I have been getting myself in some hot water this week.
It is Islamic awareness week at Carleton University and I thought it might be a good time to discover if there was ‘official’ Islamic rationale for the niquab / burqua. The students working on the promotion of Islamic Awareness week wore nice blue t-shirts, and 98% of the women wore hijabs and some the niquab / burqua. I found the way women dressed problematic as it visually states that those who cover themselves are the good Muslim girls who can promote positive awareness while the latter are lesser adherents.
I also took the Islamic Awareness week quiz for which I yielded perfect marks. This surprised the folks who asked the questions. After talking with me, they were also surprised that I was one of the people who supported the construction of the special washrooms, the creation of an MSA prayer room and promoted Ramadam dinners at Carleton years ago.
My questions were as follows:
a) Is there an official statement in the Koran about the niquab / burqua?
One young woman responded that no there was not, but modesty was stated as a reason, and that women and girls should cover their heads, and only have their hands and feet showing.
On a separate day, another young woman stated that the women wearing niquab / burqua were better Muslims. I followed up with asking if that made her a less good Muslim because she only dressed modestly and only wore a hijab. She responded that she listened to gods words.
b) I asked if God believed in the health and well being of women adherents of Islam?
I received positive responses.
c) I explained my rationale of the problems with niquab / burka. I have some other views that would be considered irrational based on my belief that I kept to myself.
i. That vitamin D is essential, and it is hard to get enough exposure to the sun in the winter in Canada, and the niquab / burqua made it very difficult to get enough of that vitamin.
ii. The summer is very hot, and women in the summer could suffer from heat exhaustion / stroke. The result is many women are not physically exerting themselves resulting in a lack of fitness.
iii. Some forms obstruct vision therefore causing poor eyesight over long term.
iv. Restricted mobility of the garment, would prevent a woman from fleeing if she were in danger as she would not be able to run without tripping.
v. Dangerous to drive wearing such a garment, especially if one cannot turn ones head effectively, vision and motion is impaired or the garment can get stuck in the pedals etc.
vi. The garment is highly flammable.
vii. Limits ability to be physically fit, especially since riding a bicycle would not be possible nor would any other running sport. (even if there is some accommodation for women in some gyms).
d) Then I asked if it was God’s intention to put women in danger of not being able to escape and assailant, to cause them danger when they drive and at risk of poor health?
The response was ‘of course not’ and it was her choice and god’s will for her to wear this garment.
e) I then stated that some men felt that they were being sexually discriminated against. In the sense that if a man is serving a woman at a public counter, women who are strict adherents, will not look at him, and will not allow him to take her picture or serve her. They feel worse when they are told that they cannot allow a man to serve them. The men feel like lesser citizens and even worse, in some cases, feel like they are classified as perverts.
The response was the we are all entitled to each our point of view and beliefs.
f) Then I asked if religion was more important a right then women’s rights.
The response was indirect, that we all have the rights to our own beliefs.
g) I asked why men do not have to adhere to this code of modesty.
The response was that it was only women and men had different things to adhere to.
h) I followed up again with the health issues, and asked if it was fair for a woman to suffer more than a man in the dead heat of summer when he is wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt and she is completely covered?
I was told that it was god’s will.
i) I asked about the separation of church and state. And wondered where the boundary lies? Who would have to pay for this accommodation?
I was told that all views had to be accommodated.
At this point I discussed the Quebec debate on reasonable accommodation (enlish def. / french def.), the Bouchard Taylor Commission, the Election’s Canada debates, the Election’s in Quebec debates, the Muslim Canadian Congress statement that there was no basis for this form of dress, and none of the people I talked to knew about those. I also discussed the recent fatwa against terrorism, and I was also surprised that they did not know about it. I suggested a fatwa against the niquab / burqua particularly since there was no religious basis for it. That was not received very well as this form of dress is considered a woman’s choice even without religious basis. Then I was told that a fatwa held less weight than god’s will.
I was getting no where fast.
Later in the week I ran into a human rights professor and an acquaintance who has been a multicultural expert for quite some time. They thought I was rather mean with my abhorrence of the niquab, and thought that every one has the right to wear what they want no matter where.
Later, I kicked my self, as I should also have asked what they thought of the Harper religiously motivated stances on changes to the immigration handbook, the recent announcements on G8 women’s health and birth control, and the decrease in funding for women’s organizations. There are also debates in the US, where Catholic male leaders are against the health bill while Catholic nuns are pro the health bill, so the clergy and some men in power are stating that the nuns are not spokes people for the church and have no power. So the notion that there is a gender divide over women’s health manifests in the male hall of power generally, with a double whammy, that the opinion of veiled nuns are shunned within their own faith by the male leadership, then shunned again by male adherents in power, yet, they are the ones on the front lines dealing with the poor and women? I wished I could have gotten their opinion on that too!
Is that just belief? The men have the right to believe what they want? and the Women? The nuns are the ones that keep Catholic hospitals running, so… Women of the Christian veil have less power as a group and as citizens within and outside of their faith and women of the burqua / niquab refuse integration, believe in gods word and are victims of sexism which puts their health and well being at risk and perpetuate a symbol of a literal Byzantine era sexual discrimination and religious fundamentalism. Are we all forced to believe what they want with the expectation of accommodation? Do we live in a secular state? A state official can pick and chose which groups of women have merit and which do not?
My hunch is, that arguing against white Christian fundamentalism and values is OK, and the separation of religion from state in that context makes sense, but that people are more inclined to allow other forms of fundamentalism to creep into the public sphere under multiculturalism even if there is overt sex & gender inequality because of political correctness, support of groups perceived as vulnerable and because it is women. The Harper government, learning from our friends in the south, is now pandering to the conservative moral right wing elements of other faith based immigrant groups as they will vote for him. Lets now watch our hard fought for rights get scaled back!
For instance if the polygamous religious pedophiles in Bounty BC were marrying off young boys and engaging in underage sex with them, the state I am convinced, would have intervened much sooner. There would not be this weird posturing over the constitutionality of polygamy and skittishness to get involved under the veiled stance that the girls are agreeing to this? Somehow, girls and women keep getting ranked lower than boys and men when it comes to religion. Somehow it seems that religion gets ranked higher in the order of rights, at least higher than women’s rights. For instance the sexist Catholic faith maintains school board funding in Canada. No other faith is allowed public school money.
I am left with questions. Questions that are very unpopular with my left leaning friends. For instance, how do ensure we have complete separation of religion and state? How much multiculturalism do we accept? When is it reasonable to draw the line? What is public and what is private? Who decides? The niquab / burqua in my mind is the worst kind of gender segregation and discrimination. It is not only bad for a woman’s health, it is an unsafe garment and it separates her socially & culturally. It is also a symbol of the worst kind of religious fundamentalism and precludes full integration of a woman who wears it into society - any society that includes men and women. When it is acceptable to wear it? What does being in Canada mean, and where does this form of dress fit in? At the immigration counter? Passport office? Elections? Driver’s license? Health Card application? Can a person dressed that way serve me at an official state counter? If they cannot separate religion from state, then why should state accommodate? Which brings me back to the debate of reasonable accommodation (enlish def. / french def.)? What does that mean? Why is that so hotly debated in Quebec and less so in the ROC? It is not just xenophobia, albeit that exists in Quebec, it is a culture that allows for that debate, a debate framed in the notion of nation. Does the Rest of Canada (ROC) have a nation? Is there an ROC ideology?
I just do not know, and I am terribly disturbed by it.