What Lies Beneath

Weighing in on the ‘Niqab Issue’

28 OCTOBER 2015,
Woman with niqab
Woman with niqab

As a Canadian expat living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the ongoing discussion regarding Zunira Ishaq’s desire to wear a niqab during her Canadian citizenship ceremony is very interesting from myriad perspectives. Equally intriguing are the opinions put forth by Manitoban Hutterite, Mary-Ann Kirby on the Oct. 9th, 2015 CBC News regarding her mother who chose to wear a distinctive, traditional headscarf, along with those expressed by Edmonton Journal columnist Paula Simons in her article published Oct. 4, 2015, ‘Don’t Like the Niqab? Don’t Wear One.’

There is a broad spectrum over which Christians, Jews or Hindus practice their faith and the same applies to Muslims. There are those who wrap every aspect of their lives in deep servitude to their lord; those for whom their faith is saved for a special occasion and those who fall somewhere in-between. Six years ago, I moved to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, arguably one of the most conservative Muslims countries in the world.

Whenever I go out in public, I am required to wear an abaya; an all-enveloping, black long-sleeved garment that reaches to the ground. As a ‘westerner’ I am not obliged to cover my hair with a scarf, or hijab; however, I have been admonished and instructed many times to do so in no uncertain terms by mutawa, otherwise known as the ‘religious police’.

As well, despite having possessed a driver’s license since the age of sixteen; I have lost my right to drive. I am not allowed to be alone in the presence of a man other than a professional driver or a relative, e.g. a husband, father, uncle, brother or son. I am not able to share coffee, a meal, a walk in the park or a ride in a car with a man unless I have formal proof of our relationship.

In addition, during the month of Ramadan whereby most Muslims observe strict fasting between sun-up and sun-down; being caught drinking, eating, smoking or even chewing gum in public can be grounds for my deportation. Likewise, is practicing any religious activity other than Islamic. Even gathering for Christian fellowship in a private home or building is against the law, as is the wearing of a religious symbol such as a crucifix, no matter how discreet.

My reason for sharing these facts is not to inspire sympathy or horror in those who cannot imagine having such basic rights taken away. In fact, the opposite is true. I articulate these things with the very same breath I use to emphasize the fact that for various reasons of my own, I actually chose to move to a country that in countless ways bears no resemblance to the democratic, progressive country I had been raised in. My point is two-fold: that in this society, the wearing of the niqab is 'normal' and commonplace and it would be not only inappropriate, it would be extremely arrogant for me to assert my ideas of right and wrong on the women of this country. By the same token, should I feel the need, I can just as easily ‘unchoose’ my decision to live there. It’s a very significant distinction, and one that I believe the ‘niqab issue’ revolves around.

It is often thought that Muslim men force their women-folk to shield their faces from the view of other men and that the niqab represents a form of patriarchal oppression. While that may certainly be the case for some women; I can state unequivocally that among my Saudi friends, of whom approximately 75% cover their faces; it is their very own profound belief that they should wear a niqab. Having said that, millions of Muslim women world-wide do not.

Regardless of whether the desire to wear a niqab is borne of a religious, spiritual or cultural belief, or because it simply represents a form of personal expression; there are many who believe in the right of a woman to wear the clothing of her choice, and this has been very eloquently illustrated in the statements made by Ms. Symons and Ms. Kirby. But in a time where similar issues garner a fair share of the media; the advocates of gender equality would stipulate that men therefore, should also be entitled to cover their faces if it is their belief that they should do so. I respectfully suggest that those coming to the vociferous defence of Ms. Ishaq might have a much more muted response to a man wishing to utter his oath of citizenship, pick up his children from school or cash his paycheque at the bank whilst wearing a balaclava. And while the average person may think there is no comparison between a balaclava and the nicely patterned face scarves worn by Ms. Ishaq in her press photos; as a resident of Riyadh, I have seen women whose coverings range from a scarf over the lower half of the face, to one that covers the entire face safe for an opening for her eyes, to a full hood with a small, screened window to be looked through and quite often, a lady may cover her entire head, including her mouth and eyes, with an opaque black cloth that is very difficult for her to see through. All of these garments can be described as a niqab.

I have heard people commenting that there is no difference between a lady wearing a niqab and a doctor wearing a mask in the hospital, a welder using safety glasses or a lady wrapping herself in a woolly scarf. I beg to differ. All of the above-mentioned facial coverings serve a rather obvious purpose, such as protecting either the wearer or those in close proximity from infection, shielding a worker’s eyes from sharp objects, or warding off the dreaded ‘wind chill effect,’ which sadly is an unavoidable aspect of every Canadian winter. By comparison, the sole objective of the niqab is to hide the lady’s features from view and in essence, to mask her identity.

Along with fingerprints and dental records, a person’s face is the predominant way by which we are recognized, and in my humble opinion, the right to be able to identify any person with whom we are relating; be it across the counter at the 7-11, the driver of a taxi we are riding in or as passers-by on the street, simply supersedes the right of an individual to deliberately shield their face from view. As a matter of fact, we do have precedents for invoking laws deemed in the best interest of the community at large, but that impose restrictions on individuals. For example, loud is the lament of those who yearn to feel the wind in their hair as they ride their motorcycle on a curvy, mountain road or who love to drive their cars unconstrained by a seatbelt; however the prohibitive healthcare costs of treating a brain-injured person far outweigh the right to personal choice, and so helmets and belts are required by law.

As a seasoned traveller it has been a source of intense gratification that my Canadian citizenship invariable evokes huge smiles and unmistakeable approval. We are known the world over for our incredible warmth and kindness to others. That being said, it does not mean that we are required to accept any and all cultural, social or religious beliefs of those who enter our country and particularly of those who would like to become card-carrying Canadians. It is one thing to be engaged, educated and respectful of other customs, but not at the cost or loss of already entrenched traditions, and therein lies the crux of this divisive issue. This is not a discussion about Zunira Ishaq’s indisputable right to practice her Muslim religion. It is not about the length of her sleeves, the cut of her dress or her right to wear a hat or kerchief over her hair, as Ms. Simons suggests. Rather, it is about acknowledging the right of everyone in this country to an open, transparent and unambiguous relationship with their fellow Canadians, including the freely-chosen and newly-affirmed Canadian citizen, Ms. Ishaq.