Barbara Kay: There is a reason the niqab covers the mouth


National Post - Friday April 4th, 2014

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
If women enjoyed the niqab, Afghani women would be the happiest in the world.

I was pleased to read the April 2 op-ed by Zainab Bint Younus in the National Post, “Don’t speak for Muslim women. Speak to us,” written in response to a preceding column by Jonathan Kay, in which he described his psychological discomfort with the niqab.

To clarify, I wasn’t pleased to read Ms Younus’ op ed because I approve of the niqab – on the contrary, I am on record (my readers might say I am like a “broken record,” I’ve written on the subject so often) favouring proscription of the niqab in tax-funded institutions – but because I assume Ms Younus considers her arguments persuasive (and they are indeed as “ good” as arguments for the niqab get). What pleases me, therefore, is that all of her arguments are so full of logical holes one could drive a Mack truck through them. To wit:

Canadians may well be the world’s leaders in the journalistic cottage industry of dressing up Muslim. Seven years ago, a Huffington Post editor put on a burka for a week, and attempted to play it for laughs in a piece titled “Does This Burka Make Me Look Fat?” Last year, Quebec’s favourite hothead, Richard Martineau, wore a burka on his French-language rantfest, “Franchement Martineau” — mirroring a stunt performed by Sun News personality Ezra Levant, who pronounced the garment “bloody uncomfortable” before ripping it off after a minute or two. His Sun colleague, David “The Menzoid” Menzies, put a Burka on a 14-year-old child and filmed him buying 24 ounces of hard stuff at an Ontario liquor store.

The latest installment in this genre comes courtesy of Queen’s Journal copy editor Anisa Rawhani, a young non-Muslim woman who wore a hijab (a veil that covers the head and chest, but leaves most of the face exposed) for 18 days to see how people would react. Unlike the above-mentioned stunts, Rawhani’s journalism seems to have been motivated primarily by genuine sociological curiosity.

 Ms Younus says the niqab is “primarily an act of worship to God.” Either she has founded a new religion, or Ms Younus considers herself more an authority on Islam than innumerable Islamic scholars who one and all have declared that face cover is not inherent to Islam, but is rather a custom in some Islamic regions and not in others. Indeed, Egypt and Syria ban face cover on university campuses.

But religion is not the issue. Face cover as a principle is. According to democratic principles, face cover in a free society is socially unwholesome, and the onus is on Ms Younus – not those of us representing cultural norms – to prove it is not. Personal anecdote does not constitute evidence.

Ms Younus claims the niqab is “a conscious choice to not engage in the overwhelming, toxic environment of hypersexualization that cheapens men, women and sexuality….” Nobody would dispute there are hypersexualized facets of our culture; they are deplorable but also avoidable. Wearing a mask, however, implies that hypersexualization is the normative condition of our society – i.e. the streets, the mall, places of employment, the dress of ordinary citizens. Not to mention women wearing hijabs but no face cover.  So her statement not only indicts 90% of Canadian citizens (are we Canadian women really all “stripped of humanity” in our suits and cardies and Lulu Lemon pants?), her statement deeply insults her modestly dressed co-religionists.

 Ms Younus claims “I am a feminist through and through.” I know feminism is a pretty elastic theory these days, but I can assure Ms Younus that no rubber band on earth can embrace the ideology of feminism and shariah law; and since the niqab signifies a loyal follower of shariah, according to which women have lesser value and rights than men, one must choose shariah or feminism; one cannot have both.

Ms Younus states there have been “only” three honour killings in Canada in 15 years. Actually there have been more than 15 in the last 20 years in which honour has been the admitted motivation. There have been others we suspect but can’t prove are honour-motivated. In the countries where the niqab is common, however, honour killings run to the hundreds or even thousands annually.

There is a reason why “hypersexualization” is not an issue in honour-dominant countries. Death is a high price to pay for wearing a bikini at the beach. Note I say “at the beach,” because even in this (in Ms Younus’ eyes) depraved country, we do have dress codes for different venues that people adhere to in order to meet community standards of decency.

Ms Younus’ comparison of the niqab to violent black youths wearing hoodies was inappropriate and racist.  A hoodie is an article of clothing, and many people wear hoodies. A niqab is not clothing. It is a tent thrown over clothing. And a mask is not a scarf; it is a depersonalizing barrier to social intercourse and meant to be. The socially pluralist Ms Younus is the exception, not the rule.

Ms Younus says niqab’d women “are empowered human beings who can speak for ourselves.” But she is one of the rare niqab’d women speaking! That she put it on voluntarily seven years ago tells us she doesn’t appreciate the phenomenon in its full, misogynistic history. If the niqab is so “empowering,” shouldn’t the women of Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan be the happiest women on earth?

Defending the indefensible does no favour to those numerous niqab’d women who don’t speak out, because they have been indoctrinated since birth to believe they have no right to speak. There is a reason the niqab covers the mouth. Suppression of women’s rights goes hand in hand with imposed or internalized suppression of speech.

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