The niqabs, burkas and other female face coverings originating from the Middle East are not part of any religious observances or requirements. They are, like it happens in other religious communities as well, traditions or customs characteristic to certain geographical areas. Of course, with the increased mobility and migration of large groups of humans into culturally different zones of the planet, we can see them almost everywhere outside of their region of origin.
Among Christians we also have similar groups with certain head covering (especially for women): look at the Mennonites or Amish or Hutterites or other conservative groups in your area – women, and sometimes even men, wear a traditional head-cover. Never covering the face, though…
Just this past spring I happened to be in Morocco and I went for a camel drive in the Sahara desert. It was a windy day, so my guides carefully covered my head – together with my mouth and my nose – with a beautiful “Berber blue” textile, creating a kind of turban to protect my ailing lungs from inhaling sand and dust. Which, in that climate and at that time of the year made absolute sense – I even have a picture showing as I proudly wear my protective gear!
Now, having said that, I can’t understand why would a woman have to cover her face in a Canadian shopping mall while buying sexy lingerie or just cover her head with a scarf while wearing a skin-tight legging that reveals the cameltoe… All in the name of “modesty” as I was once told by someone condemning my alleged religious intolerance.
Let’s summarize it: it is not a religiously prescribed garment, it is not necessary for health or other reasons in Canada, and – we need to clarify this one, too – it goes against the Canadian prevalent cultural norms, where the face of a human is considered the main identifying feature of our body. Actually, the whole Western world and its cultural expectations are deeply bound to the openness of the face and eyes, we use facial expressions to read the non-verbal messages of our interlocutor and value (maybe over-value) the emotions mirrored by our faces. We are expected to face each other and to look into the eyes of the other!
Now comes the difficult part – to explain something without sounding that one kind of immigrant wants to exclude another group of immigrants from this great country. (Which would be absurd.) Before I choose where to emigrate from my homeland, I carefully studied which country’s culture and customs would fit the best for the life I want to live in my remaining years (regardless if we talk about 100 or 20 years, we all should go through this mental exercise). If I don’t want to drive on the “wrong” side of the road – I don’t move to Jamaica. Or Japan. If I don’t want to live in a theocracy, I don’t emigrate to Iran. If I don’t like the cold, I don’t move to Siberia. If I don’t like the gun culture (gun-cult bordering fetish) of the Americans, I should stay away from the USA. For most of us, immigrants or not, these are common sense decisions based on relatively simple facts and our own acceptance or rejection of those facts.
Canada was built on the acceptance of different cultures from the beginning, as John Ralston Saul argues so eloquently in his “Reflections of a Siamese Twin”.
Similarly, knowing that the place I targeted as my next place of residence is a historically Christian country, i.e. with a culture rooted in Christian traditions and the ideological framework of that culture, although one that is moving fast toward a secular society… and I am a devout, orthodox Jew or a conservative Muslim or a traditionalist Sikh – I would re-evaluate my decision of moving there. Exempli gratia: to a place like Québec. It was historically the Catholic component of the Confederation that turned 150 years old this past summer, and today it is, probably, one of the most secular and progressive provinces, socially. They are proud of their Catholic Christian heritage (even the non-believers!) and they are also proudly pushing the limits of acceptable religious “neutrality” in the public sphere. One can agree or not with the principles upon which the Québécois decided to organize their life. However, if someone was not part of their society yesterday, why would they want to force them to accept today their rules just to accommodate their specific worldview – based on a different value system, different culture, different heritage?
Not that the newcomer’s worldview, including their religious beliefs and theirr culture, wouldn’t be as valid as any other. And Canada was built on the acceptance of different cultures from the beginning, as John Ralston Saul argues so eloquently in his Reflections of a Siamese Twin… however, to continue along his approach, success was possible only through cooperation, not competition. Many latecomers, representatives of many cultures from around the globe, appear to have an agenda of competition – with a mindset that only zero-sum games are possible, where one has to lose in order to let the other win.
We are past the postmodern era when naive and idealist social engineering adepts declared that every blooming flower is equally good and nice. We know that some cultures adopted cruel inhuman practices and we shouldn’t encourage their existence in the name of an abstract all-encompassing tolerance. The Spanish Inquisition, the Chinese cultural revolution with the great leap forward, the Khmer Rouge’s agrarian socialism (and genocide) were all experiments that will remain shameful as long as human history exists. Together with the despicable “local” atrocities like the former residential schools in Canada, the “honour killing” in many Middle-East regions, the female genital mutilation in Africa, the male genital mutilation imposed by various religions, which all should be banned and persecuted in our great country. Imposing abhorrent dress code on socially oppressed women also shouldn’t be something that we encourage in Canada.
We also have to add that various full-face coverings are banned by laws in many countries where the Islam is a the dominant religion. Either because of security reasons (after terrorist attacks during which it was used as camouflage) or by ideological opposition. No matter what the apologists come up with, it was and it is an imposition on women by zealous fanatic men belonging to a deviant sectarian movement. It has nothing to do with the freedom of religion as we understand it when looking at each others face to discover that which connect us – our humanity.
In Arabia, a variant known as the “niqab” was promoted by the ultra-conservative Wahhabi school of Islam; in South Asia, the burka was adopted by the Deobandis, the local strand of fundamentalism.
When the Taliban captured Kabul and seized power over most of Afghanistan in 1996, they made it compulsory for all women to wear the burka.
Elsewhere in the Muslim world, the garment remained largely unknown until relatively recently. It was the rise of the Wahhabi and Deobandi traditions which spread the burka to areas where it was previously invisible, including West Africa.