The dichotomy of whether to veil or not to veil

Does this look say "I'm modest" or "I'm alluring"?
Does this look say “I’m modest”, or “I’m alluring”?

The current kerfuffle about Zunera Ishaq’s quest to take her oath of citizenship while wearing a niqab has me totally confused. On one hand, as a liberal-thinking Canadian, I’m trying to be inclusive and say what harm can it do? On the other hand, I’m questioning the deeper motives and merits of her position. We’ve all read copious newspaper articles and columns both pro and con and it’s difficult to judge what is truly right or wrong. I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Perhaps the best solution is to let Ishaq identify herself privately without the veil before taking her oath and let’s get on with the business of being Canadian.

My bigger concern here is the validity of the motive for wearing the niqab. Islam does not require it of all women. It’s a cultural choice on the spectrum of Muslim interpretations of modesty. Not all Muslim women choose to wear the niqab. Mennonites have a similar approach to lifestyle issues such as whether to drive a motor vehicle or merely be a passenger; to wear traditional prairie dresses or more contemporary clothing.  Hasidic Jewish women cover their heads with a wig while less orthodox women do not. We have no right to dictate the dress code one way or another.

Zunera Ishaq insists on her right to modesty despite wearing sparkly clothing and vibrant prints.
Zunera Ishaq insists on her right to modesty despite wearing sparkly clothing and vibrant prints.

Ishaq has chosen to push the point for wearing the niqab during her citizenship swearing-in but I question her true position on modesty. She displays an obvious preference for presenting herself attractively, perhaps even provocatively for her culture. Rather than wearing a boring, understated black niqab, Ishaq has consistently appeared in brightly-coloured outfits with coordinating niqab. In the first press photos, she was attired in a bubblegum pink jilbab with complimentary niqab in pink and purple plaid. Her eyes are artfully outlined in kohl, with skillful use of smokey eye shadow and brows perfectly groomed. In another picture in Maclean’s magazine she wore a purple jilbab with rhinestone starbursts up both sleeves. Her niqab was printed with a cascade of brushstrokes resembling peacock feathers. Her choices of attire do not strike me as discreet or modest. It says, “Look at me. I’m bright, colourful and alluring”. This message appears to me in direct conflict with her claims of modesty.

If new Canadians insist on wearing variations of head and face coverings for their swearing-in ceremony, we have no right to legislate otherwise. Canada is an accepting and tolerant society. If they want to wear a ball gown or only a loincloth for the ceremony, that too is their right. It harms no one. However, would a typically Canadian ski mask be tolerated at a swearing-in? Not likely. I do think respect for Canadian cultural norms should be considered. When Canadians travel abroad we try to respect the cultural standards of the countries we visit and do not demand alcoholic beverages in restaurants in strictly Muslim countries. There are times in life when we have to adjust our personal choices out of respect for our host country.

Being a citizen of Canada is a privilege.
Being a citizen of Canada is a special privilege.

Publicity surrounding the issue has put me in the uncomfortable position of feeling like I should make a moral judgement about something that should be a non-issue. Let’s focus on more important concerns like election and senate reform, accountability and honesty in government, the environment, poverty, prevention of violence, and other issues of far greater importance within our wonderful country. Zunera Ishaq’s situation is much adieu about nothing.

Subsequent generations of new Canadians gradually assimilate into Canadian society, frequently under protest by their old-country traditional parents. I’d be curious to check in with Zunera Ishaq in a few years when her own daughters are young Canadian women acting and dressing like their contemporaries, sans niqab. Immigrants have contributed enormously to the amazing lifestyle we enjoy in Canada and we’re still a work in progress. Zunera Ishaq is a young woman pushing the limits of our tolerance and with time, perhaps she too will come to appreciate the full meaning of being Canadian, of being free and feeling safe, respected and honest, and perhaps even comfortable enough as a Muslim woman to bare her face in public. Then, she will be a true citizen of Canada.

Here’s another point of view:

Cara Lee Leclerc's photo.

What do you think?


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