Personal Is Political / Race/Ethnicity / Time-specific

An Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object

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.

9 thoughts on “An Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object

  1. Pingback: Freedom From Gendered Violence « HaifischGeweint

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  3. I can’t believe someone who calls herself a feminist could come out in such support of sharia law….if you want to support muslim women support campaigns that ban oppressive and backward costumes like the niqab which literally do reflect the actual teachings and commandments of radical Wahhabi Islam. Whatever that Pakistani woman may have told you, as a person who has had intimate contact with Islamic culture I can tell you that’s not entirely true and I suspect it is a white-washed version of Islamic law for overly-tolerant western people. Like it or not, contemporary Muslim women with the exception of those belonging to one of the few very small schools of Islam, or who grew up relatively secular, are taught that they will burn in hell for all eternity for removing their hijab or niqab. If you ask a Muslim woman “arent those clothes hot?” she will very often say “hell is hotter”. In other words you’re completely wrong when you say that the hijab is not a part of Islam. The vast majority of schools within Islamic thought say the hijab is mandatory for all women from the time they hit puberty and this is in order to prevent men from being distracted and possibly raping women out of uncontrollable lust. If you think that observation is a white racist western one it is not. Islamic sheikhs(preachers) directly say this over and over again in the Muslim world. In Islam the entirety of the woman’s body except her hands and face(or perhaps face depending on the school) is called her “awrah” which translates to meaning sinful dirty private part like in western culture we unfortunately call a woman’s vagina.

    I’d like to add that I find it hypocritical how you often talk very passionately against those who would claim that women who are raped are at fault, while supporting the clothing reflecting Wahhabi islam’s commandments, the same sect of islam that says rape victims are guilty of fornication and deserve 100 lashings. As I mentioned, Wahhabi religious leaders constantly warn against the danger of rape the Muslim woman puts her self under for even looking a man seductively in the eyes behind her niqab. I don’t know if you know this but in the muslim world women are frequently imprisoned after surviving a rape, as within contemporary Islamic culture it is assumed that the woman probably either brought on the rape purposely because she is a whore at heart, or deserved the rape because she was dressed immodestly or failed to lower her gaze. Women are very often lashed according to sharia for fornication after surviving the rape. Afterwards, it’s very common for the family if they are open minded to get her a painful hymen reconstruction surgery so she can hide the shame of what has happened and lie to her future husband who would never accept a non virgin wife, or she will just most likely never marry; if the family is not so enlightened, the girl may even be killed due to the immense shame that goes along with the daughter losing her virginity before marriage. Btw, honor killings are legal in over 4 Muslim majority countries….In many other Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia these types of murders are usually just dismissed as “suicides” or whatever the family makes up, as cultural convention, and never investigated.

    As i mentioned, even here in the west many Muslim women are killed for exercising their sexual freedom and/or dressing in western clothing, and denying that this is an Islamic phenomenon is dishonest and apathetic in regards to the suffering of those Muslim women enslaved to their fathers, brothers of husbands honor. The more that new Muslim families integrate into western culture in which a woman can dress as she pleases and has the right to live on her own and the right to marry who she loves, has the right to practice whichever religion she desires, the less these honor killings occur. Allowing ultra conservative Muslims to import their 5th century tribal dress code such as the niqab and the ethics of honor/shame that come with it is a detriment to themselves and other moderate Muslims who have to deal with the backlash when these same types of Wahhabi niqab wearing families kill their daughter or wife for honor.

    You seem also to think that Muslims fall under a protected group simply because they would seem to mostly be “people of color”. This of course is not true since most muslims are east Asian with their largest population hailing from Indonesia….and I don’t often see you posting about Asian persecution but I could be wrong….there are also VAST populations of white european Muslims as well I’m sure you are aware…you seem to be standing up for Arab women’s rights…first of all realize that muslims(specifically Arab) had and still have a VAST empire….arab muslims were the early perpetrators of black slave trade and during this they killed or caused the death of over 100 million black Africans…go to any Arabic country and you can still see the ancestors of black slaves, who the Arabs still to this day call “abd” meaning slave. Even to one of many prostitution ads for the gulf countries and see that the arabs’ price list lists black women as the cheapest just behind east asian women. You seem to think that Arabs themselves are not overtly racist toward blacks and non-arabs and are not extemely supremacist themselves….do some research and you should see arabs and blacks are not in the same category…..

    Whats more there are also many white women who are literal sex slaves to Arabs behind closed doors nevermind the many east Asian women who are trapped in a form of slavery in gulf countries and are continuously raped by their Arab keepers with almost no legal respurcussions. And if you want to see real oppression go to any Muslim majority country Arab or not, and see how Jews and Christians are treated nevermind gays or lebsians….see how other types of Muslims, like Shias, are treated!

    What I’m basically saying is neither Arabs nor Muslims are some oppressed minority….they have never at any point been forced to bow to white people… What I would add is that many Arabs or pakistanis or other stereotypical “racial Muslims” are increasingly atheist or Christian and members from these groups dont tend to take every opportunity to publicize “discrimination” or call for special privileges like gender segregated cafeterias, special atheism or Christianity days at publicly funded schools, or for the right to wear a mask into government buildings you may notice. If you’re intellectually honest you will notice that only Muslim Pakistanis, Muslim Indians, Muslim Arabs etc etc complain incessantly about “persecution” while the others actually just appreciate the freedoms and newly found justice they are able to enjoy in the west…. and you should ask yourself why that is…

    Anyway I’d love to hear your response whever you get around to it :-)

    • Since when is a woman’s apparel a part of Sharia Law? Seems to me only white people who can’t tell the difference between a Sikh and a Muslim, or an Arab and a Persian, make that claim.

      • What???? Study sharia! Clothing is most definitely of sharia law….and tons of educated white people can tell the language, physical, religious and cultural differences never mind clothing differences between Sikhs Hindus muslims and Iranians…Many non white people don’t know the difference or what a Muslim even is…..many Asian people when they see me say my race looks Muslim…

    • “even here in the west many Muslim women are killed for exercising their sexual freedom and/or dressing in western clothing, and denying that this is an Islamic phenomenon is dishonest and apathetic in regards to the suffering of those Muslim women enslaved to their fathers, brothers of husbands honor.”

      It doesn’t matter how you dress it up, when the fact is that those women are killed simply for the “horrible transgression” of being born with two X-chromosomes. It would never happen to a man, therefore, it only happens because of hatred against women.

      The fact that we constantly point to the victim’s religious faith or her attire (which is not a costume, BTW, so you might want to reconsider referring to it that way), instead of recognizing the simple fact that she was killed for no reason other than being a woman, is revealing of both the latent misogyny our entire culture is constructed on, and a fear of perceived radical differences presented by both Islam and brown skin. This phenomenon simply doesn’t occur, in the West in particular, within a vacuum free from institutionalized Islamophobia (the entire point of this blog entry), systemic sexism (and latent misogyny), and systemic racism.

      • I’m regards to your latest comment. No. Muslim men don’t go around indiscriminately murdering women just for being women….they do not murder their women unless the women dishonor him. Men are once in awhile honor killed in Islamic culture too particularly for being gay or converting away from Islam. For the last time, MOST muslims do not have brown skin. Haven’t you seen Palestinian or Lebanese or Syrians or even Egyptians or other Iraqis before? Most of them are nearly indistinguishable from “whites” because the people in those areas are descended from ethnic groups which share some phenotpyes with European groups. They are called arabised but they are not ethnic Arabians. They are Arabs by language and Culture/religion only. And i’ll repeat, you seem to be suggesting that Arabs are in the same league as blacks when in fact Arabs are much more racist and outwardly bigoted toward blacks and Asians than “white” people tend to be. Arabs have also never been enslaved or oppressed in any major way by Europeans….most Arabs would be laugh at you if you told them that white people privilege over them because they themselves know it not to be true.

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