1. We celebrate our multiculturalism until, sadly, we don’t. Traditional dress has long been a celebrated part of the Citizenship Ceremony. And it’s explicitly allowed. This isn’t the Oscars …… people get to dress themselves. http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/tools/cit/ceremony/dress.asp
2. Defrocking is oppressive. In our long a sad human history of conquering, enslaving, dehumanizing, and exterminating each other (over cultural, ethnic, religious, or geographical differences) women and children usually bear the worst of the humiliations. History is rife with the kidnappings, rapes, and murders of women. Women being used as fodder. Women being used as human shields. And then there’s all the defrocking we do to a conquered woman. Women prisoners are often stripped, and forced out of the familiar and safe comfort of their own garb. Often their hair is cut violently. Both are often done in direct violation of her beliefs and sense of modesty. Some of those humiliations may even make it impossible for her to ever return home. Forcibly defrocking a women is not liberation. It is an entirely new kind of oppression.
3. The public humiliation of women as a means to send a message is not ok. Within a culture women are often publically humiliated to send a message about the “norms” of society and noncompliance. Scarlet letters, stonings, town square barracks, public burnings and hangings …. All over things such as affairs, infidelity, pregnancy out of wedlock, abortion. But the man? Nope. Dragging a women out into the public eye and humiliating her for being different is a very effective tool. It’s cruel. It’s unfair. It is misogynistic. It is very very common throughout history and in most cultures. Common but certainly not OK.
4. There is no “us” without “them”. Canada may have been founded philosophically by the French and the English, but they’ve never ever been the only game in town. The First Nations were here for Millennia before the English and the French. The Norwegians/Vikings too. Slaves were brought. There were Canadian slaves for a long time….. look it up. (And we enslaved First Nations people). And although they were mostly of African origin, they represented a wide range of peoples. Canada may have been the infamous final stop of the underground railroad (and Canada had laws that no escaped or emancipated slave could be re-enslaved) but slavery wasn’t abolished until 1834 (in the states is was 1827). There is no real way to be sure of the number of people from non- French or non English backgrounds at the time of Canada’s birth in 1867 ……. But there was never an “us” without a “them” who were summarily dismissed and ignored. The notion of speak like us, dress like us, act like us, look like us or you will never belong and never be included is rooted in our history; and it is nothing to be proud of. Canada is full of stories about kids not fitting in because they were brown, because of their accent, because of their beliefs. It was conform or die. Many of them did. A first generation Canadian child growing up in my time was ashamed of their culture, hid their culture, lied about their culture, was called names because of their culture. Do you want to know why there were so many people from so many cultures around my parent’s holiday tables? Because my parents had the infinitely deep wisdom to accept all cultures. To value those differences and have curiosity about people's experiences. My parents felt honoured that they would share all those beautiful differences. How exceptionally lucky I was to grow up in that. How amazingly lucky we all were to meet all those perfectly perfect Canadians. How very simple it truly ended up being to make sure everyone felt safe and accepted. A Muslim friend I grew up with recently reminded me that on the morning of 9/11 my parents stood helplessly watching, just like most of us did. And in the absence of anything they could do to help anyone actually really involved, they did the next best thing. They dropped in on their Muslim friends and neighbours just to make sure they were ok. My parents sensed there would be dark days ahead, baseless assumptions and accusations, and a real tangible erosion in acceptance. So they invited themselves over for tea ……. Just to say “I see you for you. And I like who I see.”
5. If it cannot be demonstrably proven as harmful then it is harmless. Regardless of how I feel about a Niqab. Regardless of how little I understand. I cannot truly say that it harms me. I cannot truly say that it harms her. So it is harmless. Let’s ALWAYS focus on behaviours and not attributes. We absolutely have a duty to define Canada by a set of corresponding rights and responsibilities. We absolutely have the obligation to support our most vulnerable and uphold equality as our most important value. We absolutely must stop all behaviours which harm others …….. but this is just an outfit. Let’s be really careful not to make the Niqab the visual equivalent of the KKK hood or the Hitler moustache. Because, let’s face it, very few of us understand it enough to cause it to be such an enduring symbol of female oppression.
6. Old habits die hard. Let’s just simplify things a bit. My childhood neighbour wore a wig every day of her life (despite her being a beautiful person – inside and out) …. Almost to the end. She would have felt naked without it. My Mom permed her hair into the same haircut for over 40 years until her children and her friend who cuts her hair finally said “ENOUGH!!”. She still says it doesn’t feel like “her”. Anytime I ever try to dress up I end up near tears, saying that I’m “turning in my girl card as I fail at being a girl” and stuffing myself into yet another grey pair of slacks. Sometimes we wear what makes us feel comfortable. Sometimes we stick with what we know. It’s not a predictor of our worthiness or compatibility or ability or values. Sometimes it’s just about what makes us feel comfortable.
7. There are many kinds of masks. The CCTFA (the Canadian Cosmetics, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association) reports that they are a 9.5 billion dollar industry in Canada. 9.5 BILLION. The Canadian Cosmetic and Esthetic surgery industry refuses to keep statistics. But it is unarguably a multi million dollar industry. Hiding the reality of who we are and what we look like is not exclusive of the Niqab. There is a conversation to have here. It’s important. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge it.
8. People evolve. The beauty (the exquisite undeniable beauty) of a multicultural society is that it is not locked into anything. It has evolution and diversity built into its nature. When we draw some kind of arbitrary line in the sand loudly proclaiming “this far and no farther” it had better be important. It had better be about something that matters. Because if it isn’t important and it can’t be proven to fundamentally protect a person or group in need of protection, it’s going to get trampled over. Greeting the new women of Canada with the message “buckle up and ride hard because we have rights here” is very different from “I have arbitrarily and without understanding chosen this piece of clothing as a symbol of your trampled upon rights as a woman and I demand you give it up”. Let’s focus on the actual actions and subversions of women within a culture, or a family. Those we can define ….. but a hat, a veil, a dress and what those mean, not so much. The bottom line is that it is highly unlikely that the future generations will keep the Niqab. It will fall away as the subsequent generations find their place within a multicultural life that their parents didn’t know. Beautiful. But along the way, is it really so bad if they finally push back and keep the parts they love? The beautiful difference, the fabulous stuff they have to offer ….. or is what a Canadian looks like locked in? We too can evolve to accept more beautiful difference. Remember when the sky was going to fall if a Mounty wore a Turban? Turns out that it looks pretty darn fabulous and not a bit unCanadian.
9. Take a step back and see where we’re at, as women, in the here and now. Women don’t exactly have it all figured out here in Canada. Women in Canada earn, at best, 82 cents for every dollar a man earns in the exact same position and with the exact same education and experience; according to 2008 data. Our own official government data says 2008 data paints an even bleaker picture when broken down by position and full time vs. part time. See for yourself: http://www.parl.gc.ca/Content/LOP/ResearchPublications/2010-30-e.htm Many fear we have slipped; some saying even as low as 68 cents on the dollar but our current federal government has assured we can’t know by cancelling detailed census taking. In Canada 80% of sex crime victims are female. 1 in 4 Canadian women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime (5.7 out of every 10 aboriginal women). Women make up roughly 50% of the population but are only 25% of the MPs in federal government (Afghanistan has 28%) http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SG.GEN.PARL.ZS . Studies show that the vast majority of single parent households are headed by women and that at least 21% of them are raising their children in poverty. Women account for 60% of the minimum wage labour force and 70% of the part time work force. Anecdotally any working woman can tell you about the wedge being pounded in between full time vs part time. It’s rarely a choice. The lowest paying jobs only offer part time even if you want more. The better paying work only offers full time even if you’d like to have a little more balance between home and work. Mothers are allowed to the table only if full time; on an increasing basis the story is play with the big boys or go home and Mom … you don’t get to be both. Women with children consistently earn less than women without and have access to far fewer benefits. There are infinitely more measures of gender inequality here in this Nation. I have purposely NOT provided links because I want you to really look …… you won’t have to look long or hard. Just look at the roar of apathy over calls for meaningful inquires into the shocking number of missing and murdered First Nations women. Women aren’t celebrating equality yet in Canada and won’t be any time soon. Immigrants have nothing to do with our unfortunate gender gap and dismal record on the rights of women. Nor does one lady in a Niqab. We have done this all on our own.10. It’s just the right thing to do. Because there are far more important issues. Because there are real people really hurting. Because accepting this woman, who has chosen here above everywhere and anywhere else as her home, exactly as she is the right thing to do. And the right thing for her to do is to be the best, kindest Canadian she can be; and that has nothing to do with what she is wearing.