Last week the Canadian media was abuzz with the story of Aqsa Parvez. Ms. Parvez was the Mississauga, Ontario teen killed by her father for reportedly refusing to wear a hijab, the headscarf worn by some Muslim women as a sign of their religious faith. Commentary was swift to follow. Barbara Kay of the conservative National Post speculated that if Canada had prohibited religious paraphernalia like hijabs in schools as France does, Parvez’s life might have been spared. The Globe and Mail’s Sheema Khan, a hijab-wearing Muslim herself, portrayed Parvez’s demise as one of a series of recent incidents of violence against women, including the victims of serial killer Robert Picton and a Windsor, Ontario nurse murdered by her former husband. I have questions about both Kay’s and Khan’s analyses. In the first case, even if such a law against hijabs in Canadian schools existed, it might not have prevented Mr. Parvez from killing his daughter for not wearing it outside the classroom. Khan on the other hand seemed to lump three very diverse phenomena together: of note, neither Robert Picton nor the nurse’s ex used religion as a motive for their deeds.
Nonetheless, the death of Aqsa Parvez eventually turned into a discussion about Islam and the hijab. Is Islam inherently oppressive to women? Is the hijab a sign of women’s subordination in that religion? Can Muslim immigrants integrate successfully into Canadian and other Western societies? Interestingly, this is not the first debate about religious headgear in Canada. The early 1990s saw the controversy over the right of Sikh members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to wear turbans on the job. While Sikhs claimed that wearing a turban at all times was an essential part of their religious faith, opponents insisted that all Mounties be obliged to wear the traditional Stetson hat.
I personally didn’t have strong feelings on the issue either way. If someone were going to protect me from crime, I thought, at the end of the day it didn’t really matter what he or she wore on his or her head. On the other hand I wasn’t so emotionally or philosophically invested in the concept of religious rights that I would have automatically demanded that the RCMP permit turbans on duty. Eventually the Canadian federal government ruled in the Sikhs’ favour, and the controversy more or less died down.
However, the turban as a whole does not generate the strong emotion that the hijab does in Western society, for several reasons. First is the fact that the turban doesn’t involve gender issues. While some Sikh women wear the turban, it is not mandated for them as it is for Sikh men. Those Sikh women who don turbans do so for the same reason as their male coreligionists: to show their commitment to their faith. According to the article “Why Sikhs Wear a Turban” (http://www.urbanmozaik.com/UM.2006.April/April.2006.html/april06_fea_5.turban.html) Sikhs originally adopted the headgear as a rejection of India’s Hindu caste system, wherein only the “higher-ups” (kings, nobles, etcetera) wore it. By requiring all its members to put on a turban, Sikhism demonstrated in a visual way that all of them were equal.
The hijab in contrast was instituted for Muslim women to ensure their modesty, “modesty” not in the sense of being humble and not flashing fancy hairdos but rather in the sense of not being sexually suggestive. Of course this requirement may be interpreted in two manners. Some women who actually wear the hijab like it because they say it protects them from being regarded as “sex objects” by men. On the other hand, one Western feminist states that the concept of the hijab is inherently sexist because it posits women, or their hair, as “enticing” and places the burden on them to avoid “tempting” men.
In addition, most Westerners do not associate Sikhism with terrorism as they do Islam, despite the fact that Sikh extremists exist. In 1985 Canadians’ attention was riveted on the bombing of an Air India jet returning to Canada by Sikh militants. White Westerners nevertheless do not think of Sikh terrorism as a threat to them personally – indeed, the Canadian government was criticized for not promptly investigating the Air India disaster because the victims were not White. Sikh radicals’ target remains India, not the West, though the language they use to describe that country resembles that of the Islamic militants in some respects. For instance, just as the latter call the United States the “Great Satan,” a Sikh-Canadian paper once showed a scene in which a Sikh protestor against the Indian government carried a sign with the words “India – Democracy or Demon-cracy?” The majority of White Canadians did not view the Air India bombing in the same way as 9/11 or the subway attacks in London and Madrid.
Outside the terrorist realm, Sikhism as a religion fails to evoke the visceral reactions in most Whites that Islam does. There is no equivalent of “Islamophobia” to describe the fear or hatred of Sikhs, for example. This might stem from the fact that in contrast to Muslims, Europeans’ contact with Sikhs has been much less extensive. Sikhism originated and was practised in a small corner of Pakistan and Northern India far from Europe, whereas Islamic territory lay immediately to the south and east of what was once known as Christendom. Even the British Raj did not lead to anything like the Crusades between the Sikhs and their European overlords.
Nor did Sikhism acquire the same political connotations in the West that Islam did. While a few Westerners have converted to Sikhism, either on their own initiative or through marriage to a Sikh, there has been no mass movement towards the religion as happened when throngs of American Blacks embraced Islam in the 1960s and ‘70s as a means of rejecting the West. Conservatives wary of if not downright hostile to Islam tend to look at Sikhism with a more neutral eye. For example, the above-mentioned Barbara Kay warns readers not to place the hijab in the same category as the Christian cross or Sikh kirpan (a ceremonial dagger carried for religious purposes).
This is why I believe that the turban has not become the burning issue the hijab has.
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