LIFTING THE VEIL OFF THE NIQAB DEBATE – a candid report and some feedback on a niqab panel held in Toronto.

Two weeks ago, a Muslim community Centre organized a panel discussion about the niqab. This is how it was advertised “In the wake of last year’s Bill C-94 in Quebec (which would have withheld certain public services from women wearing the niqab) and this month’s announcement banning the niqab during Canadian citizenship oath-taking by the Hon. Jason Kenney (Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Culture), the niqab and its place in Canada have become hot topics in Canadian public discourse.  The purpose of this panel discussion is to present a balanced discussion of the various interests represented in the debate.”

The speakers were a U of T student who has been wearing the niqab for the past 7 years, a lawyer and professor who represented the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) as an intervener in the Supreme Court Case regarding a woman’s right to wear the niqab while testifying in court and myself as a supporter of the Hon. Minister Jason Kenney’s decision.

This community centre has been known to be frequented by largely moderate Muslims so I had invited non-Muslim friends and it’s with this expectation that I agreed to be on the panel, keeping my remarks largely focused on the “niqab and its place in Canada”. The organizers had stressed the importance of dignified dialogue so I made sure my talk was not personal or offensive although the other two panelists weren’t as sensitive. (Text of my talk is given below)

The evening started on the wrong foot when the young lady in niqab turned up 35 minutes late without so much as an apology for keeping everyone waiting.  She was the first speaker and said it’s the intention of Jason Kenney that is suspect and commented extensively on Kenney’s supposed motivation. She criticized Kenney for giving the analogy that Muslim women do not cover their faces at Haj and that niqab is not an Islamic requirement – both these points were rebutted in my talk.

The Lawyer went even further and after taking a low pot shot at the MCC, launched into a sensational litany of how this ruling is akin to Islamophobia (a CAIR favorite rant by the way), that Muslims are victims. He said that Jason Kenney’s motives are sinister and that he (Kenney) is relating the Niqab to Jihad. He said that women were being asked to give their bodies! (Give me a break – showing their face akin to giving bodies?) He essentially said that anyone supporting Kenney’s decision is being duped and has no sensitivity to women’s issues.

The Q & A was even more troubling. Upon my commenting that a face covering does not compliment Canadian values, a male member of the audience stood up in anger and questioned whether Canadian values are about their treatment of the aboriginal community and that Stephen Harper’s Canadian values are those of Israel. The facilitator did not find this offensive but one audience member pointed out that this comment was offensive and not focused on the discussion at hand. At this point I wanted to say that respecting people’s time and being punctual is a Canadian value, but I refrained.

Soon the discussion which was supposed to be about a person’s face required to be seen at Canadian Citizenship oath-taking ceremonies, was sidelined with more visceral and hostile comments about Muslim victimization in general and Kenney’s motivation as being anti-Muslim in particular. The facilitator seemed unable to bring the discussion back on track so there were interruptions and disruptions. At one point a man in the front row shouted that I should not answer a question which I wanted to, but should defer it to the lawyer.

Two members of the audience, a Christian and a Jew who had asked reasonable questions, wrote to me later with these comments and concerns.

I was particularly shocked and disappointed when – in response to a question about what Canadians can do to help emancipate women in countries like Iran where they are deprived of the choice NOT to wear the hijab or countries like Saudi Arabia where eschewing the abaya is not an option for women – (the lawyer) said that Canada was no different from Iran because we were refusing to allow Muslim women to wear the niqab at the citizenship ceremony.  As if there is a moral comparison to be made between Canada and countries where women are fined, jailed, imprisoned, and even tortured or killed for refusing to conform to dress codes imposed in the name of religion by either the state or the local religious leaders!  I kept thinking how it would be unheard of, in a country like Iran, for instance, to contemplate a forum like last evening where men, women and children came together in a public space without need of secrecy or heightened security to hear a mixed-gender panel discuss the pros and cons of female head coverings.  I mean, really!”

(This from another audience member)

  • Moderator allowed  questions not related to the topic which opened it up hostile remarks from the audience
  • The lawyer had a totally unbalanced view of the subject and while wearing his totally secular garb, stated that he truly believed that the state had no right telling women what to wear and when they can or cannot wear it
  • He then asked for a vote from the audience on who supported the wearing of niqabs and received an almost unanimous standing ovation.  He also stated that the oath of citizenship is a sham and being born in Canada, he never had to take it. But when he became a lawyer he had to pledge allegiance to the Queen and it was a hateful and regretted act for him
  • I seem to remember when my parents took citizenship in 1962, it was a sacred vow on a sacred day. Perhaps for these 2 speakers, who were both 3rd generation Canadians the privilege of freedom, equality, and harmony has lost its lustre.
  • A Muslim man who stood up  said that we ( the Harper government) in Canada are adopting policies against Muslims as in Israel, and the moderator did not stop the question till someone said it was off topic
  • After Raheel left, the speaker began to explain how the niqab was the best decision she had ever made and how it made her feel close to Allah at every minute of the day; not like others who fulfill their 613 mitzvot (commandments) and then are “good to go”
  • When I heard that comment, I said loudly that now I was good to go and got up to walk out and heard her say “good”
  • For someone like me, who has truly embraced all faiths with an open mind and real acceptance for so many years, this evening was a heartbreaker.
  • Upon leaving and speaking to the event organizer, I was told that I had misinterpreted the comments and taken them out of context. Sure enough an email arrived a few days later placating me with the knowledge that the questions and comments were made in good faith and no malice was meant. There were no retractions from the speakers or the organizers but there was a comment that the panel was able to “be in sync” after Raheel left.

Essentially at the end of the evening, the 2 people in favor of niqab and their supporters fumbled badly on the question of Canadian values. In my opinion Canadian values are what attracted me and millions of immigrants to this country. If we can’t maintain these, we are in a very sad state.

 

Text of my presentation as the second panelist.

Salaam. Some of you have just celebrated Hanukkah, others are headed into the Christmas season so peace and blessings of God be upon all of you in these festive times.

Glad to be here for this discussion which is long overdue because the niqab debate is not new to Canada. These discussions should have ideally taken place five years ago when the issue first became public.

We should not be afraid to debate and discuss this and all sorts of challenging issues within our communities because when we remain in denial, sometimes others make the decision for us.

So I’d like to thank the organisers for inviting me tonight.

Let me address the niqab issue from various perspectives for Muslims and non-Muslims alike to remove confusion and mis-information.

In my understanding, the Niqab is NOT a religious requirement under Islam. As Muslims we take guidance from our holy scripture the Quran, especially in cases where there might be man-made secondary texts that are ambiguous or contradictory.

The Quran does NOT ask us to cover our face. In fact while practicing our faith, when we go for the Haj pilgrimage, women are not allowed to cover the face as I experienced when I was there.

Secondly, since we don’t have formalized priesthood in Islam, we are asked to take counsel of credible religious scholars. One such scholar Sheikh Mohamed Tantawi, dean of al-Azhar university which is the highest seat of learning for Sunni Muslims,  has said that face veiling is a custom that has nothing to do with the Islamic faith or the Quran. He stated that this practice is widely associated with more conservative trends of Islam. In fact he asked students in Egypt to remove the niqab in educational institutions.

Added to this we are told repeatedly in the Qur’an about keeping a balance. The Quran describes the Muslim as a moderate nation, it says in 2:143 “We have made you a Umaathan wasathan, a moderate nation.” The word moderate here is a translation of the Arabic word “wastan” which means “in the middle”, but it can also mean “fair” or “balanced”. Prophet Mohammad pbuh has been quoted to have said” the best of the things is what is in the middle i.e. what is being done in moderation.”

Let me present another kind of balance that should be observed. One of the fundamental underpinning of Islamic law is the requirement that a just balance between the rights of individuals and the interest of the society as a whole be maintained.

A few years ago when the Niqab debate was at its height, I was on a radio show with Steve Rockwell who calls himself in Imam. He brought along a huge edition of the Quran and I asked him to show me where it says that the face needs to be covered. He could not, because in terms of dress the Qur’an asks both men and women to dress modestly. Later on another show after Shaykh Tantawi and some other scholars gave fatwas that the niqab is not an Islamic requirement, Mr. Rockwell backpeddled and said “well its not religious but cultural.”

Unfortunately lying is a distasteful phenomenon which has crept into our way of life.

So let’s examine the niqab issue from some cultural perspectives.

When my grandmothers migrated from India to Pakistan decades ago, they used to wear a chador as a cultural dress but they discarded it for a simple head covering over time because the chador was all enveloping, hard to manage, and impractical.

Similarly when I came to Canada 22 years ago, I was used to wearing a shalwar Qameez made of thin material, not at all suited to this harsh climate. It didn’t take me long to make the cultural change to long warm trousers to adapt to the weather. Had I insisted on my own cultural dress, I would have suffered in the end.

Therefore cultures need to evolve and change according to time and place. Those of us stuck in centuries old customs, bring excess cultural baggage with us.

Allow me to address how the niqab, a face covering and essentially a mask impact society? It’s obvious that it’s a barrier to communication because you can’t see the face of the person behind the veil.

In some ways, the niqab discriminates against me. If the person under the niqab can see me, and I can’t see her, its discrimination.

Driving with the niqab on creates a problem in peripheral vision. When a woman driving in a niqab hit a cyclist some years ago, I had to wear a burqa in a cultural sensitivity training session to show the judges there IS indeed reduced peripheral vision.

In Manchester UK where a number of women wear the niqab, it has been found that the incidence of rickets which is due to vitamin d deficiency – is the highest in the Western world.

The niqab is also a direct clash with security because in a post 9/11 world, facial identity needs to be shown at airports. Sometimes women are not available to check the id of these passengers as insisted by them.

Which BTW brings me to share an interesting piece of trivia. FYI – the embassies and Consulates of the Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Islamic Republic of Pakistan, two countries from where the ideology of the niqab has crept into Canada, have a notice that women who wish to have their photograph taken for their passports, have to show their face. For this there is no hue and cry.

How does this differ from what Jason Kenney has said about taking the Canadian citizenship oath, and allow me to quote directly “That is why starting today, my department will require that all those taking the oath do so openly. From today, all persons will be required to show their face when swearing the oath.”

Let me play the devils’ advocate for a moment and for arguments sake, let’s say that there is a sincerely held belief that that niqab is religious.

Islam is not a fossilized faith or a stagnant message stuck in the 7th century. It’s a vibrant, progressive faith as we see and hear from scholars who are involved in ijtehad about far more challenging issues.

While we’re engaged in inane debates about the length of beards or nailpolish on our hands, there are religious scholars discussing cloning, invitro fertilization, interfaith marriages and yes even female Imamat.

I recall that when Ayaotallh Sistani was ill and taking treatment in UK, he was amazed at the efficiency of the nursing profession in Britian. Upon his return he gave a ruling that if clothing like chador or hijab are a hindrance to a noble profession, then its ok to discard them to carry out caring services for fellow human beings. Furthermore its an Islamic injunction agreed by all schools of thought that Muslims who immigrate to other lands, must abide by the rules of those lands – whether Muslim or not – as a religious duty, as long as one is not ordered to carry out a sin. (Sahih al-Bukhari, no. 2796 & Sunan Tirmidhi)

Let me conclude by saying that Muslims who migrate to non Muslim lands by choice should follow the thought of eminent Hanafî jurist, Mohammad b. Hasan Al-Shaybânî who writes in [Biographies (2/6)]: One of the best approaches for a Muslim living in these countries is patience. As long as he agrees to live in a non-Muslim country, he is never to rebel against the people living in his choice of residence, even it seems too hard for him to endure.

From a Canadian perspective, we appreciate that Canada is the ultimate in personal liberty and freedoms. A person has an absolute right to wear or not wear whatever they want – in private. We as Muslims must show our public face and identity. If we hide this, we’re being dishonest to ourselves and to Canada.

Thank you.

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About raheelraza

Author, Public Speaker and Human Rights Advocate
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One Response to LIFTING THE VEIL OFF THE NIQAB DEBATE – a candid report and some feedback on a niqab panel held in Toronto.

  1. soladasilva says:

    Hi Raheel,
    I was also at that panel discussion. I took pictures and lots of video footage of the event. I wrote my thoughts on the evening with video footage of the Q&A period attached. Please check it out here: http://www.redchalk.ca/a-clash-of-values-niqab-ban-at-citizenship-ceremonies/

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