GUESTVIEW: Canada and the niqab: How to go public in the public square
The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Sarah Sayeed is Program Associate and Matthew Weiner is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York.
By Sarah Sayeed and Matthew Weiner
A Canadian judge recently ruled that a Toronto Muslim woman must take off her face veil while giving testimony in a sexual assault trial. This tension between public space and private religion comes up repeatedly in western urban centers where Muslim women increasingly occupy the pubic square. This time it happened in Toronto, but the issue arises regularly in western countries in the schools, workplaces and courtrooms that Muslims increasingly share with the majority population. At stake is whether a Muslim woman’s choice to dress in accordance with her religious beliefs infringes upon “our way of life.”
(Photo: Sultaana Freeman testifies in court for right to wear a niqab on her Florida driver’s license, 27 May 2003/pool)
While all can agree that identity, tolerance and religious freedom are important, advocates for the face veil emphasize the upholding of freedom while opponents focus on the face veil, or niqab, as a challenge to collective identity. Such tension between public expression of religion and collective identity is not new. It has even gone on for centuries in Muslim countries, where religious minorities feel the tension between acceptance and their need to adapt, in varying degrees, to a Muslim majority worldview. There is also a debate within Muslim communities about whether wearing the niqab is a religious requirement.
What seems problematic in the current debate, whether in Toronto or Milan, is the implication that Europeans and North Americans are willing to tolerate differences, but only up to a limit. Some differences seem too threatening for them to consider seriously. They seem to think some differences should be made invisible. Thus, and perhaps inadvertently, the opponents of the niqab – who see themselves as the defenders of collective identity – call into question another value and practice that is central to Western democracy: open dialogue in the public sphere.
Ever since the Enlightenment, Westerners have agreed that tolerance and open discussion in a public space helps prevent violence and fosters community. It is a proud tradition. The great moral effect of creating a public space was that people from different traditions, with different views and different styles of conversing, could join in a shared process. Tolerance – putting up with something you do not agree with – is understood here as an uncomfortable but necessary virtue.
(Photo: Female Saudi pharmacist in Jeddah, 4 June 2007/Susan Baaghil)
In deliberative democracy, each side or point of view must be given a chance to express itself and be subject to deliberation. No side of the debate should be suppressed or dismissed without due consideration. However the niqab, when allowed into the public square, is a message that by itself questions the very boundaries of what is public versus private. It is a mode of dress that suggests a different social order, a different public square.
Should people who cover their faces (and their mouths) speak and deliberate in the public square with those who do not? There seem to be several good reasons for saying yes.
While it may be genuinely strange for us to encounter people with their heads and faces covered, it need not violate the principles of public space or democratic discourse. Orthodox Jews are not supposed to shake hands or interact too closely with the opposite sex. This is accepted. Advocates of public space need to recognize that if the public is genuinely democratic, every minority voice needs an opportunity to participate on their terms. While this necessarily changes how discourse takes place, it is possible that the change will strengthen rather than threaten the collective.
Secondly, if women wearing a niqab are not permitted to engage in the public square in Western societies, the ripple effects may even impede the democratization of Muslim societies and keep Muslim women out of public life. People who hold their religious values dear may choose — or worse, be forced — to remain out of the public square if they are not permitted to enter on their own terms.
(Photo: University graduate in Sanaa, Yemen, 30 July 2008/Khaled Abdullah)
If a community cannot express itself publicly in a way true to their own identity, what will this lead to? Who will it exclude? What effect will such exclusion have, not only on the community at large, but on minorities’ ability to integrate in a way that maintains their identity? And what will the impact of slow democratization in Muslim nations have for women’s rights and the larger global fabric?
There does not seem to be an easy answer, either to these questions or to the debate at hand. But deciding what makes the public square public and how people participate in public deliberation goes beyond the simple debate of religious freedom and national identity. What is important for now is that someone spearhead a healthy discussion that seeks to think through these nuances, as opposed to the current polarized debate that simply compounds a growing divide between communities. Sadly, some who call for a dialogue with Muslims start with the proviso that Muslim women follow their standards for what is properly public. This is not a partnership-based beginning. Rather it will be the communities who move in the direction of real conversation, with openness to change, that will deserve to be called defenders of the pubic sphere.