Saturday, March 13, 2010

That niqāb thing

Margaret Wente has a go at the two solitudes this morning--alleging a stark difference between French-language and English-language coverage of the Naima Ahmed affair. Wente likes her black-and-white, but in fact the National Post and the Globe and Mail were completely at odds over the matter.

A commentator
in Le Devoir observes, in fact, that media opinion in the Rest Of Canada is about evenly split--and criticizes, in passing, the deliberately misleading use of the charged word "burka" by the Post (Ahmed wore no such thing).

I've written a fair bit on niqāb--more than I'd realized, actually--and didn't think I had much more to say when the Ahmed case came up. But a mild
mea culpa, if I might. The received narrative is that Ahmed was a handful: disruptive and demanding in her French-language class. Blogger Balbulican thought this was ample reason for the instructor to take a stand, but that demanding she remove her niqāb was drawing the line in the wrong place.

On the face of it, no pun intended, I had to agree that her reported behaviour--demanding that students rearrange themselves, making presentations with her back to the class and so on--was reason enough to ask her to leave. As always, however, there turned out to be at least one more side to the story--hers.

"I'm just like any other person," Ms. Ahmed said in an interview with The Globe and Mail yesterday, speaking in her native Arabic tongue. "The only difference is that I wear a veil over my face. It doesn't mean I'm wearing a veil over my mind."


Ms. Ahmed said the incident in which she is alleged to have turned her back on the men in the class was not prompted by her. She said a teacher asked her to give a presentation in front of the class - which contained only a couple of male students, of Bulgarian and Iranian origin - with her niqab removed, which she refused to do.

"[The teacher] said either you take off the niqab, or I'll make the two men face the wall," Ms. Ahmed said.

As a compromise, she raised her niqab but turned away from the edge of the U-shaped classroom seating arrangement, where the two men sat.

Ms. Ahmed said she had no issue taking off her veil when being photographed for her school ID by a female staff member, nor did she have any problem working in groups with the men or participating in other class projects.

"As long as I had the niqab on it made no difference to me," she said.

"If I didn't want to interact, I would have stayed at home."

Her niqāb, then, was not a side-issue wrongly seized upon by the instructor, but the issue. And one is struck, once again, how this matter of an individual woman's attire quickly escalated to the upper reaches of government: in this case to the Quebec Minister of Immigration, who ordered her expelled, and thence to the Premier, Jean Charest, who publicly defended her expulsion.

Ahmed soon signed up for another class, determined to learn French--speaking of willingness to assimilate. But she was soon hunted down by an official from the Immigration Ministry and turfed again, while in the act of writing an exam. She had reportedly been doing well in class, but left in tears, saying that she felt as though "the government is following her everywhere." One doesn't have to be of the tinfoil-hat persuasion to agree that she might well be right.

Immigration Minister Yolande James said: "Here our values are that we want to see your face." This is a value? But at least she didn't advance the original canard that language instruction requires an unobstructed facial view. Instead, James effectively handed down an edict--women in Quebec will have to abide by a dress code.

Well, that's nothing new, as we know. Women's bodies are or have been the property of the state in various more unsavoury jurisdictions, where burkas or niq
āb or chadors are, this time, mandatory. What women wear or don't wear is clearly worthy of the most senior political scrutiny, and subject to edicts and fatwas, whether we're talking Taliban or Iran or England or the Quebec Ministry of Immigration. There's no full moral equivalence, obviously, but there is a remarkable similarity in one respect: the sheer presumption that officials have the right to decide "appropriate" clothing choices for women.

In Quebec, it's beyond question that this is political pandering to rising hérouxvillisme. The public cannot escape its share of the responsibility for creating the atmosphere that the politicians are breathing. The policing of women's dress, reinforced by opportunist politicians, is taken by far too many almost as a civic responsbility.

I worked for a sociology professor who spent weeks in downtown Ottawa wearing
niqāb to get a sense of what it's like, and it wasn't pleasant. Enormous, exaggerated peer pressure can also be brought to bear to enforce dress codes for women, as a young student in Brazil found out not too long ago (although in this case the government came to her rescue, and she subsequently became a Carnival queen).

Of course we have the usual claims--and they are not completely unjustified--that such dress is demeaning to women, an imposition. It's a lot more complicated than that, but the crude response has merely been a counter-imposition, and one not necessarily motivated by concern for women's rights.

The notion of women's agency, in fact, has gotten lost in the ethno-political uproar. Have people not noticed that pharmacist Naima Ahmed, now taking her case to the Quebec Human Rights Commission, is the very opposite of an oppressed, silenced, obedient, submissive woman?

Perhaps--just perhaps--that's been the problem all along.

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