masses, by using scare tactics. This is a common political strategy that is used – to divide and conquer. The best way to allure the masses is to divide them, to create internal conflict within society. This is done by using fear tactics and propaganda to create a common enemy.

By focusing on this issue of the ‘niqab’, we lose site of the more important issues. I have read countless articles and responses by the public, so I am going to make an attempt at addressing each of the concerns for those who oppose the niqab during the ceremony.

Firstly, the very fact the niqab has become a central debate amongst the political parties is quite concerning. By focusing on the niqab we are losing focus on the more important issues such as economics, mental health, education and environmental issues. I have repeatedly read that wearing the niqab during the citizenship ceremony is a security risk. My question is how is wearing a niqab a security risk? Becoming a Canadian citizen is a lengthy process and countless security checks are done prior to the ceremony. In fact, prior entry into the ceremony an identity check would have also commenced. What I propose to those who are concerned of a security risk [if that really is the concern] perhaps is to increase government funding towards CSIS, border services and the police. After all it is CSIS, border services and the police that are hired to protect us from terrorism. With that said, I personally believe our intelligence is one of the best in the world, our border guards and police are extremely diligent. I have faith in the men and women who serve and protect our country.

However, if you are really concerned about security and protection then perhaps you should have our government invest more bodies and funding into mental health.

If my memory serves me correct in 2013, Canadian born, John Stewart Nuttall, 38, and Amanda Korody, 29 of Newton, BC Canada were apprehended in a bomb plot that targeted Victoria, BC on Canada Day. Police had stated the couple were recovering drug addicts, and were inspired by al-Qaida ideology. Then in 2014, was 32 year old Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, also Canadian born, who was known to have mental health issues and was a drug addict, shot and killed Corporal Nathan Cirillo, a Canadian solider on ceremonial duty. He later entered the parliament building, where active members of parliament were attending caucuses. Both cases involved Canadian born individuals who had issues with mental health, and addiction and turned to al-Qaida ideology because our system failed them. Often we will see the media, highlighting their conversion to Islam as the problem – but these people didn’t convert to Islam. They turned to al-Qaida propaganda that uses religion to lure in the vulnerable, no different than Western politics has during this election. We need to focus on our youth, the ones who have been lost in the system and are easily influenced by political Islamist groups and other groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, or more specifically address the gang problem within our country – whose aim is to exploit the vulnerable. Mental health is a vital issue that is being overlooked, and being lost to words such as religion, terrorism, and security. So those of you who are concerned with security, we need to concentrate our efforts on mental health, which is really affecting our citizens and our country.

The fact we have spent countless hours, days and weeks over a woman who has clearly passed the test of security, is already a lost battle. We have lost focus on what is important. Dividing citizens does not make Canada or any other country safer, it does the exact opposite. PM Harper uses the words “Canadian values,” these values are not summed up by what one wears to the citizenship ceremony. These values are reflected in how we are able to accept others for who they are, because with acceptance comes gratitude and with gratitude comes the want to make Canada [home] a better place.

I have also read countless arguments the ‘niqab’ is not a religious symbol, and it is a repressive instrument for women. This stands correct; the niqab was introduced as a requirement for many women in the Middle East by law not religion. In fact, I think it was in the 1980’s during the Khomeini regime when it was implemented [This is another debate all together]. However, let’s say for arguments sake that is the truth. Does this really change anything? The same women who were forced to wear a niqab for the last 33 years, we are now forcing them out of one? Many young women only know how to live within the confines of their niqab when in public, and to strip them of it is no different than those who enforced it upon them in the first place.

I will share a couple of stories that I hope will offer some insight, if not expand your knowledge or at least give you some perspective.

I moved to London, England about two years ago from Vancouver, Canada. When I moved here I was psyched and excited to meet new people and of course I was in London! Well, I moved to East London, and I will tell you within my first few weeks I was surprised and shocked. I thought Canada was multicultural, but let me tell you London is the essence of multiculturalism. I met people from different places – places that I didn’t even know existed. In East London, there was also a very large Muslim population. It was here when I for the first time saw women wearing the niqab [in person], and not just the odd woman here and there but everywhere. I mean to the point where I would see them walking in groups, going to the grocery store, on the bus and at school etc. However, I didn’t realize my own bias until I had an older women come up to me on the bus and tell me not to be scared of them. I was heading to meet some friends, and I jumped on the bus wearing a long skirt and a crop top in the summer. When I got on the bus, I realized it was filled with a group of Muslim women who were all wearing a niqab or a hijab. I carefully waddled towards the back of the bus, feeling extremely uncomfortable in my crop top. I went to reach for my sweater and I couldn’t wrap it around me fast enough. Then, I hesitantly sat down next to this woman [wearing a niqab] and as soon as I did her cell phone went off ringing ‘Allah Akbar.’ I automatically jumped up and took that as a sign that I shouldn’t sit beside her. The fear and discomfort on my face must have been so plain to see, and that is when this older woman [wearing a niqab] tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘please sit, don’t be afraid.’ I quickly mumbled thank-you, but that I was getting off at the next stop. I was so embarrassed and actually ashamed of the way I behaved and more so on how I had thought. I questioned where my fear came from, and realized it was me not them. I felt I was being judged by them, they were completely covered, and I was there with my crop top and skirt. However, I soon realized they weren’t the ones judging me – I was judging myself.

Later that month I had started university, and I met a young Muslim woman who wore a hijab. [To clarify, I know there is a difference between wearing a niqab and a hijab, but even the hijab for me was still relatively a newer experience.] To be honest when I first met her I was careful in what I said around her, because I didn’t want to offend her. I even curtailed my stories to be more feminine and I spoke a little softer around her, but I never did that with my Muslim friends who did not wear a niqab or hijab. However, after getting to know this young woman, I realized she was the complete opposite of what I thought. She loved sports, she loved politics and she was far from shy and most certainly did not require any ‘saving.’ I started asking myself why I initially changed my behavior around her. The only conclusion I could come up with was that my perception of a Muslim woman wearing a hijab or niqab equated to vulnerability and repression. Over the years I have come to the understanding, our perception and our knowledge is based on what our experiences have limited us to. Our knowledge of life comes from the dominant discourse in our everyday life, through personal and shared experiences, education and politics. We all have biases, that we may not even be aware of, but it up to us to self-reflect and understand where they stem from.

Our leaders and educators control our knowledge narrative through the daily discourse. Thus, it is absolutely imperative how our leaders deliver their messages to the public. By banning the niqab at a citizenship ceremony with religious propaganda is destroying the very fabric of community. Using religion to separate the cohesiveness of a community ceases unification. They say there is strength in numbers, and that holds true. However, if Canadians divide themselves then we become weak as a whole. We can collectively fight against terrorism better together, than as a divided nation.

So then the only question left to ask yourself is, what is the real reason behind this debate?

Sunny Mangat

Twitter @mangat_sunny

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