Much Ado About a Little Covering

Reuel S. Amdur May/June 2016

The niqab has entered the realm of law and politics in Canada. At issue is the question of what Islam requires in the way of female garb. The main terms to be understood here are the hijab and niqab. The hijab is a garment that covers the hair, at a minimum—perhaps also the neck and ears. The niqab covers the face and goes with a hijab.

Those who look at the Quran for guidance read that in Surah 24:30, 31 it calls on women “not to display their beauty except what is apparent, and they shall place their kumar over their bosoms.” Kumar is understood to be a scarf. This apparently means that the cloth that covers the head should also cover other parts, perhaps neck and ears as well as bosom.

So what does this seventh-century passage mean in the twenty-first century? In short, there are a wide variety of understandings. In Ottawa, Canada, there was a gathering recently at which an imam (Muslim cleric) honored a girl for refusing to remove her hijab for a soccer game. Her teammates refused to play without her, and the team was penalized. Incidentally, the referee who made the call on the hijab was also a Muslim. When the girl’s mother was asked why she did not wear a hijab, she replied, “I have not had the call.” After the session the imam told me, “I don’t let my wife and daughters wear the hijab.”

It is apparent how this particular surah could also be seen for face covering. In fact, some hadith—sayings that are less authoritative than the Quran, and sometimes contradictory—are much more explicit in calling for face covering. So much for politicians who boldly assert that Islam does not require the niqab. The matter is hardly that clear.

A word is in order about a couple other pieces of female attire, which are very uncommon, if not unknown, in Canada. The chador is a loosely fitting Iranian garment that covers a woman’s body, hiding the hair and giving no hint of body shape. It does not cover the face. A burka goes further, completely covering the face, with a mesh through which a woman can see somewhat.

Where does all this leave us in Canada today? Some Muslims wear the hijab, and some do not. A very few wear a niqab. It could be said that all comes down to a matter of custom and personal understanding and choice. But then it also comes down to law and politics.

In 2013 the secessionist Parti Québécois proposed a Charter of Values, which set down a dress code, more or less on the French model. No “ostentatious” religious symbols for government employees or those seeking government services. A large crucifix—no; a small one, OK.

Then came the 2014 Quebec election. The Parti Québécois was defeated by the Liberals, led by Philippe Couillard. Before the election, he vigorously opposed the Charter of Values, but he did nevertheless promise legislation to outlaw the niqab, burka, and chador. His reason was that these items of dress are instruments of female repression.

Now, the justification for that opposition has changed. Minister of Justice Stéphanie Vallée argues that the legislation is necessary because of the need to verify the person’s identity. The proposed law would require people working for the government or seeking government services to have their faces uncovered.

So what is the need for legislation against this “threat”? Here I must speak largely from personal observation, as someone who has in fact encountered Muslim women with face coverings and has attended some Muslim events, both in Quebec and across the river in Ottawa. I have never encountered a woman wearing a chador or a burka. I have seen a few who hid their facial features behind a niqab. That is the key—a few, very few. I have attended occasional services in mosques, and no woman I have ever seen at a mosque wore a niqab (an observation requiring diligence, since men and women worship separately). Some women in Canada choose to wear a niqab, and some husbands are in fact embarrassed by their choice, feeling that it reflects on them, leading people to think it is something they impose.

Couillard’s view about the role of women’s clothing may have merit at a psychocultural level, and the same might be said about the separation of men and women in Orthodox synagogues and the role of women in the Catholic Church. Obviously, he is not about to take on Orthodox Jews and Catholics by bringing in challenging legislation for them.

Quebec politicians are making a big thing about a very small matter, and one could foresee problems with what is proposed. Let’s take a hypothetical case. Quebec winters can be rough. A woman wearing a niqab slips on the ice and breaks her leg. What happens when she gets to the hospital and refuses to remove her niqab? Couillard is a physician: Do no harm should be the mantra.

On a related matter, there was a Supreme Court ruling in a case in which a rape victim refused to remove her niqab in court, as demanded by the defense. The Supreme Court more or less ducked the issue, returning the matter to the lower court to figure out how to decide the question in that particular case.

In 2011 then-Immigration Minister Jason Kenney issued a directive making all candidates for citizenship to appear with face uncovered. Pakistani immigrant Zunera Ishaq challenged the ban in court, and in 2015 the Federal Court of Appeal ruled in her favor. The decision did not address the issue of religious freedom. Rather, it held that Kenney acted beyond his authority, that such a directive required cabinet approval. While this decision was a defeat for the government, it gave the Conservative government just what it wanted in the 2015 election campaign, a hot-button issue.

This was a case of one woman demanding the right to take the oath wearing a niqab. She was prepared to take it off for a citizenship employee in private, for identification prior to the ceremony. There is one other woman asking for the same arrangement, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper seemed to see the court decision as a gift.

And here is where Australian Lynton Crosby came into the picture. Crosby serves right-wing party election campaigns. He is known as the master of what is called dog-whistle politics. A dog whistle emits a sound that is not audible to the human ear but that a dog can pick up. Its meaning in politics is that one says something that appears innocuous on its face but that a target audience will interpret and appreciate.

In 2011 he aided former Australian prime minister John Howard’s re-election campaign, with such slogans as “We decide who comes into this country.” In aid of the British Conservatives in 2015, he used the line “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration.” In these two examples the message particularly appeals to racists and xenophobes. In addition to the dog-whistle effect, there is the wider impact on the subconscious and deeper unconscious feelings of voters. Crosby also had his finger in the pie in Canada during the recent campaign.

In the end, his strategy of appealing to anti-niqab and anti-Muslim sentiment was only partially successful, and Harper lost. The Liberals won enough seats to form a majority government. It seems, however, that the niqab issue had enough impact to seriously injure the New Democratic Party (NDP) in Quebec, where anti-Muslim sentiment is much stronger than in the rest of Canada.

The NDP is a social democratic party which in the 2011 election came from virtually nowhere in the province of Quebec to 59 seats out of 75, largely on the charm and charisma of Jack Layton, their leader, who died during the campaign. In the 2015 election Liberal Justin Trudeau was the charmer, much as Obama was during his first campaign. Both the NDP under Thomas Mulcair and Trudeau opposed the niqab-bashing and its hidden anti-Islamism, but the NDP were the ones with sitting members and the ones on whom the dog-whistling appears to have taken its toll. After the election they were down to 16 seats in the province.

In his victory speech Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke of a hijab-clad woman in St. Catharines, Ontario, who attended his rally there. She went up to him, placed her baby girl in his arms, and said that she would vote for him because “she wants to make sure that her little girl has the right to make her own choices in her life and that the government will protect those rights.” Voices in the crowd shouted, “Niqab! Niqab!” This surely is not the end of the story.

Article Author: Reuel S. Amdur

Reuel Amdur writes from Val-des-Monts, Quebec, Canada.