Thursday, April 21, 2011

Niqab is not the problem

WoodTurtle is a Canadian Muslim feminist currently using her extended maternity leave to explore developments of Islamic feminism in the Western and Muslim world.  As a woman who wears the hijab (owns several abayas and a niqab monogrammed with her initials in pink, sparkly sequins), she writes frequently on genderized Islamophobia. She also works toward dispelling myths and stereotypes about women in Islam for both Muslims and non.


Assalamu 'alaikum sister. How are you tonight?  Her eyes twinkled and suggested a smile. I returned the Arabic greeting of peace and smiled back. She flipped up her long black niqab, grinning – would you like to come to my party?

Last week, we were out running errands and were still on the road when it became time for the sunset prayer. Driving all the way home would mean that we’d miss the small window of opportunity to pray on time, so we drove to the closest mosque in the hopes of catching the congregational prayer.

The Hubby went through the mosque’s front door and entered the large, main prayer hall, while I made my way around the building to the women’s entrance at the back and up two flights of stairs to the women’s balcony with Eryn on my hip. That’s when I was halted by six women in niqab. They cooed over Eryn and after some chit-chat, invited me to a halaqa – a religious learning session.

I agreed to attend without knowing the name of the scholar, the audience, or even the lesson topic. I didn’t know what to expect. And while I certainly had preconceptions based on experience – being told at previous halaqas that I was praying wrong, wore my hijab wrong, and that I should reject western-feminist, liberal, progressive, reformist worldviews in favour of more conservative, political, Islamist doctrines – these ladies were just so excited and friendly that I couldn’t say no to the invitation.

The halaqa was held in the organizers’ trendy, condo party room -- only a third of us wore the hijab, and just a handful walked in with niqab. Some were young professionals and students and some were homemakers. My curiosity about the speaker and their affiliation to the community got the better of me, and I started asking questions.

Everyone raved about how wonderful the speaker was, how intelligent, how knowledgeable, how relevant, how important it was to have her as a community resource. What followed after the scholar took off her niqab and took to the stage, was something I hadn’t seen for a long time.

I didn’t agree with everything that was said (it was a specific discussion of cis-privileged parenting and motherhood roles). But it was amazing to have a room full of diverse women grappling and engaging with the Qur’an on their own terms. The topic was Islamic parenting and how best to instruct children on Islamic principles. It soon turned into a discussion on women’s rights in Islam.

The speaker argued that one example of women's raised status in Islam comes from the story of Luqman, found in the 31st chapter in the Qur'an. While advising his son, Luqman says that children should honour and respect their parents, because mothers carry and nurse their babies. In this specific verse, the Qur'an outlines that both parents and God should be respected specifically because of the trials that mothers endure through pregnancy, breastfeeding and child rearing.

Honour thy mother and father, because your mom works damn hard.

I always lament that because women have been pushed out of the mosque, opportunities for Islamic education are lessened – and here, women were engaging with the speaker, debating, and interpreting the sacred sources according to their own perspectives – unrestricted by gender segregation or intimidation. There was definitely something exciting about seeing so many women grappling with the Arabic text. Owning it. Having their voices heard and feeling empowered.

Whatever glimpsing preconceptions I had before the event had absolutely no bearing on what I actually experienced. Based on what the speaker and the organizers looked like, if I assumed the room was going to be filled with gothic models, swathed in black coverings, celebrating their mutual liberation from sexual exploitation by wearing a uniform of oppression and rallying the masses to do the same, I would have missed out on an interesting discussion, good company and good food.

Later, I was surprised when friends and associates gave me near vitriolic opinions of the scholar and the institute she's affiliated with. I was cautioned to stay away. That “they” were Salafi extremists who push a conservative interpretation of the Shari’a and who want to see all women dressed in niqab. That “they” target and convert housewives specifically to ensure that future generations are raised in a closed environment. “They” are oppressed, unintelligent, backward, simple. “They” reel you in by inviting you to an innocent halaqa and later start in on the brainwashing. Problematic on so many levels, I was told that “they” are “schooled in Pakistan” (gasp!) and politically driven to make women answerable only to their husbands. The strongest disagreements came from men.

This is where my little rant begins.

The mosque in which I met the niqabi women was not a conservative mosque. It is one of a thousand, so called, regular places of worship for Muslims of all sects and affiliations.

My place in this regular mosque is in a balcony – segregated and hidden from the male gaze. When women are encouraged to attend lectures, we listen to male scholars interpret the Qur’an, and ask questions by scribbling on pieces of paper that are ferried by children, back and forth between the main hall and our penalty box. The questions are screened, rarely answered effectively and the entire process is not conducive to healthy debate. When we are offered a microphone, many women are too intimated to speak up, even though no one can see us.

When ISNA or RIS hold their annual conferences in Toronto (I can’t speak to the US events) the two or three female scholars vie for time with the 15+ male scholars. Most often, the women scholars are scheduled during unpopular time slots, early in the morning, while the male headliners get prime time and the opportunity to speak to thousands.

Not wearing hijab can greatly disadvantage women who want to participate in the religious life of their communities – preventing women from positions of leadership, board membership, teaching or community consultation. Even finding a marriage partner can be difficult without hijab. But as evidenced by my recent experience, women who wear niqab are also disadvantaged if they want to participate in a larger community – irrespective of their knowledge background, subject matter authority or positive influence as a community resource. Some feel that the niqab “dangerously equates piety with the disappearance of women” and others buy into the stereotype that women who wear niqab are oppressed and therefore less intelligent or less empowered to think for themselves.

And heaven help the woman who decides to take off hijab/niqab. That in itself is a shameful act guaranteed to help you lose your standing or any legitimate authority you may hold in the community.

These realities are far from the norm of what is expected in Islam – and no, not every community excludes women, places them behind barriers or forbid them from positions of leadership. But many do.

What a collection of double standards! I do not wear the niqab and I do not have access to full participation within the mosque -- I am hidden from the male gaze no matter what I wear. If I don't wear some form of covering, some may exclude me. If I cover too much, others still exclude me. And now legislation forbids me from wearing what I want.

So niqab is not the problem. Attitudes are.

Niqab may be a symbol of repression for some and in many communities, evidence that women are treated as second class citizens, forbidden from public participation. Certainly, when enforced, the niqab is part of a political agenda intended to limit women's participation in the public sphere. But for others it's a symbol of their freedom of choice and now that the French ban is in full swing, it will definitely be a symbol of protest and civil disobedience.

I have met niqabis who wear it over their facial piercing and tattoos – because for them, niqab flies in the face of authoritarianism and conformity to unattainable media standards of beauty. And I also have family members who are forced to wear niqab when they go out into the market, because if they don’t, they’ll be harassed.

In this new climate of anti-niqab sentiment, women who choose to wear the niqab are extremely brave. Negative preconceptions from without and within the Muslim community have the power to ostracize and promote fear. And are unfortunate when community resources are overlooked simply because of the stereotypes that are associated with the niqab -- many of which have origins in misogyny. It should not be assumed that niqab automatically means a woman is silent, ignorant, anti-West, anti-Democracy, or oppressed.

I personally do not agree that the niqab is religiously mandated and while I respect the choice and the reasons why some women choose to wear it – to emulate the wives of the Prophet and heighten God consciousness – I do not believe that it protects women. Often yes, it is a tool used to silence women. For those who choose it, niqab may indeed help lessen their objectification, but arguing that the niqab is a bulwark against sexual harassment, popular standards of beauty and eating disorders detracts from those who are subjugated, sexually harassed and have eating disorders.
 
Niqab offers some women the freedom to move around in public places. Banning it effectively condemns these women to seclusion, while the attitudes supporting this seclusion remain unchecked.

So go ahead. Ban the niqab. Women are still going to be subjugated with or without it. Dictating what a woman can or cannot wear removes her self-determination. No one has the right to decide what is best for others under the guise of benevolence. All the ban has done is removed a woman's ability to choose for herself.