21st March 2018
Muslim community representation in the Canadian society: to veil or not to veil.
There has been a profound influence of myths on the perception of Islam, and media has contributed immensely towards the false methodological convictions firmly held about Muslims and Islam specially post 9/11. Since decades Islam has been the center of disputation when it comes to cultural or political talk. It has been perceived as a religion of terrorism and oppression by the western communities, without understanding Islam in its pure essence that is subjectively and historically which led to introduction of laws in Quebec i.e. Bill 94 and Bill 62. According to McCutcheon religion cannot be studied as an independent entity because it is shaped by the various facets of society and constructed by people. Media is a tool used by the popular culture to denounce another religion based on their interpretation and rage of political exasperation.
My research work is based on the theoretical approach of orientalism to describe the Muslim community and stigmas attached to them because of certain preconceived notions held in the Canadian society. Edward Said argues that the Muslim community is examined in a narrower way and they are depicted as villains and fanatics. The western politicians such as Harper and Trump accused Islamic states and Muslim communities as being terrorists and irrational. They take Islam as an oppressive religion based on a religious norm of wearing a “niqab”. The western media and society doesn’t consider the Islamic teachings and its advantages behind Muslim women veil instead perceive a conviction based on their abstract understanding of the religion (Edward Said). My research showed that the niqab worn by Muslim women is almost similar to the veil worn by Christian nuns but they both are judged differently. This is where incertitude arises because same piece of clothing worn by two different people belonging to two different religions are treated and perceived differently. This is where Edward Said elevates his voice that this so called independent media in liberal Western society is controlled by the interests of commercial and political institutions.
This course has highlighted the way media represents religion and culture in contemporary society and its impact on individuals and society as a whole. Media delineates religion based on stereotypical views. Canada is a diverse country but its media doesn’t represent religions equally especially Christianity, Judaism and Islam (media smart). Stereotypical representations are used to disparage a specific religion, grasp attention of readers or due to lack of proper understanding about a religion and its teachings. The representations are open to interpretations by the wider society as the work of Réné Magritte on “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” exemplifies this notion. People might interpret something based on their existing knowledge and understanding about something. Magritte argued that there are many forms of pipes in relation to its physical appearance and what it is made of, therefore, even in cultural or religious context there are different portrayals and representations based on one’s life experiences and exposure towards it. Islam has been a source of target since a long time specially after 9/11 attack. Hate crimes against Muslims increased in post 9/11 era; Muslim women were stereotyped, arsons on mosque, shootings and threats of violence against the American Muslim community (The New York times). One of the prevailing talking point has been the “burqa” or “veil” which is worn by Muslim women. Western societies see burqa or head scarf as a rationale of oppression and torture (Hannah R Blakeman). This stereotypical belief can be seen in the “little mosque of the prairie” too where Muslim women are judged based on wearing a headscarf and referred to as “people belonging to a third world with lots of rules”. In season 2 episode 12, a girl Rayyan is removed out of the curling team despite having exceptional skills because of a head scarf (little mosque on the prairie). There are various stereotypical views held in Canadian society based on the representation of Muslims shown on media for example a Muslim Imam is perceived as someone with long beard and traditional Islamic clothes. Little Mosque on the Prairie challenges this notion by representing an Imam in this show whose appearance is entirely opposite from the stereotypical belief held about an imam. The extremist views portrayed in media regarding a religion or its specific aspect has little to do with reality as one cannot experience the subjectivity of a religion or see it objectively unless he becomes a part of it.
The Western and European communities have adopted the orientalist perspective to justify the Western Imperialism even though it comes on an expense of Eastern communities who are portrayed in a negative sense i.e. terrorist, narrow-minded, assertive, irrational and exploit women. Muslim face veils such as the niqab and burqa now figure prominently in political debates as well (Meena Sharify Funk). As Harper made statements that Anti-women has its roots in Islamic religion and radical fear of Muslim Jihad is real (Canuck politics). Such statements have been made by many politicians only because the Muslim women decide to wear a head scarf or veil. The colonial/orientalist arguments want to emancipate Muslim women by banning or removal of the veil (Shahnaz Khan). They fail to consider the historical background in respect to Islamic teachings and the importance of veil in the lives of Muslim women. The media fails to consider the Muslim women who do not opt to wear a headscarf and those who do is their personal choice whether spiritually or for protection from the sexual harassment on streets. Muslim women see veil as a protection and a way of liberation in society (Shahnaz Khan). As Leila Ahmed points out that “Veiling to Western eyes, the most visible marker of the differentness and inferiority of Islamic societies became the symbol now of both the oppression of women (or, in the language of the day, Islam’s degradation of women) and the backwardness of Islam, and it became the open target of colonial attack and the spearhead of the assault
on Muslim societies (1992:152).
Post 9/11 led to an endless topic of debate on veil and increased stereotyping against the Muslim community. The western community took veil as a symbol of oppression and terrorism. However, post 9/11 was the beginning of the process of re-Islamisation and the veil acquired a new meaning and significance as it has been appropriated as a symbol of an identity which is threatened by ruthless army (Zayzafoon). A war propaganda cast was initiated to commence a change in Muslim nation, aimed at bringing civilization to uncivilized Muslims and democracy to those living under autocratic regimes. It was also projected as defending American values deemed valid for all time and place, beginning with the empowerment of Muslim women; “They hate us because our culture teaches us to respect women” (Chris Mathews-MSNBC). This shows the lack of understanding about the religion Islam as it is the religion which protects women and their dignity by valuing them by having great emphasizes and strict guidelines over how to treat women with respect and dignity. Most of the Islamic literature’s discourse written on women in 20th century mirrors Western discourse in upholding the importance of women’s empowerment. At the same time, it refutes Western norms that debase women by treating them as sex objects and argues that Islam has liberated women and elevated their status (Haddad 1998). Muslim women turned towards mosque as a refuge from the hatred from the crusaders who yelled “tear off the veil” and other derogatory remarks. Muslim women started taking more interest in the mosque to sought community support. The mosque provided a Muslim space, a refuge for Muslim friends who shared the same religious values. It became a social center for Muslims and a secure place where they could perform their religious practices without the fear of outsiders criticizing, accusing, condemning and threatening them. They became places of comfort where the recitations of the Qur’an provided assurance and affirmation that the period of tribulation is transient and that God will support believers (Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad). Mosque provided the security and the assurance of belonging. It was also projected as defending American values deemed valid for all time and place, beginning with the empowerment of Muslim women (Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, pg. 255). The campaign stressed the need to mobilize American armed forces to liberate the Muslim women of Afghanistan, in particular, from their degrading condition. First Lady Laura Bush, for example, in her November 17, 2001 radio address claimed that “the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women”. But how can you protect a woman by degrading her choice and religious values? Liberation refers to free will and not forcing a religious group to uncover their faces for the sake of equality. Everyone has the right to practice their religion openly. “Go to a mosque, go and sit down and listen to a sermon. It’s not what people think. It’s nothing to be afraid of,” (Samreen, CTV news ca).
Burqa or Veil has become the center of attention in political debates and various laws have been introduced to ban face covering in command to have religious neutrality and security purposes. Such laws have been introduced in Quebec through Bill 94 and Bill 62. These bills targeted the Muslim women who cover their face using a piece of clothing called burqa. Bill 94 was introduced by the Minister Kathleen on 24th March,2010, as a solution to the need to balance individual freedom with the values of Quebec society including equality between men and women and secular public institutions (Montreal CTV news). It happened as a result when a Muslim woman refused to take off her head scarf during a French course. This bill focused on limiting the government services for the women who refused to uncover their face. The protestors argued that there are only few women in Quebec who cover their face in the name of their faith and nearly 150,000 provincial health insurance card photos taken in 2009, just 10 involved requests for accommodation from women in niqabs (CBC news).
“We travel thousands of miles and kilometers to go to … Afghanistan to teach woman in niqabs, because we claim the Taliban denies an education,” said Elmenyawi. “When they come to us here in Montreal, we tell them, no, we won’t give you access. What is the difference between them and the actions of Taliban?” (CBC news).
The ban on face covering would avoid the Muslim community to integrate with the Canadian society and would create a gap between them. The choice of face-covering shouldn’t be of a concern to anyone until it’s not hurting anyone. There had been concerns shown regarding this bill as it could create issues in the future for the government and the nation. “Where the bill can be problematic is the possibility of creating a precedent,” said Fo Niemi, director of the Centre for Research Action on Race Relations. “Today it is the niqab, tomorrow it could be the hijab the day after that it could be the Sikh turban … and then afterwards … how far we go?” (CBC news).
However, bill 94 was never implemented but another bill was recently introduced in Quebec called Bill 62 which has been passed by the government. This bill led to heated reaction across the country because it bans face covering in provincial and municipal public sector as well. This bill doesn’t allow the women wearing niqab or covering their face to ride a bus or use any other public services such as library, hospital, classroom etc. (Global news). According to Stephanie Valle face covering is a legitimate question of communication, identification and security (Global news). However, the opposition seen it as targeting the Muslim community only because it is Muslims who cover their face for religious or personal reasons. This bill is seen as very marginal (Samaa Elibyari-Canadian council of Muslim women). This law is considered to be too broad because the guidelines still haven’t been put forward as to how to treat or accommodate the Muslim women who choose to cover their face. Stephanie Valle said in response to hatred and protests that religious accommodations for exemption would be available for the women (Global news). But why make a law when there would be accommodation made for a particular group (Nathalie Roy-Secularism critic). This creates a sense of inferiority for the Muslim women who would have to apply for an accommodation even for regular services which is their right to receive. If a religious thing is seen as problematic and an issue for concern then it would lead to Islamophobia and marginalizing a minority group on the basis of their religious practices and values. The bill also violates the Human rights law of freedom of expression as the full-face veil is a symbol or expression of Muslim women (Islam) and even generally speaking it is wrong to compel a woman to dress a certain way (CLAIHR). The restrictions on face coverings are already in effect, but there are no guidelines yet for how Quebeckers can seek religious exemptions from it. The province says it will draw up guidelines for religious exemptions by June 2018 (The Globe and Mail).
Muslim community have been on target by the western community since 9/11 because of
the misconception regarding their religion Islam and its teachings. However, western perception regarding Muslim women and men have changed since post 9/11 both positively and negatively. As many started perceiving Islam as extremist and oppressive. As Zarqa Nawaz showed in her show “The little mosque on the Prairie” that extremism is present in every society and religion whether it’s Islam or Christianity (An interview with George Stroumboulopoulos). But even now Muslim women have to invest considerable efforts to change their colonial images of being passive Muslim women and proving themselves as rational and literate women both in classroom and outside. These misconceptions or colonial images have led to a great rage and frustration in response to the deliberate racism towards Muslims in Canada (Homa Hoodfar). The portrayal of Islam in media has led to an absurd distinction between good Muslims and bad Muslims rather than terrorism and civilians (Mahmood Mamdani). However, this distinction is only for Muslims and the westerners are only seen as civilized people rather than good westerners and bad westerners. Moreover, it is wrongly perceived that communication deficiency is on part of niqabi women rather on rational level these women are capable of communicating properly using Quebec native language. These views on niqabi women reflect a visceral reaction rather than a well-reasoned point of concern (Choudhury Rafay). There needs to be a true democracy where the rights of minority are also protected and respected rather than gaining trust and votes of the majority only – so that both may belong to a single political community living by a single set of rules.
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