niqaab


No, this isn’t a full review of the new pro-education, pro-women cartoon series out of Pakistan. I want to watch a few more episodes to see where they’re going with it.

I’m still a little unsure over the whole simplified let’s-make-burqas-look-like-really-cool-ninja-outfits and repackage-women’s-cultural-and-religious-complicated-identity-to-conceal-weapons and subverting-and-desexualizing-a-female-superhero-while-romanticizing-a-mode-of-modesty-often-associated-with-oppression and identifying-said-superhero-on-her-dress-and-not-on-her-actual-POWER and, well, all of the merchandise and marketing that’s going to go along with it.

Can you imagine all of the girls and boys who will want to go to school wearing their official Burqa Avenger costume? Definitely creeping shari’a. Right there.

I watched this tonight with Eryn (who insisted on seeing it twice). My initial thoughts? AWESOME theme song. I never thought I’d be jamming to “Burqa!!” da-na-na-na-na-na (I’m so glad this came out before Lady Gaga’s intended Burqa single). Fantastic comic book framing to the animation — which is visually phenomenal. Lovely characters. In every scene it’s women or girls who dominate in terms of being the first to speak or take action — and very reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki. Five stars!

But I was a bit overwhelmed reading the subtitles to Eryn. It seemed every scene tried to over-emphasize women’s rights to education, big bad men as being the cause of women’s disenfranchisement, women need to be educated because they’re the mothers of tomorrow *cringe*, and education is the key to success. Given this is produced in reaction to intense opposition to the education of girls, I completely understand the need to go over the top with these messages in the first episode.

Anyway, I’m still reserving my full opinion until I see more. But for now, check the badass Muslimah awesomeness of the Burqa Avenger:

Last month I included a short, critical blurb on the image “An Emerging Mystery” as a part of my weekly roundup. But I felt there was more to be said about using the niqab-as-art — including pointing out truly positive and evocative examples — so I wrote up a longer piece for MMW.


Like a horrific scene from a 1960s monster movie: unbeknownst to scientists on a fossil-hunting expedition along the mist-shrouded Arabian Gulf, a prehistoric creature of gargantuan proportions slowly emerges from the water to the piercing screams of… oh no, wait. It’s not the Creature from the Black Lagoon, or even the Loch Ness monster – it’s just a woman in niqab taking a dip off the cost of Dubai for a staged photoshoot.

“An Emerging Mystery” is the creation of Sebastian Farmborough, a budding photographer who spends his time learning new languages, traveling the Middle East and apparently sexualizing Muslim women when he’s not working on his photography skills. While this is a lovely photo, I can’t get past the photographer’s motivation for creating the piece, which he’s outlined clearly for the Express Tribune (with emphasis added):

“The image is based on one of my very first experiences in Saudi Arabia. With the naked beaches of Barcelona a not too distant memory, I headed down to the Arabian Gulf for a dip. There, I became mystified by something black and obscure out at sea. It looked like a huge jellyfish. Then, as it approached closer, I realised that it was in fact a woman.”

Well, I’m certainly glad he figured that one out before she stung him with her venomous tentacles, forcing him to run around the beach begging Saudis to pee on him.

Watching a woman swim fully covered was such an “intense experience” for Farmborough that he just had to “capture it” for himself. Now, I can understand that after the naked beaches of Barcelona, Saudi Arabia might be a little overwhelming, especially if you’re only evaluating women on the basis of their nakedness or lack thereof — but it’s a special gem that goes the extra step to sexualize a cultural and religious context experienced in one Muslim country, use it to represent all Muslim women, and call it art.

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Originally, I was going to relegate France’s niqab ban to the weekly roundup and have a dedicated rundown of the brilliant pieces being written about it, such as here, here, here, here and here. I’m sure many more will be written. Twitter is also all a flutter, mass campaigning to ban everything from cancer to slut-shaming with a #niqabban hash tag.

But I’ve received a few e-mails asking my opinion on France’s niqab ban. So this week’s roundup has been preempted by my recent experience with niqab.


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.

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I was listening  to Ryan Doyle on NewsTalk 1010 this evening and caught a bit of his segment “What the Fatah” — where he gets the uber progressive Muslim talk show host, Tarek Fatah to weigh in on current events.

Tonight’s topic was the recent ruling made by the Ontario Court of Appeal that the niqaab must be removed by witnesses if a fair trial is to be had.  This issue was first brought to light when a victim of sexual assault refused to remove her veil in front of her attacker during the trial.  The courts have determined that removal of veils will only be necessary if the judge or jury feel that the trial or the rights of the accused are being hindered:

“If, in the specific circumstances, the accused’s fair trial right can be honoured only by requiring the witness to remove the niqab, the niqab must be removed if the witness is to testify,” the Court said.

What I got to hear tonight was a complete mockery of the niqaab and a misplaced criticism of the Canadian judicial system. Fatah and Raheel Raza, Board Member of the Muslim Canadian Congress got on the air and lambasted the Canadian judicial system as being defunct and completely incapable. What the courts should have ruled, they argued, is to ban the niqaab all together.

Because a sexual assault case is the proper venue to debate niqaab in Canada.

And when they weren’t describing the niqaab as “face masks” (what is this Halloween?), Raza was calling women in niqaab, “sacks of potatoes.”

Nice.

I never liked the idea that someone accused of sexual assault has a right to see their accuser, the alleged victim, in court. “Innocent until proven guilty” Sure. “Balanced justice.” Sure. Whatever. I just don’t like it.  At base, the law itself can be sexist in application and education, and while there ARE a few cases of mistaken identity and false accusations, there is ALSO a history of using the court system to scare sexual assault victims into dropping charges.

So I cannot fathom the horror and fear that ANY sexual assault victim has to go through when she must face the person who beat her, hurt her, raped her, hugged her, tickled her, violated her, diseased her, choked her, terrorized her, incest her, touched her, threatened her, ripped her, knifed her, shot her… ESPECIALLY WHEN SHE HAS TO SIT IN COURT and RELATE EVERY HORRIFIC DETAIL to strangers.  In the hopes that someone believes her enough to put the person away for, what, 4-12 years?  If that.

So what do you do when the religious rights of a woman and the legal rights of a defendant clash?

In 2007, a woman known as N.S. (now aged 32) told police that her cousin and uncle sexually abused her repeatedly while she was between the ages of 6 and 10.  During the preliminary hearing to see if there was enough evidence to go to trial, the judge ordered her to remove her niqaab, face veil, based on his assessment that she was wearing it for comfort and not religious reasons.  The Toronto Star reported:

In October (2008), Ontario Court Justice Norris Weisman reached his “admittedly difficult decision” to force the complainant to testify with her face bared after finding her “religious belief is not that strong … and that it is, as she says, a matter of comfort,” he wrote in his ruling.

When the complainant indicated last fall she wanted to wear her veil while testifying at the preliminary hearing, defence counsel told the judge that assessing her demeanour was of “critical importance” when tailoring questioning.

Weisman asked the woman to explain her objections.

“It’s a respect issue, one of modesty and one of … in Islam, we call honour,” she replied. “It’s also about the religious reason is to not show your face to men that you are able to marry. … I would feel a lot more comfortable if I didn’t have to, you know, reveal my face.”

The case then went to the Superior Court and this week is now being considered by the Appeals Court.  At the moment, the case has nothing to do with the sexual assault.  The niqaab issue has completely railroaded this woman’s accusations and her chances at having her abusers go to trial (at least, this is how some Media sources are portraying it).  And it’s not like she’s fighting it.  She’s open to removing her face veil for identification purposes (her veil-less passport and driver’s license is being used as evidence against her), and has simply REQUESTED to keep her veil on during the trial.  And not because she doesn’t wish to be seen by her abusers.  Because she does not wish her face to be seen BY ANY MAN who is not a part of her immediate family.

What the Appeals court is deciding upon, is whether or not they have the right to judge her level of faith and piety. N.S. has even agreed that it’s OK for a court to question her on her adherence to Islam and dedication to wearing the veil:

A Muslim sexual-assault complainant has conceded that trial judges ought to be able to question the degree of a woman’s faith before allowing her to testify in a niqab.

“Speaking for my client, I do not have a problem with a couple of respectful questions,” lawyer David Butt told the Ontario Court of Appeal on Wednesday. “A little bit of understanding can go a long way.”

The major arguments against her wearing the veil at trial are that: a) the accused has a right to see the accuser’s face and b) subtle cues from facial expressions will be lost upon the court if she covers her face.

Because SHE MIGHT BE LYING.

N.S., young Canadian grown girl is apparently sexually assaulted by close relatives for four years of her life. At some point, she decided to take on the Islamic practice of veiling.  Supposedly, she’s weighed the pros and cons of the practice and feels that she is more comfortable living her life with her face covered.  A decade after the abuse has ended, she has the strength and (hopefully family support) to report it to the police. She is possibly going up against cultural and community stigmas and in my opinion, must be incredibly strong to report the abuse in the first place.

It’s not like she put the veil on during the trial. And even if she did, so what? Why is her level of piety being called into question?  Because this is a sexual assault case.  If she were a witness to a crime, would this be an issue?  Probably not — but because her uncle and cousin have a right to see their accuser, it seems like this case is becoming a battleground for the niqaab in Ontario.

I’m not the only one frustrated:

At one point, Mr. Justice David Doherty expressed frustration that the issue ever boiled into a major legal debate at all. “These agendas people bring make everything so complicated,” he said. “Why can’t it just be: ‘Why are you wearing a veil?’ ‘It’s my religious practice.’ ‘Then, let’s go on.’ ”

It’s become an issue because people fear the veil.  It’s calls up to mind distrust, oppression… bank robbers.  It’s a hotly debated issue within the Muslim community as well.  Is it pre-Islamic apparel that was practiced by the wealthy?  Did the prophet’s wives actually veil, or was that metaphor?  If it’s required, why is it specifically NOT allowed during the Hajj, the religious pilgrimage every able Muslim must perform in their lifetime?  Because of this ambiguity, people hold tight to the idea that it is oppressive — forced upon women. Indeed it is.  But there are many thousands of women, for centuries, who have willingly put it on because they feel it brings them closer to God.

It’s the agenda of people like Tarek Fatah who want to ban the niqaab outright (and hijab if we’d let him) that has helped in this railroading.  I’d like to safely say that he hates Muslims, at least, Muslims like me. (he blatantly refused to speak with me at a press conference, he has refused to speak with my female colleagues before debating them on Michel Coren Live)  In his mind, if you wear the hijab, you are incapable of critical thinking.  Why else would you be following the archaic laws of a misogynist religion.  And he’s supposed to be a voice for Muslim feminism.  How can he be when he hates women in hijab, and is arguing for this victim to remove her veil because it is a “political symbol of oppression of women.”

Right. Let’s ask the woman who has been sexually abused to remove her clothing.

A specific piece of clothing that she feels comfortable in.  That gives her Divinely inspired strength.  No, instead, let’s question her faith.  Because she can’t possibly be wearing it for religious purposes. Nope. She’s a trouble maker.  Even though she’s shown her face for identification purposes, and is willing to show her face during trial… no. Let’s blow everything out of proportion and tie up the SECULAR court system with a RELIGIOUS issue.  Under the guise of protecting the rights of her abusers.

And this is just makes me sad:

Whatever is decided about the niqab, if N.S. testifies at the preliminary inquiry, it is still unclear what would happen at trial.

The lower court judge said evidence given by N.S. while wearing her niqab could be excluded if it was found that it denied the accused their rights to full cross-examination.

That puts the woman in a terrible position, the Ontario Human Rights Commission says. Either she can wear her niqab and risk her testimony being excluded and the charges being dropped, or she can violate her own religious beliefs and remove the niqab to ensure her testimony is allowed.