Manitoba·Blog

'The way we dress does not define us': A Hutterite perspective on the niqab

​As a woman from the Hutterite culture, I have spent my writing career trying to rehabilitate decades of hostilities and misrepresentations about my people and their way of life.

Suggesting a woman wearing a niqab is oppressed defies common sense, Mary-Ann Kirkby argues

Mary-Ann Kirkby is the author of I Am Hutterite and Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen. (Facebook)

As a woman from the Hutterite culture, I have spent my writing career trying to rehabilitate decades of hostilities and misrepresentations about my people and their way of life.

The suspicion and opposition which greeted Hutterites when they first arrived in Canada in 1918 culminated in Alberta's Land Sales Prohibition Act (1942–1947) and the Communal Property Act (1947–1973) which are now described by the Canadian Human Rights website as "among the most blatant discriminatory pieces of legislation in Canadian history."

That is why the niqab issue raises so many red flags for me, personally.  

Canada is home to the highest concentration of Hutterites in the world, yet even today, if a Hutterite woman had to take off her Tiechel (polka dotted head scarf) to swear an oath to become a Canadian citizen, there would be no Hutterites in Canada. 

People have often suggested and still do that Hutterite women are oppressed to have to dress like that. 

Trust me, Hutterite women feel exactly the same about the way mainstream society dresses, and I can tell you from personal experience that a klad is so much more comfortable than a pair of muffin top jeans.

As a young girl, I still vividly recall the frosty reception my mother endured when she walked into a department store with her tiechel and Hutterite klad dress. 

She was routinely and quite brazenly followed by store clerks and managers to make sure she wouldn't steal anything, as were most other Hutterites at the time.

I remember walking beside her, tightly holding her hand, thinking how beautiful she looked. 

She was my queen. 

But to store owners, she was a weird aberration and would-be-thief. 

Looking at my mother through their prejudicial lenses, they chose to see a 100 per cent misrepresentation of who she really was. That is why this argument is dangerous.

To suggest that a woman wearing a niqab is either oppressed or a terrorist defies common sense.  Everybody needs to reveal their true identity and be properly processed before becoming a Canadian citizen. Nobody can argue that. 

But this woman comes from an area of the world where women have worn veils of one kind or another for thousands of years.

In the biblical story of Jacob, we read how he was tricked into marrying the wrong woman because she was veiled! 

All Jacob needed was a standard Canadian government identity check!

Did we give an ounce of consideration to our First Nations when we systematically dismantled their way of life that existed long before any of our ancestors arrived? 

Can we in good conscience demand from newcomers what we didn't give? Can we really claim that the grace of God is on our side?

What I sincerely want and value is my religious freedom.

My forefathers were burnt at the stake and nearly annihilated so I would have the right to my faith.  But the only way I can secure that right is if I offer the same to others.

Hutterites don't look or live like everyone else. Yet, they contribute billions of dollars into our economy and have among the lowest crime rate in the country. 

There has never been a murder on Hutterite colony in our 145 year history in North America.

After we left the colony, my mother stopped wearing her tiechel, but she always put it back on to pray. Perhaps women in the niqab will eventually stop wearing it too, but ingrained cultural norms cannot be changed overnight.

As a person who has experienced the searing sting of rejection just because I was dressed differently and spoke a different language, I want to raise my hand and say it's wrong to judge people on the basis of what they are wearing, the color of their skin, their religion or the language they speak.  

The way we dress does not define us; our character does.


This blog post originally appeared in the Polka Dot Press and was reprinted with permission from Mary-Ann Kirkby.

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