Recently a number of people on Twitter were responding negatively to an image posted of Rachel Notley wearing a headscarf attached to her Eid greeting. Now, it should be understood that every time Premier Notley tweets anything, the haters come rushing out from under their bridges to fling poo in her direction. That is a given. There is a segment of Alberta society, sadly, that cannot tolerate the fact that Albertans elected an NDP government, or that that government is led by a woman. They are in extremis no matter how innocuous her message might be. So there are a number of this type of comment. She could post, “Wishing every Albertan a safe and happy weekend” and people would flame her.
Then, there are those who are offended because she is addressing a message to Muslims. They called it “pandering”, trying to get the Muslim vote. Interestingly, these same people apparently did not feel it was pandering when Jason “curry-in-a-hurry” Kenney was spending all kinds of public money to go dashing around Canada, attending every cultural festival and feast he could to woo the “ethnic” vote while he was a cabinet minister.
Finally, there are those who objected to the scarf Ms Notley has draped over her head. Some called it cultural appropriation. That would be a concern, and I hope some Muslims were consulted to find out how this would be viewed by the Muslim community. It comes down to where the viewer stands on cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation. At one extreme, there are those who say non-Japanese people should not eat sushi because that is cultural appropriation. I expect that many sushi restauranteurs actually want to encourage culinary cultural appreciation and would argue vehemently that enjoying their food is in no way appropriation.
It seems fairly clear that the head scarf worn by the Premier is merely showing a symbol of respect to the community she is addressing, in much the same way as Harper did when he donned a yarmulke when lighting the menorah at the Calgary Jewish Community Centre in 2011.
The really interesting arguments, however, were about wearing the niqab and hijab in Canadian society. It is hard to say how many Canadians gave these forms of Muslim attire much thought before the Conservatives decided to make the niqab a key election issue in 2015. Probably not nearly as many as are aware of them now. Quite a large number of people, from across the political spectrum, regard the wearing of headscarves by Muslim women offensive. And they are not swayed by the fact that many cultures have prescribed head coverings, for both men and women. People are not really upset by turbans anymore. They view the traditional nun’s wimple and habit as normal, even though very few orders still dress this way.
But the hijab or niqab alarms and enrages many people. They explain that Muslim head coverings are a symbol of Islamic repression of women. And, it is true, that in some regions with Islamic theocratic governments, women must wear these head coverings. It is the law. But in the Western world, they are not compelled to wear them. Not by governments, or by their families in the majority of cases. Indeed, many Muslim women wear the hijab or niqab in spite of opposition from their families. “No, no!” Say the hijab detractors. “They only think they are choosing to wear it. It is because they have been brainwashed by their evil, misogynistic religion.”
Let’s talk about high heels for a moment. High heels are bad for the health of your body. And yet, in North America, they are considered high fashion. High heels make a woman’s legs appear longer and slimmer, they cause the posterior to jut out and the back to arch, accentuating the bust. Who is this visual display for? Well, straight men, usually. And, for a very long time, high heels have been required footwear for women working in many parts of the hospitality industry. Serving staff in high heels and short skirts are ubiquitous. And not just serving staff. Women in professions like accounting are expected to dress “professionally” and that often includes high heels. This has been raised as a human rights issue in recent years, and public pressure is beginning to force some restauranteurs to change their dress codes for employees. No woman should be forced to wear high heels for the visual satisfaction of men. Period.
But, if a woman wants to wear high heels, no one is going to stop her. When going out for a nice dinner or to a party, many women feel more confident and powerful in their heels. They feel they look good. And while this is no doubt part of the western ideals of beauty that we have been socialized to our entire lives, it is our choice to buy into it. We are free to do that.
What has this got to with hijabs? In Canada, no one can force a woman to wear a hijab or niqab. Just like employers are (technically) legally not allowed to force female employees to wear high heels. But neither can anyone force a woman to not wear a niqab or hijab, just as no one can force a woman to wear flats instead of heels, if she has chosen to wear heels.
Remember, heels are actually not just a symbol of male dominance and rape culture, but they are also actually physically harmful. A niqab or hijab may be a symbol of Islamic culture (and some would say the repressive side of that culture), but it is really just a piece of cloth.
Many Muslim families that come to Canada do so to escape the repressive regimes in their homelands, as well as the devastation of war. They come to a country like Canada so everyone, including the women and girls in the family can have a better future. And the girls and women in these families usually have the opportunity to decide for themselves about head scarves.
The bottom line is, if you believe no man has the right to tell a woman she must cover her head, then you must also believe no man has the right to tell a woman she must uncover it. It is her choice. Because we live in a free society. Choice is freedom, regardless of whether you choose to cover or uncover.