Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently decided that he is the spokesman for the rights and feelings of Muslim women. He proclaimed that the niqab, the face covering that some Muslim women choose to wear, is anti-Canadian, part of a fundamentally oppressive culture, and actually offensive to Canadians.
“Why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practice [niqab] at that time that is not transparent, that is not open and, frankly, is rooted in a culture that is anti-women? […] and quite frankly stokes fears and anxieties at a time where people are worried about terrorism and extremism.” tweet
Harper made these comments while discussing whether or not women should be allowed to wear the niqab while taking the Canadian citizenship oath. His comments are offensive and narrow-minded on a variety of levels. First of all, it is completely problematic that he has decided that Islam is fundamentally oppressive to women. Obviously, this is not a fresh take on the religion, but it is especially problematic when this comes from a prominent world leader.
His comments are part of a larger ostracization of Muslims. Depicting Islam as essentially inferior to Western culture is a common narrative perpetuated by people who want to justify and continue the ongoing wars in Muslim countries. Delegitimizing Islam devalues Muslim lives. It fits into the familiar narrative of the clash of Eastern and Western civilizations that has been told since the days of the Crusades.
Harper’s infantilization of Muslim women is also extremely ironic. Obviously, some women around the world are pressured to wear hijab or niqab. The solution is not to ban these articles of clothing, because the problem in these scenarios is the entitlement that some men feel to dictate how women dress. The problem does not lie in the cloth itself. Harper is doing precisely what he claims the niqab is doing. He is oppressing women and trying to control how they dress. Forcing a woman to take off a garment is actually just as bad as forcing her to put it on.
When you make laws legislating the religious dress of women, you are helping no one. The laws do not actually help women who were pressured to wear niqab; they are now just in another forced state of attire. They have not been given back their right to choose.
These laws actually hurt some people. They have a strong negative effect on those women who chose to wear niqab. They have now had their right to choose taken from them. They will be obligated to expose more of themselves than they would be comfortable doing. Think of the humiliation that entails.
Harper’s thoughts, if turned into law, are extremely dangerous. They have the potential to disenfranchise those Muslim women who choose to cover. They also put Islam, and thus Muslims by extension, outside of the regular society, as being part of an inferior culture.
The response by Canadians has been very heartening. The Twitter hashtag #DressCodePM criticizes Harper for trying to control the outfit choices of Canadian citizens and mocks him for his overreach. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau also seems to at least partially get it; he said, ““It is a cruel joke to claim you are liberating people from oppression by dictating in law what they can and cannot wear” – a sentiment that is difficult to argue with.
I hope that Stephen Harper, and those who think like him, take this kind of criticism seriously. I know I’m just a poor little oppressed Muslim woman, but I’d like to decide for myself what articles of clothing are demeaning or oppressive, and I’d like the world’s governments to have exactly zero say in my outfit choices. We need to step away from this kind of infringement on very basic rights to freedom of expression, and we need to keep away from deliberately polarizing and inflammatory comments. Let’s hope Harper learns that, soon.
Image: [The Canadian Press/ Patrick Doyle]