Everyone has an opinion about the Quebec government allowing the expulsion of a Muslim woman from a language class for wearing her traditional garb, a niqab, or veil covering all of her face but her eyes. Here’s mine. Quebec has for the past 50 years been pursuing an active (and generally quite justified) policy of protecting its language and culture in the face of an immensely dominant one next door. I grew up there and though my ethnic group was the main target of these policies, I always felt that yes, if I was going to live in a place I really should try to speak the language and know something about its very rich culture and heritage. But no one ever tried to make me dress differently or give up my own sense of my background.
I live now in Toronto, arguably the most diverse and tolerant city anywhere, a model for the global culture of the future where everyone is accepted, welcome, and valued for their unique contribution. In agriculture, depending on a single crop is a recipe for disaster, as the 19th century Irish discovered. We have come a long way from the pure master race ideas of the last century.
And yet they linger. Sociobiology teaches us that people will still fear and distrust the stranger who does not quite fit in to our ideas of the ‘right’ way to look, speak and dress. And they especially do not like change. When a typical citizen of Nazi Germany looked at a Jew, they saw someone who was actively plotting against all they held dear. A Mississippian in the 50s and 60s must have felt that his whole world was turning upside down when he saw blacks walking into white universities or drinking from white fountains. But when the war and the marches were over, and the laws changed, those attitudes were effectively gone within a generation, and the people who held them were consigned to the fringes of society. On the other hand, 10 years ago a woman in a niqab may have got a curious glance on a Canadian street. Now, after a decade of 9/11 hysteria, she is faced with fear and a call to strip off.
The justifications are varied. My favourite is that she may be a suicide bomber and concealing explosives. Well, it’s been a while since I read the Quran, and my memory may deceive me, but I don’t remember the verse that said that suicide bombers have to strap their bombs to their face! By that logic you would have to ban any clothes that were not skin tight. The Quebec argument seems to be that she does not somehow fit in to Quebec culture. Well, they don’t ban anyone else’s national garb. And since Quebecois generally wear exactly the same generic Gap/Nike/Levi’s crap as everyone else in the global economy, it’s hard to see what national values they are defending. If they wanted to make it a condition of Quebec residence that everyone had to wear pure laine habitant clothes, complete with long red bonhomme toque, they could have a point, but I don’t think such a policy would last long.
Another justification is that the veil symbolises oppression of women by a patriarchal Muslim culture. The implication is that the woman is forced to wear it and that given the choice she would dress in Gap/Nike/Levi’s just like any other decent Canadian woman. That may be true in some cases. Maybe in other cases it is her personal choice, it’s what she is comfortable with, and forcing her to take it off would be like forcing the average Canadian woman to parade down the street naked. Does it matter? Do Canadian women never dress to please their men? Forcing a Muslim woman with a jealous husband to unveil would only lead to her not being able to go out all, and no one would ever know.
Ultimately the people who support the niqab ban in Canada are the same as the people they think they are criticising. When pressed they will say they don’t want Canada to be like Afghanistan. Well when I think about Afghanistan, I think of a place where narrow-minded people think they have the right to tell women (or men) what the hell they can or can’t wear, and I really would not want Canada to be like that!