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."


marja-leena said...

So many interesting points here, Taina!

I must admit having torn feelings about the niqab - on the one hand I think the women are suppressed by Muslim right-wingers, on the other hand some of these women say they want it. Do they really mean it or are they afraid? A difficult decision for multiculturalism.

I too am rather appalled by the extreme sexuality so many young women display in their dress, though I'm made to feel as if I'm 'old-fashioned'.

Merche Pallarés said...

Funny... we've had the same debate here in Spain. A young school girl wore a hiyab and now, in April, two months before the end of the school year, the school has forbidden her from attending class with that kerchief. I find it all very ridiculous really and think there is something more behind this media crazy coincidence at this time. I wonder what they're really hiding or what their intentions are... Hugs, M.

northshorewoman said...

ML, I'm not a fan of the niqab--I can't even walk in long dresses or skirts-- but my argument does not have to do with whether we individually agree or do not agree with the niqab. My point is we live in a I thought.

I do not want anyone telling me what to wear or what not to wear; why is it ok for the state to tell Muslim women what they can or cannot wear? Once we go down the road of discriminating against particular people's' choices then we are repressive, too.

Muslim women are no more nor less oppressed by their men than non-Muslim women. This is the hurdle to get past. Even women who live within oppressive regimes like Saudi Arabia--which the West supports--make choices within their social relations.

I would also argue that media culture brainwashes all of us --all women-- but especially younger women and girls to look like sluts and campy sex trade workers. My question is where is all the moral outrage about the corporate brainwashing of women and girls? Why is Islam the obsession once again?

Clearly, racism and fear of the Other are evident in Canadian society.

MP, the government and conservatives of Spain share ground with the government and conservatives in Canada and other places in Europe. I guess these similar stories are happening everywhere where the dominant society is feeling threatened by "outsiders".

Ari said...

Belgium is going to move to ban burka and niqab. Democracy means that if the majority is voting against niqabs,women cannot use those clothes any more in public places. Democratic states have laws what you have to obey, you cannot use whatever clothes you like if the law denies that.

northshorewoman said...

repressive regimes also have laws that tell citizens what to do.

democracy is not such an ideal concept or practice-- especially when people are a) stupid b) racist c) sexist...or any number of ignorances.

Example: imagine everyone in a democracy watches daytime talk shows and reality shows and professional wrestling and Ultimate fight club and Sex in the City and other garbage tv all day and night long.

Then there is a plebiscite on tv shows.

Democracy rules and the result may be STUPIDITY!

northshorewoman said...

this is not to say I would rather live in a repressive state. Democracy is flawed but it is preferable -- to me -- to another sort of regime until something better surfaces.

Ari said...

Constitutional laws use to say in many democracies that citizens have freedom of religion so the ban of niqabs maybe against that law.
In western world where also women can use Visa and other cards when paying bills it is very difficult to identify who is behind that mask. It may be one of the reasons why niqabs and burkas are going to be forbidden.
It is not such a big problem in extreme islamist countries where women cannot go out without husbands or other relatives.
In our pseudo democracy in Finland I also open my television with horror:
Channel one: American Idol, Channel two: Canada's next top model: Channel three: British Idol and Channel four: The Bold and the beautiful etc. This is how the capitalist elite will isolate people from reality when channels have been set to send shit.

northshorewoman said...

the tv is filled with the same garbage, I see. These are the "choices" we have: choice of what sort of garbage to watch, but they all seem to follow much of the same format.