April 27th, 2015
by Allison Mader
In early March, Prime Minister Stephen Harper suggested that allowing women to wear the veil during their citizenship ceremonies is “contrary to [Canadian] values.” According to Harper, veiling is “not transparent . . . is not open and . . . is rooted in a culture that is anti-women.” His government’s opposition to a Federal Court decision to allow the wearing of the niqab, he claims, is being undertaken on behalf of Canada and the nation’s women. Underexplored in the fallout of Harper’s inflammatory comments about the practice of veiling is the fact that he has been allowed to set the parameters of the conversation without ever having his terms or their origins interrogated or meaningfully contextualized. To simply engage with the way in which he speaks of the niqab without this analysis is to turn a blind eye to the highly fraught historical, political, and ideological lineages that his rhetoric draws on.
During the age of the British Empire, the image of the veil was used to shore up support for imperialist endeavours. Leila Ahmed, author of A Quiet Revolution, writes that agents of empire “appropriated the language of feminism” to bolster their case for the colonial project: poor Muslim women, so the story went, needed the British to save them from the constraints of their own countries and their fellow Muslims. Naturally, none of these women-friendly values were repeated at home. In order to illustrate her point, Ahmed focuses on the actions of Lord Cromer, England’s Consul General in Egypt from 1883-1907. Cromer argued that Christianity, by its very nature, promoted “respect for women” and, as a result, “European men ‘elevated’ women.” Islam, on the other hand, actively demeaned women, an attitude he suggested was made visible “in the practices of veiling and segregation” and which bore a direct link to “the inferiority of Muslim men.” It was “only by abandoning those practices” that Egyptians might acquire “the mental and moral development which he desired for them”—in other words, becoming good colonial subjects. Yet Ahmed points out that Cromer’s policies were in fact harmful to Egyptian women—he increased tuition and opposed both the training and use of female doctors—and in England he was “a founding member and sometimes president of the Men’s League for opposing women’s suffrage.” Cromer used women and their dress, Ahmed writes, as “important counters in the discourse concerning the relative merits of the societies and civilizations of men and their different styles of male domination; women themselves and their domination” were unimportant. We might similarly ask where living, breathing women fit into Harper’s assertion that the niqab is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.” We might also consider how his government’s stance on women’s rights vis-à-vis the niqab fits with its stance on women’s rights more generally.
The notion of saving oppressed women from barbaric regimes abroad has long lent moral weight to Western ‘civilizing’ missions and made violent or ethically troubling military operations palatable to Western audiences, a pattern that the Harper government has recently doubled down on. This tactic carries two key consequences: firstly, it flattens the variegated Muslim experience. Second, the representation of Muslim women as Other risks desensitizing Western audiences to very real stories of violence and subjugation; the tactic creates a cultural environment in which a Western audience comes to associate a particular image of a Muslim woman with an unqualified or amorphous notion of oppression. A kind of fatigue accompanies such an association; the details of the situation do not need to be discussed because the familiar image has communicated all that the audience needs to know. History is elided and compressed into a more digestible narrative that pits West and East against one another, with the (metaphorically or literally) veiled woman in between.
Contemporary (and especially post-9/11) Western representations of the veil are fraught in a particular kind of way; the veil is meant to represent both the tragedy of the oppressed woman and a form of terror, in that what is hidden is unknown. News sources often fail to distinguish between types of veiling: “This melding together of all styles of veil paints all women wearing any version of the veil . . . as simultaneously religious extremists and oppressed, both without care for ethnicity, cultural practice, or the agency of the wearer.” Any kind of veil, then, and any veiled woman, is freighted with the mythology, connotations, and meaning allocated by centuries of discourse.
The primary connotation attached to contemporary Western representations of the veil is the idea that women who wear it are always already oppressed: many scholars have pointed to the enthusiasm with which Western media has attempted to tell the story of unveiling over the course of the last decade, despite women’s protests that the veil was not their major concern. European Orientalist discourses have typically depicted all types of veiling as indicative of a kind of primitiveness or a lack of progress. While direct and indirect discussions of the veil are often meant to tell audiences something about the nature of Muslim men (think of Lord Cromer’s assessment of Egyptian Muslims, for example), women, too, are frequently blamed for wearing a garment that (at least partially) hides them from view. Such representations offer an implicit choice: unveil, or be associated with foreignness, backwardness, and violence. These binaries contain an obvious hierarchy of values and demonstrate how discourse works to enforce conformity. In this rubric, veiling signifies difference, and that difference has been coded as threatening.
The burqa, in particular, “has come to be seen as dangerous as it might hide a potential attacker, male or female, and it signals the presence of Islam, which has come to be regarded as a threat to Western well-being.” Consider a scene from Zero Dark Thirty (2012), in which Pakistani agents working in conjunction with the CIA disguise themselves in burqas in order to capture Abu Faraj, a high-ranking Al-Qaeda agent whom the United States has designated their “number three” threat/target. Although the burqa works in the favour of the Americans in this moment, the scene demonstrates the anxiety the Western characters (and, presumably, the Western audience) feel over their inability to know who or what is inside the garment. The burqa-clad agents are shadowy, mysterious figures around the edges of an eerily quiet park, in which a few families with children play. Eventually the toe of a man’s dress shoe is shown peeking out from the edge of the garment: these figures are not what they seem. As the agents surround the target, they reveal heavy-duty weapons. The agents’ use of the burqa as a method of disguise goes undiscussed in the film, yet its narrative makes clear that the ideal audience will bring with it a specific understanding (and dread) of the garment. Indeed, the impenetrability of the veil is an important if not central component of Western fixation on it. Like Naber, Amira Jarmakani points to a rise in the publication of books such as Ergun Mehmet Caner’s Voices Behind the Veil and Harriet Logan’s Unveiled: Voices of Women in Afghanistan that claim to “reveal the realities of Arab and Muslim women hidden ‘behind the veil.’” She contends that the collective cultural yearning “to ‘unveil’ women and get an ‘inside’ perspective on their lives sublimates a set of concerns that are intimately connected to the political and economic realities determining a U.S. relationship to the Arab and Muslim worlds.” One of Harper’s primary concerns with the niqab is that it is not “transparent”; his articulation of this fear embeds him in a matrix of xenophobic and politically motivated rhetoric that arcs back much further than the events the government locates as an origin point for its concerns.
Images of the veil in the West have hardened in the last decade. In a study of visual representations of Muslim and Arab women in American daily newspapers between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Ghazi-Walid Falah found that the majority “reinforce images of Muslim society as the cultural, political, and moral ‘other’ of the West.” Falah’s study reveals that images that accompany stories on Muslim countries are disproportionately of women and that, moreover, the images “rarely relate directly to the subject matter in the text.” Instead, they create an atmosphere that invites readers to form or confirm a set of value judgments about Islam, those who practice it, and countries in which it is the dominant religion. Falah observes that the images can be divided into two categories, however conflicting: Muslim women as “passive victims” (objects of pity) and Muslim women as “active political agents” (dangerous threats). These themes represent the tragedy and terror of the veil: women are either seen cloistered and weeping, or are shown to be terrorists and the mothers of terrorists. As responsible Canadians, we must ask: don’t we owe it to each other to dismantle such images? Don’t we expect our leaders to do so as well? How are we talking about the niqab, when we talk about it? And who does this kind of discourse benefit or protect?
Allison Mader is a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary. Her work focuses on the intersection of politics and literature.