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Veiled Threat: Niqab New Flashpoint In Tolerance Debate

source: http://www.nationalpost.com/news/story.html?id=2651705

Veiled threat:
Niqab new flashpoint in tolerance debate

Marian Scott, Canwest News Service
Sunday - March 7, 2010


MONTREAL -- As a devout Muslim who wore a hijab, or head scarf, Miriam Abushaban was used to having strangers tell her: "Go back to your own country."

But when she started wearing a face-covering niqab a year ago, the insulting remarks escalated into aggressive confrontations.

"One person said I look like I'm going to slit someone's throat," says the 22-year-old Concordia University student, who comes from New Jersey, where she was raised in a Muslim home by a Palestinian-American father and a Hispanic-American mother who converted to Islam when Miriam was two.
Men and women alike have accused her of promoting oppression.

"French Quebecois women come up to me and say, ‘We really worked hard to get our women's rights and now you're going to take them away from us,'" says Ms. Abushaban, a third-year student in early-childhood education.
Rarely has a garment raised such ire as the square of fabric a minority of Muslim women drape over their faces to avoid attracting the gaze of men.
The niqab -- an opaque veil with a slit for the eyes -- has become a flashpoint in the debate over how far Canada should go to accommodate minorities.

Recently, a Montreal woman made headlines for lodging a complaint with Quebec's Human Rights Commission after she was expelled from a government-sponsored French course in November for refusing to remove her niqab.

The 29-year-old Egyptian immigrant, a former pharmacist, claimed doing so conflicted with her religious beliefs. Government officials said the niqab prevented the student from participating in class and that the teacher needed to see her face in order to impart elocution skills.

The rights commission is expected to rule on the case in the coming months.

Last Wednesday, Quebec's deputy premier, Nathalie Normandeau, said the government intends to require all citizens to have their faces uncovered when dealing with the state and receiving public services.

In an era when Islamic head scarves are a daily sight in Canada, the niqab still retains its power to unleash passionate debate.

The image of a woman whose face is hidden behind drapes of fabric can be frightening, says Alia Hogben, executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women.

"We're frightened of the dark. It's very difficult to connect with someone who is totally covered up," she says.

Concordia University student Asma Qureshi, 24, said that while Montrealers have become acclimatized to the hijab, a niqab still stops people short.

When Ms. Qureshi took off her hijab at the hairdresser the other day, a non-Muslim customer confided she had no problem with the head scarf but found the sight of a woman in a niqab disturbing.

"She said it was intimidating not being able to see if it was a man or a woman," says Ms. Qureshi, a first-year recreation therapy student.

To Ms. Qureshi it's a personal decision.

"Whatever a person does with their body is their choice," she says. "They don't go around imposing it on other people."

For many, including Gerard Bouchard, former co-chairman of Quebec's Bouchard-Taylor Commission adapting government services to niqab-clad women is a step too far.

"The host society has a duty to make all efforts for those immigrants to [accommodate] them, but not at any price," Mr. Bouchard told a recent gathering at McGill University.

The sociologist presided with philosopher Charles Taylor over controversial hearings across Quebec on the accommodation of cultural and religious minorities in 2007. Their 2008 report called for an official policy on Quebec as a secular society, more funding for diversity programs and better training for institutions on handling cultural minorities.

"The law allows you to believe whatever you want," Mr. Bouchard said. "But society does not have the duty to [accommodate] you wherever you go."
Civil rights lawyer Julius Gray agreed the government was right not to accommodate the niqab in this case. "I think this is an illustration of when an accommodation becomes unreasonable," Grey said. It is important for a language teacher to see a student's mouth and a face-covering impedes integration, a major goal of language classes for immigrants, he said.

Feminist author Greta Hoffman Nemiroff, co-ordinator of creative arts, literature and languages at Dawson College in Montreal, argued society should make every effort to make allowances for religious beliefs.

"The question is, should this be accommodated to a tiny minority? Or should we say, ‘They have to conform because they're here?' I would say that would be doing tremendous violence to them," she says.

Quebec is just one of many jurisdictions struggling to articulate a response to the niqab, whose origins date back to before Islam, says Hogben. "This is becoming a major issue everywhere," she says.

The niqab is most common in Persian Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, and in Pakistan. The burka, worn in Afghanistan, is a long gown that also covers the face, with a mesh panel through which the wearer peers.

In France, where the hijab is banned in schools, the parliamentary leader of the ruling centre-right party has proposed making it illegal to wear the niqab on the street.

In Belgium, a woman was fined recently for wearing a niqab.
India's Supreme Court recently ruled that women must uncover their faces to vote.

In 2007, Quebec's chief electoral officer backed down on a controversial decision to allow women wearing a niqab to vote.

The same year, Canada's top election official said women do not have to remove their veils to vote.

In October, the Muslim Canadian Congress called on the government to ban the niqab and the burka, describing them as medieval and misogynist symbols.

But to Ms. Abushaban, veiling her face is a personal act of devotion.
Ms. Abushaban, who wears a touch of eye makeup that is invisible behind her olive-green niqab, decided to don the niqab after making a pilgrimage to Mecca in December 2008.

"I met some wonderful, sweet women there," she says. "They were explaining modesty. They said the more you practise modesty, the more you will please God."

The niqab is worn over the hijab, attaching with Velcro at the back of the head. Abushaban said her professors and friends have been supportive of her decision.

Some young women at the Muslim Student Association of Concordia University spoke admiringly of "niqabi sisters."

"For me, that's something I don't think I would be strong enough to wear," says Laurelie Rae, 21, a third-year fine arts student.

"If that's your decision, then by all means do it," she adds.

But does Islam command women to cover their faces? The answer varies widely across the Muslim world.

"The Muslim principle is to be modest but there are variations of the modesty and this is the extreme form," says Ms. Hogben. "The arch-conservatives have taken it and generalized it and it just isn't so."

For Ms. Hogben, developing an overarching policy on the niqab is "difficult, nuanced and complex." She says it is vital to preserve freedom of choice in religious dress, unlike countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, where women are compelled to conceal themselves under Islamic garments.

"We are very leery of letting the state intervene in how women dress," she says. "Whether the state says take it off or put it on is an imposition."

There are times, Ms. Hogben acknowledged, when setting limits on the niqab makes sense, such as in a language class. On the other hand, excluding women who wear it should be avoided whenever possible. "If there is too much reaction to someone wearing a niqab, they will segregate themselves even more."

The decision is best left up to the courts, says Hogben, who says she's eager to know how the human-rights tribunal will rule on the case.

Changing demographics have an ongoing impact on how Canadians perceive the issue, says Morton Weinfeld, chair in Canadian ethnic studies at McGill University.

"The line will always be a moving line," Weinfeld says. "That is one of the difficult things we demand of courts, to strike the appropriate balance between majority views and minority rights."

Montreal Gazette


ਸੋ ਕਿਉ ਮੰਦਾ ਆਖੀਐ ਜਿਤੁ ਜੰਮਹਿ ਰਾਜਾਨ ॥
so kio mandhaa aakheeai jith janmehi raajaan ||
So why call her bad? From her, kings are born.

why do you degrade women or call them inferior who has given birth to great kings. It emphasises that there is no justification for categorizing women as the bad element in society or considering them less or inferior in any way and then degrade and or use her as a product of lust. Though Islam confirms one can feel her Divinity in the form of mother, still by making her KEEP, Mistress or second wife or part of looted property in the war totally contradicts their teachings. In addition Burqa further demean her to confine and be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life and deprived of all identity, who has given birth to Pir, Paighambar, Rishi, Munni, Saints and great emperors. Guru Arjan calls and says, ‘Join with me, my sisters, and sing the songs of rejoicing the Master of the Universe.’ SGGS: 136: 6. His words are borne out of reaction to the conceptions of women promoted by other contemporary religions of his time. The last guru, Gobind Singh, put the equal status of women into practice by, for example, banning female infanticide.

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