Niqab: modesty or exhibitionism?
DiManno: The niqab as a fashion statement?
Some hijab wearers are simply making a fashion statement
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Published On Mon, 05 Apr 2010
The veil known as the niqab has sparked controversy, most recently after legislation in Quebec proposed restrictions.
DAVE THOMPSON/AP FILE PHOTO
Global Voices: Veil bans risk further oppression
Editorial (Mar. 13): Veil roils Quebec
By Rosie DiManno
At an airport in a Gulf emirate, I once saw something that made me gasp: Two ladies wearing leather masks.
Accustomed to travelling in conservative Muslim countries where adult females usually go about swaddled in black abayas, often with the niqab facial covering, or shrouded in the more restrictive and all-enveloping Afghan burqa, this variation on woman-hiding was still jarring – freakish.
The ladies, judging by their heavily bejewelled fingers and multiple golden bangles – only the hands, wrists and painted toenails left exposed by their jilbaab overgarments – were clearly wealthy. They were also laden with shopping bags and appeared to be returning home from a journey that had taken them through some of the most chi-chi designer emporiums.
But those masks! As ornately crafted and hand-tooled as fancy cowboy boots, they were nevertheless revolting to a Westerner’s eyes, almost Halloween frightening.
Researching the subject later, I could find few references to leather masks for Muslim women. Only one source made mention of the practice, explaining that leather niqabs decorated with coins and shells are sometimes worn by tribal women.
The ones those ladies had on, however, were far more intricate and showoff-y than mere leather-fashioned niqabs. Those things were theatrical, like Venetian ball masks.
And that’s my point. I think those rich Arab women were making a fashion statement rather than observing religious commands or adhering to a cultural practice, even if either/both were the genesis for cover-up. They reminded me of posh Rosedale chatelaines flashing Hermes scarves and Prada suits – which these ladies very well may have been wearing beneath their coat dresses.
Vanity will have its expression, even in rigidly chaste societies that put the puritanical in tyrannical, where women are all but bludgeoned into assuming a male-defined modesty and “shy” demeanour, as these are apparently the highest attributes of female character.
Shyness is, of course, a euphemism for submissive.
But vanity is not exclusively about beauty. There is also the vanity of thought and self-identity, of specialness and apartness, of an implied superiority that scorns integration.
That, I posit, is at the core of the niqab controversy in Quebec in general and more specifically the case of a niqab-clad woman – mother of three – who refused all attempts at accommodation by administrators of a French language course offered by the government. While it strains credibility to believe the woman’s instructor needed to see the pupil’s mouth in order to correct her pronunciation, she had also rejected reasonable proposals that could have satisfied her objections to showing her face to male classmates, if not the teacher.
Her adamant unwillingness to compromise and subsequent complaint to the province’s human rights commission provoked widespread disapproval in a province where the demands on immigrants to adopt Quebecois values – of language, of heritage, of secularism in the public domain, of gender equality – are more fiercely championed than elsewhere in Canada, precisely because of the province’s enshrined “distinctiveness.” Multiculturalism and diversity are not quite the same shibboleths in Quebec as elsewhere. The culture is emphatically French and, given the province’s all-too-recent domination by the Catholic Church, vigorously secular.
Bill 29 is intended to defuse the controversy in Quebec over religious face coverings. It would apply to all employees in the government sector and those who avail themselves of government services – not just veil-clad women seeking a driver’s licence or trying to cash a winning lottery ticket, for example, but also men who decline service from a female employee because they don’t wish to interact with women or those who refuse to deal with women wearing the hijab. The head covering is ostensibly a religious article, doesn’t hide the face and isn’t included in the proposed law.
In truth, it’s impossible to distinguish women who wear the hijab as a religious obligation from those who have taken to it for other reasons of self-identity or because of its political symbolism. There is more to the hijab’s increasingly ubiquitous presence in Western societies than religious piety. But individual expression is rightly afforded to all.
If this were a matter simply of sartorial choice, there would be no fuss.
Laws have been bent over backwards, arguably foolishly, to reflect equality of the sexes. Thus, in Ontario, women are allowed to go topless if they like, after that battle was won in the courts.
That has brought us to the absurdity of breasts revealed in one province while faces must not be concealed in the province next door.
These are the illogical consequences of government becoming involved in the acutely personal and individuals who demand relief of their grievances from the state, via courts or human rights tribunals.
There is no consistency but heaps of bureaucracy.
Yet Quebec has chosen to tackle the symbolism of the niqab (and the burqa) dressed up in legislation that purports to be evenly applied in denying accommodations for reasons of “security, communication and identification.” Hasidic Jewish men, for instance, can’t ask for male driving-test examiners, though I suspect the instances of this occurring were even less in number than women who wear the niqab.
And Quebec is not alone. France has already gone ban-the-burqa/niqab in its schools. Belgium is heading in that direction, with a parliamentary committee last week voting unanimously to endorse a ban on clothing and veils that do not allow the wearer to be fully identified. (It was amusing, though, when the vice-president of the Muslim Executive of Belgium warned “today the veil, the day after … perhaps it will be miniskirts.” This is reminiscent of the weird far-left/far-right feminista/religista objection to pornography and erotica.)
The niqab is a vanity and a fetish, no different, in my mind, than leather executioner masks worn by devotees of S & M.
While I wholeheartedly agree that it symbolizes a cultural oppression of women at stark odds with Canadian values – we are a country of open interaction where faces matter and rejection of paternalism by pseudo-purdah matters even more – no government should be in the business of dictating fashion, or mores.
Equally, women who wear the niqab should not expect that this society will turn itself inside out to accommodate their wishes.
And I’m not required to respect the hideous thing either.
Rosie DiManno usually appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.