The veil is a barrier to the world
By SHEILA COPPS- Oct 25, 2006
In the celebration of Eid al-Fitr this week, Muslims have just concluded a month-long fast, which has many similarities to Christianity. After an extended period of abstinence, (Ramadan for Muslims, Lent for Christians) we celebrate redemption.
In both cases, weeks of sacrifice climax in a religious family-centred feast.
Religious values are intended to promote social support and communal betterment. The very notion of Christianity is tied to the belief that we are our brother's (and sister's) keeper. Communal support is also a core value of Judaism, Sikhism and Hinduism.
But when religious principles become extreme, they can beget the opposite effect of exclusion and isolation. Take the current debate over Islamic women's right to cover their heads.
From the hijab (a headscarf) to the niquab (covering the head and face, so only the eyes show) to the burka (which covers the body and even has a screen over the eyes) variations of the veil demonstrate for many women their commitment to Islam to the world.
So why all the fuss?
When I was a child, no female would dream of walking into a Catholic Church without covering her head. Conversely, men removed their hats as a sign of respect. Catholic nuns bore black or grey garments from head to toe, usually with stiff white wimples framing the face. Women wore hats or lace mantillas, often draping to the shoulders. Most churches kept an extra supply of head coverings on hand for those who had none.
The Easter bonnet was a chance to show off your finest feathers in church. Similarly, the hijab can be worn at different lengths, with stylish colors, often adding to a woman's ensemble at a special occasion.
Over the years, Christian norms have changed. Churchgoing has plummeted and few women choose to cover their heads. Muslims, too, have various options. On a recent television show where three young Muslim women debated the issue, one pointedly asked the other, why men don't cover their faces? The other, face hidden behind a niqab, had no answer.
Contradictions exist in all religions. It is tough for some Catholics (I would argue impossible) to explain why the priesthood is an exclusively male domain. But those religious contradictions rightfully remain outside the ambit of the state. They cannot be replicated in the secular world.
A devout Muslim woman may wear a burka as an outward sign of her religious commitment. But to the rest of us, the burka is an eradication of her person.
Living in society requires that we interact with each other. Some months ago, I was almost driven off the road by a burka-wearing driver who was apparently having difficulty with her peripheral vision. Had an accident occurred, how could I have identified her?
A driver's licence is a contract with the larger world. In the same way, a teacher is hired to interact with children, which requires that kids see her face. Likewise for a doctor or nurse.
The notion that religious practice endows a civil right to isolate is an infringement on reasonable accommodation in the secular world.
The wearing of a burka cuts one off from all but the most intimate circle of family members. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, the burka is a wall between oneself and the world. It is not consistent with modern secularism.
If a woman wants to wear a burka in the privacy of her own home or mosque, that is her choice (freely made or not). At school, or at work, in a car, she is entering a social contract with the larger world. She cannot hide her own face and expect to be welcomed with open arms.
Love her or hate her – Sheila Copps has been a passionate voice for a progressive Canada since 1984. Now she’s online with her own live web event, Sheila Copps: The Good Fight. Visit www.canoe.ca/sheilacopps to find out more.
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