How many of you know a Niqabi woman? Did you know that is what a woman who wears a niqab might call herself? I didn’t.
How many of you have spoken to a Niqabi woman? I haven’t.
Not because I don’t want to, but because the opportunity has not presented itself. Interesting, right? Especially given the work I do… It reminds me how insular we really are as we move through the world. It’s easy to stick to people who are “like us” (or at least, who we perceive to be like us).
Last Monday my colleague Raja Khouri hosted a panel discussion and conversation called The Niqab in Canada – Now What? I attended because I wanted to learn, and I was not disappointed. There were 5 people on the panel:
Aima Warriach – a student, graphic designer, writer, and a Niqabi woman
Faisal Bhabha, Associate Professor, Osgoode Hall Law School
Dr Pamela Divinsky, Executive Director, Mosaic Institute
Huda Bukhari, Executive Director, Arab Community Centre of Toronto
Alia Hogben, Executive Director, Canadian Council of Muslim Women
When I arrived, Ms Warriach was speaking. She is young, very feisty and outspoken. She is not afraid to swear. And she made it clear that wearing the niqab is her choice; that she was not oppressed, and that in fact her father was not present in the home. She was also very clear in reminding us that she speaks from her own experience, not for all niqabi women. All of this was important to hear, given the intense emotions that have followed the niqab here in Canada – some of it, I’m sure, by xenophobic design.
Over the course of the 2 hours, we heard about human rights, we were challenged to examine our ideas and judgments about women’s clothing in general, and to explore the perceptions of the niqab, rather than focus on the wearer of it.
Here are a few highlights that I was able to write down. Sadly I wasn’t consistent in writing down who said it. I leave these with you as opportunities to explore further, and to see more:
- Dr Divinsky spoke about clothing is a language. We were challenged to consider the unspoken rules and how we make choices about what to wear every day. We were asked to consider the niqab as closely related to a person’s bodily integrity – and in this case, to consider how that changes the ease with which we demand it be removed.
- Mr Bhabha wondered out loud if Canadian law can tolerate the niqab as a form of bodily expression?
- We were challenged to see the niqab as closely related to a person’s bodily integrity and to consider how, in that context, asking them to remove it becomes more difficult.
- It was suggested that the niqab is a symbol of the perceived threat of xenophobia, and that it is the reactions of those of us who see niqabi women, and our perceptions of the niqab (from the outside) that is the cause of the racism experienced – not the wearer of it.
- We were challenged to consider that we are making the niqab mean things that it doesn’t, and that in doing so it deflects our attention from deeper issues (like racism, xenophobia, sexism, policing of women’s clothing and choices) etc.
- We were told how much courage it takes to wear a niqab in public here in Canada; of the harassment and exclusion endured (on the street, when applying for jobs, and when accessing services, etc.). Ms Bukhari shared how infrequently (almost never) she sees niqabi women in the Arab Community Centre of Toronto.
- On that note, Ms Hogben shared some of her experiences during the study that the Canadian Council of Muslim Women conducted with niqabi women, including that new immigrant niqabi women were not willing to speak with her. The two biggest reasons for wearing the niqab according to this study, are religious beliefs (44%) and Muslim identity (33.9%) – being forced to wear it was not a reason given by survey participants. And when asked about instances where their face might be uncovered, up to 76% of survey participants responded that it was sometimes appropriate. You can find an executive summary/infographic of Women in Niqab Speak: a study of the niqab in Canada here, and the complete document here.
- There were some thought-provoking questions about integration and who does it (and why), and two challenges – to figure out how we judge, and to consider new words to talk about how we live together successfully.
There was time for questions and comments from the audience, and there was a range of these: from supportive and feeling open to sharing how not seeing someone’s face feels like a barrier to communication and connection. One woman I spoke to on the way out was incensed – as a Muslim woman – by Ms Warriach’s swearing, and would have liked to hear from a niqabi woman who was older about her experience wearing the niqab.
And that’s a good point to end on, because there is a diversity of experience, and therefore so many perspectives. Making room to hear more of them is important so we remember that issues have more nuances than just two “sides”.