Sunday, May 2, 2010
some women's behaviour excused, Others' not
Sigh. Blogger Tasnim has a post on Sweden's intolerance of the niqab that echoes Canadian intolerance of the niqab. Here's what I wrote for one of my class blogs about two months ago:
Canadian identity has been getting a lot of press recently. The Olympics told us we were one big happy family ... that is, if you read the stories that supported that construction and missed the other ones. The Olympics, like other socio-cultural politico-economic phenomena, is a site of many stories, not one, and I don’t mean just individual athletes’ training regimes and hard work to get to this sporting / entertainment extravaganza/spectacle/corporate gathering site of contradictions. The Olympics are a site of multiple narratives that exist in complex intersections of power relations. Whose story/ies hold dominance in our imaginations, of course, has a lot to do with absences, with whose stories get left out, marginalized, sensationalized, or dismissed.
The Olympics are a site of struggle, a contested site, yet this entertainment spectacle that reinforces the oft told against-all-odds (individual) hero narrative was constructed in mainstream media and mainstream Canada as the story where we meet as Canadians.
...with side stories such as the woman’s hockey team raising questions about post-game respectable gender behaviour, but, hey, beer/alcohol IS part of hockey, isn’t it? – which raises the question, can one become a member of hockey culture if one doesn’t drink?.
Our media had been working double time in the months leading up to the Olympics to construct this event as a place to meet, not only literally, physically (for those who could afford the airfare and the tickets), but on our screens and psychologically and in our hearts. In our imaginations. A place where we could see / be what it means to be Canadian, where we could participate in creating the metanarrative “Canada”, that imaginary place where no racism, discrimination, intolerance, or bigotry exists.
The word patriotism floated around after the media event, with a euphoric aura attached to it. Finally! A defining Canadian moment! Within the celebratory narrative of the Vancouver Olympics capturing (some of) our hearts and minds, other stories did not seem to trouble the national consciousness, such as those pesky interruptions of No Olympics on Stolen Land, to name one story that did not make it into the canon called The Olympics. For most Canadians, that story remain/ed/s unread, as does the reality of No Olympic Benefits for Aboriginal People.
So, what does it mean to be Canadian? Do “we” have “a” Canadian culture? Who do we mean by ‘we’, anyway? How does Canadian multiculturalism construct culture and identities when globalizing processes intersect with Canadian (national) identity? Does Canada as a concept have borders? What does that mean in the everyday practices of multiculturalism?
Canada’s demography has changed dramatically and continues to change. The groups of immigrants who came in the past to Canada (such as me, from a non-English speaking working poor Finnish peasant Christian class) are not the same groups of immigrants who are coming today, neither from class backgrounds, country of origin, religion, or ethnicity, to name a few.
Indeed, I remind my mother when she struggles to understand Canada and what it means to be Canadian beyond her Finnish-speaking community, her white skin privilege, her Christianity, and her understanding and acceptance of difference that if she and my father sought to enter Canada today as immigrants, they would never be allowed in. I would not be Canadian. Our family would not make it through the points system. No education, no language skills, no money -- no points.
I remind her of that to intervene in her story of what she imagines Canada should be, which she has learned from watching a lot of Amerian news on Canadian tv while reading her Finnish Evangelical magazines.
The image above of a woman wearing a niqab with the bars of a jail and a lock where her eyes should be is the cartoon created by a cartoonist at the Montreal Gazette who calls himself Ainslen. He made this cartoon he said to contribute to “a healthy debate” on what should be tolerated in Canada, specifically Quebec. His representation is of real person, a new Canadian, of Egyptian origin, who had been attending English language classes at CEGEPs in Quebec. A pharmacist by profession, she wears a niqab. She was asked to leave two separate classrooms on two separate occasions because it was decided that her niqab was interfering with the ability of other people in the class, especially the teachers, from understanding what she was saying.
One of the teachers said she needed to see the woman’s facial expressions and the movements of her mouth in order to understand her, in order to help her correct her enunciation of English. The woman, Naema Atef Amed, left the room.
This story created much commentary online, (738 comments), exposing an obsessive interest in what a woman wears, particularly when that woman is Muslim, which in the discourses of dominant liberal multiculturalism, exposes the illiberal values of Canadians. She is Othered by gender, religion, skin colour, and ethnic origins, and not only becomes the label "the immigrant woman," but also the label "Muslim woman" that is almost synonymous with oppression in the national imaginary.
Yet, if a female student had chosen to wear a clingy top with her cleavage pushed up in your face to class, or popped on a pair of daisy dukes, strutting her ass in your face as you walk behind her in class (something I wish I could say I did not have to witness), this debate would not exist; it would be a non-issue, as we tolerate, accept, and normalize the public exposure of the female body, particularly tits and ass, and particularly, if the woman is young and not what we culturally consider fat.
The comments on the media spectacle of the niqab-wearing language student ranged from racist intolerance, Islamophobia and demands that she abide by “our” cultural standards, to critical comments that expose and question the limits of Canadian concepts of freedom, a woman’s right to choose, freedom of religious expression, among others, as revealed through the denial of this woman’s rights.
Authentic others (native informants) chimed in on the debate, too, defending “Canadian values” making it easy for non-Muslim Canadians to defend intolerance and illiberal ideas, as one of “them” thinks like “we” do, too. Following the Quebec court's decree "to require Muslim women or others who wear face coverings such as niqabs to remove them if they want to work in the public sector or do business with government officials," Muslim Canadians like Tarek Fatah, for example, declared that he was "thrilled at this development, and welcome the rescue of all Muslim-Canadian women who were being blackmailed, bullied and brainwashed into wearing attire that has no place in either Islam or the 21st century."