A modest proposal

Women in niqabs look like scary black crows as they flutter along a Canadian sidewalk. So what?

Niqabs might be useful elsewhere. But not in Canada

Women in niqabs look like scary black crows as they flutter along a Canadian sidewalk. So what? Black crows are common enough birds. But they might as well be big red fire trucks when you consider the reactions of other Canadians, we who generally dress like drab sparrows: sensibly, comfortably and in shades of brown.

A woman wearing a niqab shops in a supermarket in France in January 2010. (Farid Alouache/Reuters)

What is to be done?

In the latest standoff an immigrant from Egypt has refused to adjust her full-body niqab to uncover her mouth in the French-language class that the government hopes will help new Canadians fit into Quebec society. Told that it would be difficult to learn any language under those conditions, she spoke only when facing away from her male classmates and spoke to her female instructor one-on-one. Then she was reported to have asked the male students to move farther away from her.

The CEGEP de Saint-Laurent in Montreal was not happy. Neither was the Quebec government, which backed its immigration minister in saying that the woman, Naima Ahmed, could not remain in the class.

"This is the first time I felt racism [in Canada]," Ahmed told a newspaper in an interview after her story hit the headlines.

And I, a lifelong feminist — a stance that earns me almost daily hate mail — am pondering who I will most annoy with today's column.

What Ahmed calls racism is what I call feminism. Is Ahmed, as she says, protecting her modesty? If so, from what? Canadian men aren't easily inflamed by a mouth. Or a nose. Even the most crass men will remain reasonably polite when confronted by a female classmate with face, hair, ankles, the whole package.

Threat of exposure

But Ahmed, 29, is new to this country. She has seen ill-treatment. She comes from a nation ranked by the World Economic Forum at the bottom of 58 countries in every aspect of women's rights: economic participation and opportunity, political power, education and health. Women in Cairo cannot walk on the street without enduring male assaults, as this shocking BBC report reveals.

Ahmed's problem is that she thinks she'll endure the same problems in Montreal, not realizing that the niqab can seem threatening even to other women on a Canadian street.

This is how the great travel writer Jonathan Raban once described the sight of Arab women visiting London while retaining their modesty, and I wouldn't call his description inaccurate: "It was the masks I noticed first. They made the women look like hooded falcons, and they struck me not as symbols of Islamic female modesty so much as objects of downright menace. Round every corner, one came upon these masks, and the black silk sheaths that encased the women as if they were corpses risen in their shrouds."

In Canada your face is your fortune. Along with clothing and speech, it is a way of quickly assessing another human being and figuring out a means of being social. Ahmed does not realize that if she doesn't adapt to this, she will never fit in Canadian society and will likely not work in her chosen field as a pharmacist, a job that requires clarity and obvious empathy.

On the other hand, immigrants' unwillingness to adapt to Canadian mores has also improved our lives immeasurably. I recall the shrimp cocktail, the iceberg lettuce salad, turkey served with marshmallows, boiled cabbage served on the plate like the earth humps on top of fresh graves. All classic Canadian cuisine.

At this immigrants did the equivalent of turning away from the class and gave us pizza, hummus, dim sum, tapas, boudin noir, Époisses, perogies, pickled herring, dal, pasteis de nata, vinho verde, burritos, polenta, baklava, etc. This has enhanced my life, given it an enchantment my Scottish mother and East Indian father, hardly foodies, never explored.

When Muslims offered us Shariah law, Muslim-Canadian feminists braved some very dire elderly imams and told us to turn our backs on it. So far we have and it has helped us all. 

Canadians aim to welcome immigrants with courtesy and patience. Immigrants come here because they like us. They bend; we bend; neither of us breaks.

Stigmatizing assumptions

I have two daughters, which makes me a practical species of feminist with a meticulous interest in the daily lives of women. I want to hustle over to women in niqabs and whisper, "You don't have to wear that here." Politeness always triumphs and I have never done this. But I see myself from the black-cloaked woman's eyes — my tight clothing and exposed legs, long hair, lipstick, a real boldness with the men who are my equals — and I assume, perhaps unfairly, that she regards me as sluttish.

So women are at odds with each other over the niqab. It gets worse. A niqab inevitably insults all the men and women who encounter it, just by implication. I can take a niqab-wearer's incorrect assumptions about me personally, but I dislike her stigmatizing men, whose co-operation this feminist needs to build a society that will be fair to our daughters.

Ahmed is comfortable only in the company of females. She assumes that men are only at ease in the company of men (a reference to a brilliant Neil LaBute movie you may not wish to see).

But I believe all single-sex institutions are bad news. Book groups, single-sex schools, male top-heavy workplaces, police forces, armed forces, girl gangs, anywhere where one gender predominates or rules is headed for trouble. Am I alone in noticing that sexual segregation ends in tears and sometimes blood? Just read Margaret Atwood's novel Cat's Eye and study the mechanism.

Ahmed hopes that no man will ever see her face, and that men will never truly interact or compete with her. We had that era in Canada, before the Persons Case (and long after), when women were fired from their jobs when they married, when women, Jews and other undesirables couldn't get into good universities, when men ruled on sexual and reproductive matters, when society was compartmentalized to the extreme.

Ahmed wants Canada to give way and revert to an era of cruelty, nay perversion. Canada asks that she concede. Inevitably, both sides will adjust. But someone has to decide where it stops, and I believe niqabs are it.

Open and shut case

Here's a Canadian snapshot. Last night, I asked my male bus driver to let me off at my front door instead of the regular stop. It's a practice the Toronto transit system began years ago, when Paul Bernardo was capturing women as they got off the bus in order to rape and torture them. The rule was left in place after he was imprisoned.

The bus driver, a nice man, was happy to help. I was effusive in my thanks. In Cairo, a smart Ahmed wouldn't ride a bus at night. In fact, it was only in 2008 that Egyptian women were allowed even to apply for jobs driving buses.

In Egypt, the niqab might be practical. In Canada, it is nothing more than female self-harming. When anguished young women cut their arms and legs with knives to let out emotional pain, our health-care system sends them to doctors and counsellors.

I see no difference between hurting yourself in private with scissors and hurting yourself in public by rendering yourself both scary and invisible. The second course hurts the rest of us too.

I say we dispense with it, and with all the kindness and warmth I can offer, I welcome Naima Ahmed to this country.