The Niqab in Living Colour

IN AZAR NAFISI’S book, “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” the act of removing the veil is a metaphor for transitioning from the world of black-and-white into colour, and of shedding the state-imposed self to be liberated into one’s authentic, willed identity. “Black and white” is itself a good description of the cruel and stupid absolutism imposed upon Iran by the Velayat-e faqih, its antithesis colour indicating the actual and liveable world of vibrant diversity: irony, dialectic, humour, uncertainty, skepticism and multiplicity — whether in literary, moral, or political matters. In the “clash of civilizations,” the West is on the polychromatic side of the ledger against the monochrome despotisms.

Having reviewed the details of Minister Jason Kenney’s banning of the niqab and burqa during the citizenship oath I must conclude it’s a balanced and reasonable policy, and within the rights of the government to impose. When I review the praise of this policy however I note that many seem to be under the impression that the policy goes much further than it in fact does. The talk of this ban enshrining or protecting or advancing fundamental Canadian values is odd. As I apprehend it in the media, the “ban” simply requires the removing of the veil during the speaking of the oath itself; before and after there is no such prohibition. The Minister has not banned the wearing of the niqab, but only imposed certain momentary conditions. I wonder, once this fact has sunk in, will the call be renewed for further action against this sartorial menace?

Already I have encountered indications that Quebec is considering a widening of the Bill 94 ban of the veil to include public, government-funded, buildings. (The current ban applies only when a veiled individual seeks access to a government service from an employee.) Some months ago, France issued the first fines against the violators of its more comprehensive anti-veiling laws, a model many here appear eager to emulate. The arguments in favour of such regulations go to some effort to assert the deep importance of showing one’s face to others, adding that the burqa and chador and niqab reduce women to chattel and undermine the high and sacred respect for the principle of sexual equality which is held almost to be the definition of Western civilization. Do I need to labour the hypocrisy of this, noting for example wage discrepancies and the persistent under-representation of women in the boardrooms and cabinets of the nation. Ottawa is emphatically not Tehran. The point is not that the West does not compare well to the Saudi or UAE standard in this area (a preposterous notion), but that it too often falls short of its own professed standard.

Whatever the right or the wrong course of action may be in this connection (and I have no certain view: I know only what seems misguided), it concerns only so many tens of women. The French quite worked themselves into a state of dizziness over perhaps a couple hundred veiled citizens, Quebec far less than even that. Yet a principle is a thing of substance. Lost in all of this talk is the principle of those women who choose to wear the burqa and abaya and so forth, and who see it as an act of will and of individual liberation from the male gaze and its oppressive Western norms of female and feminine beauty. Do I endorse or even agree with this point of view? That’s a matter of irrelevance, as is the question whether a woman wears a certain piece of clothing for religious versus cultural reasons — a distinction that would not hold up if applied to the cultural norms of the Christian West. (Imagine for instance trying to ban or limit the observance of Christmas on the grounds that it’s not really all that Christian.) I think to some degree I must at the very least tolerate otherness, whatever my personal views. That seems more in keeping with respect of female autonomy than a stern and self-flattering lecture about how not-feminist it is for a woman to dress “like that.”

Somewhere in all of this grey fog there is the clear and colorful day of balance. I think the Minister found it, but I also think it is only the first in a series of steps into the land of unbalance and intolerance. Again, Azar Nafisi has given us a picture of how this land appears:

The government didn’t take long to pass new regulations restricting women’s clothing in public and forcing us to wear either a chador or a long robe and scarf. Experience had proven that the only way these regulations would be heeded was if they were implemented by force. Because of women’s overwhelming objection to the laws, the government enforced the new rule first in the workplaces and later in shops, which were forbidden from transacting with unveiled women. Disobedience was punished by fines, up to seventy-six lashes and jail terms. Later, the government created the notorious morality squads: four armed men and women in white Toyota patrols, monitoring the streets, ensuring the enforcement of the laws.

With only slight editing, to excise the totalitarian flourishes (“up to seventy-six lashes”), something much like the above could conceivably arrive to this country: the passing of regulations “restricting women’s clothing in public” under threat of fine. Even the morality squads call to my mind the Quebec practice of sending out snoopers to enforce the many by-laws, something my non-Quebec friends find incredible but which I assure you is fact. Is this scenario far-fetched? Maybe, but a book such as “Reading Lolita in Tehran” is among other things a cautionary tale.

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