By Lin Abdul Rahman
The Sputnik, Issue 1, Winter 2011
As France and Belgium rally to legislate a full ban on the hijab, the religious headdress worn by Muslim women, Quebec prepares to follow in the footsteps of its European counterparts. Jean Charest has introduced Bill 94, which bans full-face coverings “pretty much everywhere but the street itself,” according to Sarah Wildman of Politics Daily.
The axial debate centers on whether the ban would liberate Muslim women from religious subjugation or be an impediment to the religious freedom that Canadians are supposedly afforded by the Charter.
As with any contentious issue, the debate generates an intricate mesh of opinions. Counter-intuitively, the Muslim Canadian Congress supports the ban while secularists worry that it may be inherently “unsecular.”
According to Dr. Tariq Ramadan, one of Europe’s foremost scholars in Islam and philosophy, secularism is about limitations: limitations on the state’s ability to enforce its authority on the church vis a vis religious institutions, and vice versa. So when the state spreads its tentacles into churches, mosques, synagogues and temples as France has so boldly done, it is going against the very principles that it claims to uphold.
According to the Montreal Gazette, 80 percent of Canadians in general and 95 percent of Quebecois support the ban on full-face coverings. I wonder how many people out of that 80 percent of Canadians understand the origins of the burqa and its contextual implementation in today’s society.
Nota bene: I oppose the wearing of the burqa, if and when it is enforced upon Muslim women against their will.
If women were to wear the hijab, niqab or burqa out of their own volition, the ban is then an outright infringement on their religious freedom – one of the basic tenets of fundamental human rights, as afforded by the Charter. In that case, a ban on religious headdresses simply reeks of religious intolerance.
As President Obama said in his speech in Cairo last June, “We cannot disguise hostility toward any religion behind the pretense of liberalism. Indeed, faith should bring us together."
Another fallacious presumption about religious headdresses is that women who wear them are oppressed, whether they know it or not. As someone who consciously chose to wear the hijab, I feel insulted that I am subjugated into the underclass of the ‘oppressed.’ The fact is that not all women who wear the hijab are forced to do so. In fact, not all Muslim women wear the hijab. To claim that Muslim women in western societies who wear the hijab are oppressed is to openly admit that you know nothing about the very people whose rights you claim to fight for.
Yet, conservative rightists, pandering to emotional politics, do not hesitate to call for a sweeping ban that would violate our individual rights as citizens. The Toronto Star’s freelancer Maggie Gilmore writes, “It's a repugnant value system and I reject it. So should all Canadians who embrace secular feminism. So let's ban the burqa, the niqab, and while we're at it, the hijab.”
Notice that no substantial argument is given as to why the hijab should be banned.
This is the very statement that would compel 80 percent of Canadians to check “Yes” when answering opinion polls about the hijab ban.
The Toronto Star’s Haroon Siddiqui was right in saying that it’s ‘scary’ when the majority feels threatened by a minority. It’s even scarier when they start harnessing the power of the law simply to quell that unfounded fear. In human rights courses, we call that ‘tyranny of the majority.’ It’s the same unfounded fear that sent the Jews to the ghettos and later extermination. It’s the same fear that sent Canadian and American Japanese to internment camps during WW2. It’s the same fear that poured billions of dollars of American tax payers’ money into a so-called war against terrorism.
My advice is, before you form an opinion on the hijab/niqab/burqa ban, find a woman who wears one and ask her why. That way, you can claim to be part of an informed public that supports democracy rather than an 80 percent majority that has possibly been misinformed. It is precisely this misinformed majority that is still amateurishly hung up on issues of assimilation versus isolation when discussing Muslims in the west. The possibility of convergence between immigrants’ culture of origin and their newly adopted one is rarely discussed.
Meanwhile, millions of Muslims in western societies already live as functioning and contributing citizens in Europe, America and Canada. They call themselves French, British, American and Canadian just as comfortably as Scientologist Tom Cruise calls himself an American or as Jewish Sacha Baren Cohen calls himself a Brit.