Politics

Building a pro-woman culture in the wake of the niqab debate

On Wednesday afternoon, Oumessad Khoufache was on her way to pick up her daughter at school when two young men on bicycles, about 15 or 16, ripped her hijab from her head.  Stunned, the 31-year old fell to the ground. On her belly.  Khoufache is 4 months pregnant.

“My wife is afraid to leave the house,” her husband Abdelhafid Ben Bellil. “She is sad and she’s crying.”

Ms. Khoufache was reportedly too upset to speak to Le Journal de Montréal, instead allowing her husband to speak on her behalf.

Violence against womenLast week in Toronto, “Old Stock Canadian” and private fitness trainer Safira Merriman was assaulted in front of her two small daughters.  Merriman converted to Islam, donning the veil despite her husband’s protests (“My husband was adamant: ‘Don’t put it on, don’t put it on, don’t put it on.’”).  As Merriman told The Globe and Mail,

“Don’t work on assumptions. Instead of jumping to the stereotype and attacking with words, attacking with your hands, attacking with your glares, ask. Because we’re more than happy to answer. We want you to ask.”

So much for Canada being a nation that isn’t “rooted in a culture that is anti-woman,” the brushstroke with which Prime Minister Stephen Harper has painted Islam as his government prepared to argue its case against Zunera Ishaq, the woman fighting for her right to swear her citizenship oath while wearing the niqab.

The assaults on Khoufache and Merriman ares reminiscent of attacks against veiled women, which spiked dramatically in the wake of Quebec’s 2014 Charter of Values debate.  And the perpetrators of that violence were none other than these women’s fellow citizens – Montrealers, Quebecois – the same people who have long fought gender discrimination in all its forms.

Some of the most notable incidents included a woman verbally assaulted and humiliated on a city bus, another facing down demands to remove her veil at a shopping mall.

Dalila Awada in an interview with Radio Canada.

Dalila Awada, arguably the face of young Muslimahs leading the charge against the now quashed Charter of Values in Quebec, in an interview with Radio Canada.

Of note, the potentially slanderous campaign to discredit Dalila Awada, arguably the face of young Muslimahs leading the charge against the Charter, a ‘submissive woman’ who ‘paints herself up like a clown’ and objectifies herself by wearing a ‘sexy’ Minnie Mouse costume.  Months later, one of the bloggers who was most vociferous in his criticism, who attempted to link Awada to a fundamentalist Islamic agenda, admitted that he had instrumentalized her to drive home his own agenda.

And how could we forget the violence inflicted on Naima Rharouity, who died violently when her headscarf and hair was ensnared in a Montreal subway escalator. But her scarf wasn’t “pure laine,” (the Quebecois equivalent of “Old Stock Canadian”) and so Rharouity’s death was treated with derision:  “One less ‘imported’ who won’t integrate – good riddance.

There is no question that the niqab has become an electoral issue, a flash point in the debate on women’s rights and Canadian culture and values.  But the tone of recent debates around the niqab is escalating and putting veiled women squarely in the cross-hairs of a budding culture war. A potential upswing in violence against women on our streets cannot be part of our strategy to end the oppression of any woman.

Mourning Naima Rharouity. Photo: Joël Lemay / Agence QMI

Mourning Naima Rharouity. Photo: Joël Lemay / Agence QMI

So how do we achieve a pro-woman culture? First off, by re-establishing defunded women’s shelters and rape crisis centres. By addressing rape culture on our university campuses. By moving to action on missing and murdered Indigenous women.

When it comes to ensuring the safety and dignity of Muslimah women, we achieve this by calling out Islamophobia, which is itself a form of cultural violence. We achieve a pro-woman culture by refusing to engage in “predatory chivalry” and by stepping out of the closets of the nation.

Safira Merriman, a Toronto woman with French-Canadian roots who converted to Islam and now wears a niqab, recently assaulted during a shopping trip. Photo: J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. MOCZULSKI

Safira Merriman, a Toronto woman with French-Canadian roots who converted to Islam and now wears a niqab, recently assaulted during a shopping trip. Photo: J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. MOCZULSKI

We achieve a pro-woman culture by recognizing that Muslimahs have a voice and that they are free to decide the fate of their bodies – that cornerstone of the feminist struggle. That this fate might – or might not – include donning the veil of their own volition. We will have achieved a pro-woman culture when we finally trust women to make their own free choices.

And then, perhaps veiled Muslimahs will not have to fear heading out to the local mall or walking the few blocks from their homes to pick up their children at the local daycare.

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6 thoughts on “Building a pro-woman culture in the wake of the niqab debate

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