Dear Zunera Ishaq:
Welcome. Welcome to Canada and congratulations on becoming a Canadian citizen. You are joining a great country, as the debate you triggered by deciding to wear the niqab at your citizenship ceremony proves.
As I’m sure you know, many in Canada would like to follow the lead of France and the Netherlands and ban the wearing of the niqab. I am not one of those Canadians. I believe that you have every right in a free country to wear whatever you want, even if what you are wearing is considered rude and offensive to millions of your fellow citizens. I believe in the right to offend. You have not come to a country where people riot or murder over perceived insults.
Unfortunately you have come from a country where such things do happen. I’m sure you are aware of Salman Taseer, the Pakistani politician who was murdered by his own bodyguard because he called for the abolition of the death penalty for insulting Islam, and defended a woman who was facing death under that horrible and unjust law. When the murderer appeared in court, supporters showered him with rose petals. Salman Taseer’s son, Shabaz, who was a witness at the trial, was also kidnapped and murdered. So this is a part, possibly just a small part but a part none the less, of the culture you have left behind. I think you can understand why Canadians would not want to see that culture in your new country.
So that explains our first reaction to your traditional garment. For us it represents a horrible, brutal, disgusting, odious, malignant and oppressive culture. The aura of that culture clings to the niqab like a bad smell. For us it is far more offensive than any cartoon or verbal statement could ever be. When you wear it, I hope you will be aware that we find it offensive and why.
Our offence taken goes beyond an acute distaste for the culture the burka and the niqab represent to us. Many of us have been accused of racism when we criticize the wearing of these cultural symbols. But race is something that a person does not choose and can do nothing about. I am a man of Caucasian descent. These are things I did not choose and can’t change. But the customs and trappings of my culture are things I can choose and can change. There are many actual racists in Canada, and many racists, in fact all racists, are indeed ignorant. But this is not a matter of race but of culture.
My offence is not founded on ignorance but on verifiable news reports from your original country.
So I reject the ad hominem that is thrown at people who object to your display of freedom. We are not necessarily racist, though some may be. And there is a second and a third source of our offence. I’ve read that one purpose of your complete covering is to prevent men looking at a woman and thinking impure thoughts, that they cannot control their uncontrollable lust. This seems to me unlikely to be true. Even if it is true in some cases, it is an insulting assumption about me and most men. It infantalizes us as a gender. It is also ineffective, in that men assume there is a woman under that cloth and their imagination is quite able to give an image to what the garment conceals.
Canada is a country of inclusion. We welcome you. By wearing the niqab or the burka, you say to us that you do not want to be included. You want to stay in your own culture, insulated from the common culture of by far the majority of Canadians. A large part of our communication is through body language and facial expressions. You deny us this access to your thoughts and feelings. You say, to our understanding, that while you claim to have come here because you like Canada and like our culture of freedom, in fact you don’t. You would really prefer to be back in the culture you have left behind. It should hardly come as a surprise when many Canadians suggest you would be happier if you went back where you came from.
It is not my place to tell any woman what to wear. If being, at the very least, provocative, if not rude and offensive, is your aim, then you have succeeded. If none of this was your intention, then please understand that it is the result no matter what your intention might be.
I support, even applaud, your offensive statement. But please understand that you are being offensive. Please do not be surprised when people respond by being and acting offended.
With all due respect