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CALGARY, AB, Oct. 14, 2010/ Troy Media/ – The idea that the state can protect the rights and values of its citizens by banning a piece of clothing is as facile as it is absurd.
To many westerners, burkas and niqabs have come to symbolize patriarchal domination over women. They call to mind graphic images of women in Afghanistan under brutal domination by the Taliban, hiding behind their veils and fearing for their lives, should even one piece of forbidden skin see the light of day.
Naturally, as free westerners, our first impulse is to demand that such oppressive uniforms be cast off. Based on our own experience, we assume such an act of rebellion will result in a woman’s liberation.
Reality more complex
Sadly, as delegates to the recent Sheldon Chumir Foundation symposium on gender, culture and religion noted, the reality is more complex than that. In fact, the person most likely to be harmed by such a ban is the very person we are seeking to protect. A woman who is not allowed to wear a niqab in public may suddenly find she is unable to leave the home at all – making a bad situation only worse.
We also need to entertain the possibility that, in some circumstances, the women wearing such clothing are actually making a free choice. Even if such cases are rare, forcing them to disrobe is an attack on them and not their alleged oppressors.
The state can – as France has and Quebec proposes – prohibit the wearing of such clothing in public. But one has to fairly ask exactly what such an exercise in authority actually achieves.
If the goal is to change a mind-set, we need look no further than our own rebellious teenagers to see how ineffective orders can be sometimes. Commanding a daughter not to date a boy you don’t approve of often simply drives the besieged couple closer. In the same way, telling a group of people they cannot choose what to wear because you don’t approve has much the same effect – simply stiffening the spine of resistance.
A forced change in behaviour won’t change any thinking. Rather, a sustained effort to change thinking is the best chance to achieve a desired result.
Westerners believe burkas and niqabs are bad because we associate them with the oppression of women. Those women are being oppressed by men, both in the family and in their culture, who mistakenly believe they have the right to exercise such power. Yet, it’s the thinking in both genders that needs to be challenged.
The men need to know our society will never accept such blatant violations of inalienable human rights. This can, and should, include the enforcement of laws against domestic violence, but also social disapproval of less egregious acts that neighbours may witness. At the same time, the oppressed women need to see that there is a viable alternative to their circumstances, one which includes access to higher levels of education. As symposium delegates noted, providing education allows young women, and their friends, to climb out of the darkness with the confidence that they won’t be alone and ostracized for their decision.
Can cultures really change? Our own history, in which women have made steady and incremental gains, shows that all cultures can evolve over time. The catalyst is learning; ignorance is the oppressor’s most powerful weapon.
I believe that niqabs might one day be gone from the face of the Earth, but not as the result of any ban. They will go because the societies that made them mandatory will wither under the bright, white light that knowledge provides.
We can’t stand idly by
Forces conspire against such happy outcomes, and that is where we cannot – and must not – stand idly by, tolerating what we do not approve of. We have the power to overcome these oppressors, not with misguided laws and bans, but with the courage, determination and desire to attack ignorance at it roots.
Lauryn Oates was one of the guest speakers at the Chumir symposium. The brave young woman first learned of the plight of Afghan women when she was just 14, and she has devoted her life to trying to change their world through Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. Her example shows us what we must all be prepared to do if we truly want meaningful change.
Not everyone has to travel to distant countries, though. Sometimes, change begins right here at home. That’s something any one of us can start doing right now.