Niqab fear mongering in Canadian media is irresponsible

Davide Mastracci
Oct 2, 2015 · 6 min read

The National Post has been giving a lot of space to the niqab debate lately, with three Full Comment articles and an editorial on the subject published since Saturday.

The articles, from Andrew Coyne and the paper’s editorial board, are quite good. Both articles offered support for Zunera Ishaq’s court case on libertarian grounds, arguing that her desire to wear the niqab at her citizenship ceremony should be protected as a right by the state. This was much appreciated, as it’s always nice to see libertarians use their ideology to argue for something other than dismantling gun control or fighting “PC police” supposedly taking over university campuses.

Unfortunately, Barbara Kay had to ruin the party by writing an article offering 10 reasons to ban the niqab, not only from citizenship ceremonies, but also from public service. This article, which Kay called the latest in her “nihad” series, is an irresponsible piece of journalism.

This sort of inaccurate fear mongering is what I’d expect from Facebook memes, not established Canadian journalists. Columnists with sway should not use their platform to demonize the already marginalized. This is especially important in this case, as Muslim women across the country are being harassed by those who buy into many of the same myths Kay propagates in her column.

In an effort to elevate the level of the conversation regarding the niqab debate, though it’s unfortunate the debate has taken up so much space at all, here’s a point-by-point rebuttal of Kay’s argument.

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“The niqab is not a religious obligation, it is, according to many Islamic scholars, a regional custom.”

Kay has no right, and likely nowhere near enough knowledge of Islamic law, to lecture Muslim women about what is and what isn’t part of their faith. Regardless, any genuinely held religious belief is protected by the state. It’s unlikely Ishaq would put off acquiring her Canadian citizenship for years, as well as throwing herself into the fray of the national conversation, if her belief wasn’t genuine. As such, it doesn’t really matter if Kay thinks the niqab is a religious obligation or a cultural one.

“The niqab is indecent. Beyond “offence,” which can be cognitively managed, decency standards go to the heart of our psychological well-being in society, and is beyond our cognitive control … Decency standards differ amongst societies and shift with time, but the when-in-Rome principle is universally accepted by reasonable people.”

Perceived “indecency” is not a legitimate reason to ban something according to the Charter, so it doesn’t matter if Kay shakes in her boots the one or two times a year she sees a woman wearing a niqab. As for the “when-in-Rome” principle, when did sacrificing your Charter backed rights to appease the sensibilities of others become a Canadian thing to do? Ishaq’s prolonged legal battle for her rights is the epitomization of what it means to be a Canadian.

“Double standards: it is inconceivable that we would allow men to mask themselves in civic interaction, even if they considered it a religious obligation, because masked men are threatening to women (and other men). We should not permit to women what we would not permit to men.”

This may be a legitimate concern if there were actually men who believed they were required to mask themselves as a religious obligation and were prevented from doing so. To the best of my knowledge there aren’t, so Kay has no idea how judges would rule on the matter. She also has no legal background to make an informed guess.

“The only societies that mandate the niqab as a social norm are those in which women are considered sexual chattel with virtually no rights. Willed indifference to the niqab is more than tolerance; it is an endorsement of gender-rights relativism in our national home — equality for our women, inferior status for theirs.”

The only societies that ban niqabs and hijabs are those in which Muslim women are considered pawns with virtually no autonomy. Willed indifference to the violation of the rights of a group of women is more than disliking what those women wear; it is an endorsement of a state’s ability to decide what women can and cannot wear equality for women who dress like you, inferior status for those who don’t.

“The editorial notes that “only a tiny minority of women” opt to wear the niqab. This is precisely why it should be regulated now, when it is enforceable, not when potentially thousands of women adopt it and it is unenforceable.”

The idea that you should try to strip a group of people of their rights when they aren’t strong enough to fight back is terrifying.

“Some women wearing the niqab have had it imposed on them against their will. What is the lesser evil: that all women should be forced to show us their faces while interacting with us in the public sector, or that we facilitate the lifelong misery of voiceless women? We should err on the side of support for vulnerable women yearning to fully integrate into Canadian life.”

This is possible, though judging by the strong political stances taken by several women who wear the niqab in Canada, it doesn’t seem like a prevalent problem here. Regardless, banning the niqab would do nothing to help those women, as it’s unlikely their abusers would change their habits simply because the government told them to. The more likely scenario is that the women would be unable to work, and would then retreat into the confines of their home as opposed to integrating into Canadian life.

“The niqab is a gross insult to Canadian men, as it suggests they require a physical barrier to prevent lascivious thoughts or behaviour.”

The right to religious accommodation is more important than preventing Canadian men from having their feelings hurt.

“The niqab is a gross insult to uncovered women, suggesting their “immodesty” invites sexual attention.”

I also wonder if Kay would endorse a ban on public figures like police officers suggesting women should dress modestly when they go out at night in order to avoid being sexually assaulted.

Fortunately I didn’t have to wonder for too long, as Kay has written about the topic before, and defended the police officer who made the suggestion that sparked Slut Walks around the world. Here’s a quote from the article:

“A while ago a Toronto policeman had the misfortune to suggest publicly that women who didn’t wish to be raped should stop dressing like sluts. It’s too bad he exaggerated. Obviously real rapists are not so fussy in their choice of victims. But the impulse behind his remarks was not altogether wrong. In his bumbling way he meant to say that normally it is women’s dress and behaviour that set the parameters for the social barrier between men and women, and that women who dress modestly usually won’t be harassed by men. But even that nuanced comment may have spawned enough outrage to create SlutWalk — a growing protest movement whose message is that women need never be ladies, but men must always be gentlemen.”

It seems like Kay doesn’t really care about insulting uncovered women.

“In the West, the niqab is often a political statement, a proud sign of militant Islamist activism. “Put on your niqab!” cried Hezbollah supporter Yvonne Ridley at a Montreal Canadian Islamic Congress fundraiser in 2007. It wasn’t modesty she was encouraging, but participation in the stealth jihad.”

The quote Kay cites comes from a speech where Ridley encouraged Muslim women who wear the niqab to wear it to the polling station after efforts to have it banned failed. Then, as now, the niqab was politicized by those who tried to have it banned. Otherwise, it was just another expression of faith.

Being a practicing Muslim doesn’t mean you’re a “militant Islamist activist,” and it’s a shame Kay has stooped to such disgraceful discourse.

Davide Mastracci

Written by

Freelance journalist based in Toronto. Formerly HuffPost Canada and Vice News.

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