Canada

Hijabis, Niqabis, and Religious Liberties in the Secular State

When I was fourteen, my new geometry teacher paused while taking attendance on the first day of class to inform me that she didn’t allow hats in the classroom. “We’ll have to do something about that,” she added, referring to my headscarf.

Sitting at my desk in the back, I gaped like she’d slapped me, while she easily moved onto the next student. “Did you hear her?” I asked my seatmates indignantly, but I guess they chose not to hear me either, because none of them reacted, and class went on that day like math was all that mattered. The teacher ultimately decided to make me write an essay about why I wear the hijab to prove my commitment. Apparently dressing like a nun every day at my public high school wasn’t commitment enough.

I’ve been wearing the hijab since age eleven, a personal decision that took me a lot of pleading my parents to get permission to make at such a young age, and since age eleven, I have been exposed to the overwhelming extent of misunderstanding folks in the West have about the hijab. For the past fourteen years, I’ve had friends express their disapproval of the way I dress, men yell at me on the streets of Boston at night, and somehow worst of all, fellow Muslims completely miss the point of the hijab as they speak out or strive against it in a misguided attempt to assimilate into the West.

Still, my experiences as a hijabi in America have been largely positive, alhamdulillah; for every unpleasant confrontation, I’ve been blessed with so many supportive friends, strangers, and fellow sisters and brothers in Islam. I have also been afforded that great Islamic privilege that is the purpose of the hijab: control over my body and image, the reclaiming of my worth from the objectifying gaze of entitled men, that essential empowerment that modesty offers women. And as grateful as I am for my hijab, I am grateful I live in a place where people are open-minded enough to accept my uncommon attire, where I can talk about it and be met with respect and even enthusiasm. As problematic as the American government’s treatment of Muslims has been, there could be more hostile places for a Muslim to call home.

Places like Quebec.

As the daughter of Iraqi immigrants and as a Muslim woman who has grown up in America during the War on Terror, I believe pressuring minorities to assimilate is a form of cultural oppression, and in light of Quebec’s recent ruling to ban various public servants from wearing “religious symbols,” I feel compelled to attempt yet again, as has been my life’s work, to fight for the beautiful philosophy that is the hijab.

*

Let’s examine the ruling in question, the so-called “religious symbols” ban that clearly targets hijabis, of whom there are many in Quebec. Bill 21 was passed on June 17 in an effort to “respect the secularity of the state,” and it applies to a variety of government employees from teachers to police officers. The separation of church and state is meant to prevent the government from enforcing religious laws within a population of diverse beliefs; ironically, preventing citizens employed by the state from practicing their own faith achieves essentially the opposite, as it is literally the forceful imposition of legislators’ beliefs on their citizens. Of course, secularism is in itself a belief, and any stance, when imposed on individuals, becomes an authoritarian one. Since the bill impacts the ability of individuals to practice their religion, it would seem that the interpretation of a secular state according to the government of Quebec is not merely a state that is not associated with any religion, but rather a state whose employees are not associated with any religion. This refusal to distinguish between the state and the people who work for it is at the heart of the controversy. It’s the source of the human rights violation.

Beyond the flawed premise of the bill, it’s also important to push back against its categorization of the hijab as a religious symbol on par with a cross. I sometimes like to wear a pendant around my neck that has an Arabic inscription of God’s name. This piece of religious jewelry could be considered the Muslim version of wearing a Christian cross; the hijab, however, is not. For legislators to place the hijab into the same category as a cross necklace is unacceptably ignorant or else dismissive of the hijab, which Islam requires every woman to wear.

Though I think even banning a cross necklace is too restrictive on an individual’s personal freedoms, I would remove my pendant, a mere accessory, with no issue if I really had to, but my hijab? I’d sooner die. Since the hijab is part of a Muslim woman’s modesty, asking her to take it off is not unlike asking a woman to disrobe; in fact, it is exactly that. While the hijab is indeed a visible indicator of a woman’s Islam, classifying it as a religious symbol is as reductive as referring to a five-star meal as edible. The hijab is the essence of many Muslim women’s approach to life, and to not allow them to wear one at work is to put them out of a job.

But horrifyingly enough, we have yet to discuss an even more loathsome aspect of Bill 21: the denial of public services for people wearing face coverings. Under this increasingly appalling new ruling, Muslim women wearing the niqab are no longer entitled to receive health care or use public transportation. The inability to regard women as worthy of such basic human rights unless they can be seen has a disturbing implication: they are only worth as much as their appearance. Admittedly, a covered face makes a person harder to identify, and the government justifies the niqab ban for security purposes, but I’ve witnessed niqabis at the airport lifting up their face covering for officers with no problem. The manner and extent to which they are singled out in this bill is an evident display of French Canadian officials’ distaste for the cloth. No doubt many supporters of the bill, owing to their ignorance of a widely misunderstood topic, consider the niqab to be an affront to feminism. But legislation enforcing a dress code upon a woman’s life is about as anti-feminist as a law can get, and it’s a delusional man who believes that threatening to withhold a woman’s rights and quarantining from society any woman who doesn’t dress to his approval could ever be framed as feminist.

The part of the bill about niqabis is additionally disturbing because it extends the application of its extremist secular policies from public servants to civilians, so the already paper thin argument that the bill is simply enacting the separation of church and state falls apart altogether, as civilians by no stretch of the imagination represent the state. The concept of the separation of church and state exists not to make practicing one’s faith illegal or impossible, but to prevent faith from getting involved in legislation, which citizens are compelled to follow. Well, the legislators of Quebec clearly have a belief system of their own, one they have no qualms about threading through their laws to suppress the civilians with whom they disagree. If the ban of “religious symbols” wasn’t obvious enough, the face covering rule speaks louder than diplomatic wording ever could: Bill 21 is nothing short of a big “screw you” from the Canadian government to its Muslim citizens.

*

We shouldn’t have to explain ourselves or justify what we wear to get “permission” for doing so, yet here we are. It’s a familiar disappointment, but to Muslims reading these words and to minorities in general and those who stand with us, I say: don’t mind the hateful. Aim for the ignorant, and let peaceful, informative outreach be your weapon. Recently, I found the letter I’d written over ten years ago for my geometry teacher, simply titled “My Reasons”:

“[Teacher], I don’t wear my head covering to be cool or rebellious. I don’t wear it because somebody ordered me to. I don’t wear it to be different or to stand out. I wear my veil because God asks this of me…

I would like to be valued for more than just my beauty. I’ve found that [when I cover up], the part of me that people remember and enjoy is my talkativeness (sometimes that bothers them, though), my sense of humor, my intelligence, my kindness, and other positive assets I possess…

Please understand that I don’t mean to be rude when I say that I will take my veil off for no one. And my intentions are pure. It’s not like I wear it because it’s the latest fashion. I used to have nightmares of showing up at school naked… But soon after the start of sixth grade I began to have nightmares of being at school without my veil. Those silly bad dreams actually mean a lot to me now, since they are a sign that wearing a hijab has become a part of me.”

After I turned in my essay, my teacher didn’t give me any more trouble. I realize the government of Quebec is a steeper mountain to summit. My sisters, I ask Allah to grant you the strength to overcome the bullies who wield temporary authority over you. May you never have to compromise, or choose between your faith and your livelihood. But if you do, then above all else, I pray you never feel compelled to remove your hijab, that you wear it proudly, and that more of you put it on as a result of this ruling, just as the Christchurch shooter whose goal was to spread hate lead so many to convert to Islam. I write these words lovingly, from a Muslim woman to the West, the only world I’ve known as home: stop telling us how to dress. Don’t waste your breath.