Today is the first day of 2012, and my thoughts are with Muslim women in Canada. My government recently decided, in its infinite wisdom, to pass a law requiring Muslim women who express their faith in part by wearing a facial veil, to unveil their faces for the entire duration of public citizenship ceremonies. The reason that is advanced for this blatantly discriminatory law (in that the only people in the entire world it effects is Muslim women), is that witnesses to the ceremony need to be able to see the lips of a Muslim woman moving while she swears the oath in a group of new immigrants.
If she refuses to unveil her face, because her audience is of mixed genders and her body is sacred between her and God, she is refused citizenship and remains a permanent resident. This means that she does not have the right to vote in Canadian elections or run for political office. It means she is still a citizen of the country from which she emigrated and could be deported at a later date. It means she will likely be refused gainful employment from a majority of job providers, because she is not a Canadian citizen. And it means that she will not be entitled at all to jobs requiring a high level of security clearance, the number of which is rapidly growing. In other words, she is equally stigmatized as a recently released convict, and has fewer rights than women who held citizenship in Canada had prior to WWII.
This isn’t the first time my government decided to pick on Muslim women–in 2010, the province of Quebec actually tried to pass a law that would deny government services from Muslim women who wear a hijab (a hijab covers the hair, forehead, neck and breasts–but not the face). This doesn’t just mean she can’t request a copy of her last tax return in person at Canada Revenue Agency–it also means she would have been deprived of the right to vote even if she held citizenship, and she would be deprived of access to social services simply because of how she personally interprets a highly subjective requirement of her faith. Fortunately, this law did not come to pass. Unfortunately, on December 12th of 2011, the ban on facial veils during citizenship ceremonies was successfully passed.
I have been witness to an increase in fear-mongering towards Arab and Persian women since I was young. In my own family, racism is rampant, and is one of the many reasons I have estranged myself from all of my biological relatives. In one of my last phone conversations with my paternal grandparents in 2010, I was informed that my eldest sibling had terminated her relationship with her Arab boyfriend. Without even taking a breath first, this news was immediately followed with a statement to the effect of “God only knows what would have happened if she hadn’t ended it, the way those Arabs treat their women.” I can’t possibly count the ways my parents would bark about the ways the neighbours down the street would piss them off or offend them doing things that didn’t effect anyone outside their family home, or do impressions of them for a cheap punchline–as long as they weren’t white, they were a target.
Outside of my family, I heard all the same racist bullshit in hushed whispers in my classrooms, or shouted at full volume on the lawns of the schools I attended. But no one, inside my family dynamics or outside, was subject to as much badgering, harassment, or transparent racism, than Arabs, Persians, and Indians. The frequency of events that make my blood boil with rage for obvious racism against Middle Eastern and South Asian people, and Islamophobic knee-jerk reactions against Muslims in general has been steadily rising. On September 11th of 2001, that rate of increase became exponential, and expanded to discrimination against Sikhs, for no reason other than racist terror of the Other.
And though we would all receive education at some point in public schools about the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Holocaust, residential schools for aboriginal children, and internment camps for Canadian citizens of Japanese descent; and thus be given the opportunity and tools to develop the capacity to empathize and dismantle our racist ideas about Blacks, Jews, First Nations, and Japanese people (which often snowballed into generalizations about all Asian cultures, and thus, formally reversed all the work accomplished), all efforts towards building cultural sensitivities towards Middle Eastern and South Asian peoples were swept under the rug. It’s as if the curriculum of public education in Alberta from the late 80s to the new millennium systematically incorporated the idea that an entire part of the world didn’t deserve that kind of attention. Meanwhile, Disney released Aladdin in 1992 (which I watched with my paternal grandfather in theatres), and feminists have been answering all of the racial and cultural insensitivities contained therein with positively caustic retorts ever since.
A little more than ten years since my release from the public school system, and my government has now decided upon institutionalizing a Special Brand of Sexist Racism that only effects Muslim women. It’s even found a committee of Muslims to tell them that their Special Brand of (institutionalized) Sexist Racism is just. This committee serves my government as the self-appointed spokespeople of the entire Muslim world overseas. It does so in part by regurgitating the same tired old stereotypes about Muslim women that the entire world has been blindly accepting for decades since it became institutionalized in various ways across the Middle East–that the veil is oppressive to women, who are forced to wear it (despite the fact that it is banned in some Middle Eastern countries), or they are killed for opposing social pressure (though for some reason, it’s not seen as remarkable that these killings only happen to women, because apparently misogyny doesn’t exist).
If you ask anyone in Canada why a Muslim wife or sister or mother-in-law wears a hijab or niqab or burqa in the Middle East, chances are greater than not that you will receive a radically different answer than individual Muslim women will offer on their own behalves. This is the answer we hear the most: that women are required to cover themselves so that they do not tempt or sexually tease men with their bodies. This is the answer that informs the stereotype of Muslim women as exotic and mysterious objects; as being incapable of choosing the hijab, niqab, or burqa of their own agency; and of living under constant sex-based oppression that is universally normalized across the Middle East (but nevermind misogyny as the root cause for why women are being killed in these countries–that’s impossible!) This is the answer that informs the blatantly offensive and childish Western retort on International Blasphemy Rights Day, of “reverse Sharia Law”, in which women depicted wearing only a veil over their faces (which is both offensive to all women and to all Muslims).
But if you study the historical roots and cultural development of Islam, you will find that there is no requirement in Sharia Law, for women to cover their bodies in any way. It’s simply not even addressed in Sharia Law–the matter is addressed in language that is highly interpretive, by a mere four passages in the Qur’an, with vocabulary that had a different connotation at the time the Qur’an was first being recited than it does now (i.e., the word hijab did not mean then what it does today). You will also discover that the highly subjective interpretation of the right of Muslim women to cover themselves is rooted in the belief that women are considered, in a sense, more spiritually “pure” or closer to God–that she is not required in the practice of Islam to cover herself, but merely encouraged. You will also find that the right of individual Muslim women to cover their bodies and faces in whatever degree and method they choose, is embraced as inconsistently across the world as women individually exercise that right. Women are required in some Middle Eastern countries to wear a burqa, niqab, or hijab; whereas in other Middle Eastern countries (as in some European countries), these articles of clothing are banned. Where they are neither banned nor required by law, there are no universals in regards to facial veils or head-scarves.
It would seem then, that the phallocentric construction of Muslim women in the Middle East is merely a reflection of the Western hegemony constructed entirely around the phallus and the achievement of the male orgasm–not a reflection of actual sociopolitical conditions overseas. Having never been overseas, it is perhaps not my place to make that judgment, though I may still speculate about where the stereotype gets its social power. Of note, my government has virtually no problem with the habits and wimples of nuns; or the head scarves of female religious ascetics (i.e., Buddhist nuns), or Amish, Jewish and Mormon women; or virtually any woman who habitually covers her head with a scarf or bandana, as long as she’s white.
But then in the Summer of 2010, I had the privilege of meeting and speaking to a woman who, unbeknownst to me at the time, is Muslim and immigrated with her family from Pakistan. We began having a conversation about Muslim women and head scarves and veils, in part because I had been doing volunteer work with EASL students (including a brief time with a newly immigrated young Muslim woman from Iran) for a year at the time; but also in part because I had recently encountered yet another round of Western ignorance on the subject in an online forum and felt very frustrated. We were also in an accelerated format chemistry class, with a female lab instructor whose first language is Farsi, and who proudly defied all stereotypes of Persian women with confidence and a sense of humour. Without being prompted to share her personal insight, she shared her beliefs with me in that conversation.
I listened as she told me what it was like growing up in an upper class household in Pakistan–a country where 90% of the people who call it home don’t have access to clean drinking water or literacy. She told me about having Western television and wishing she was pale-skinned and blonde like Madonna, and my heart broke a little. But then she told me she is Muslim, and wears bulky clothing to obscure her figure as an expression of her faith–a feature that anyone could plainly observe, but that no one would attribute to faith in Islam, simply because it wasn’t accompanied by a head scarf. She told me that her body is sacred. She told me that because of the way she dresses, what she looks like underneath is between her and God. When she told me that it will be that much more special when she shares that part of herself with her husband, I finally understood. I was awe-struck.
By comparison, and for the purpose of demonstrating why I was so moved by this woman’s insight, I was never raised to think of my body as sacred. As a Canadian citizen, raised by white parents (arguably, white trash parents), I spent my entire childhood and adolescence being bombarded with messages of how public women’s bodies are, and internalized that message. Every magazine, every television show, every movie, indoctrinating me with a subliminal urge to expose my hair, neck, breasts, arms, legs, shoulders, back, and waist–everything I could bare without going past the point of no return. I was instructed by the Spice Girls and female leads in movies and all the girls and young women of my peer group, to dress as scantily as I could–to put my body on display for the public.
And as I struggled to convince myself that I was doing the right thing in my four-inch heels, tennis skirts, and cleavage-baring spaghetti strap tops, Thomas George Svekla was driving around Edmonton picking up women dressed just like me, maiming and murdering them, and dismembering or burning their bodies. Robert Pickton was also picking up women dressed just like me, from East Hastings in Vancouver — just one province away and at the exact same time — and skinning them alive for no reason other than what they were wearing and where they were donning it. I moved nearly right into his back yard 2 years after his arrest.
My government disgusts me. Where it should be acting immediately to protect at-risk women of this nation, it attempts to deprive them of government services by dismissing the significance of their cultural backgrounds or it ignores them until the United Nations steps in and decides it’s about time this matter was investigated (just look up The Missing Women Inquiry or the Attawapiskat reserve, the first of four First Nations reserves to declare a state of emergency in the Winter season of 2011, which effects the entire community–but the Canadian government blames Attawapiskat’s female leader for causing all their problems). Where it should be protecting an International Human Right to not be subject to discrimination or censure on the basis of religious belief, it declares a law that explicitly and exclusively discriminates against Muslim women.