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Diversity, Discrimination, the Media and the Niqab

March 15, 2010
Muslim women shopping with hijabs in Morocco.

Muslim women shopping with hijabs in Morocco. CC-image courtesy of Flickr user "Alexbip."

Spring brings us a flurry of diversity-related news items in Canada’s provincial and national media.

In February, UBC professor Henry Yu describes a “not so quiet revolution” in Vancouver – with a challenge to official French-English Canada – he advocates updating educational language policies to include Mandarin, Cantonese, Punjabi and Tagalog, not just for continuing education but in regular K-12 programmes. An unsettling notion? Will our social cohesion as a nation be threatened? Statistics Canada reports on diversity projections for 2006-2031: up to 14.4 million people will be a “vis min” by 2031. Professor Yee challenges the term, “minority”: in cities such as Vancouver “non white Asians” will soon be 50 percent of the population.

CBC reports on a poll it commissioned: one in three Canadians believes “that Aboriginal Peoples and Muslims are the frequent targets of discrimination.” This month, the CBC website hosts a “point of view” space on multiculturalism, inviting stories of acceptance or discrimination.  Canada’s “grand experiment in culture” continues. And here’s a disconnect:  the reporters, news anchors, op ed writers,  and radio hosts  who document and reflect back to us the “news of the day” aren’t a very diverse lot. Perhaps this begs a “so what” response? But would coverage of “multi-culti” issues and then in response, the shaping of the conversation around such issues, change?

For example, a Canadian “opinion-maker” is once again writing about the wearing of the niqab, this time in a Montreal classroom : “ It is a fascinating story about reasonable accommodation, competing rights and where we ought to draw the line on tolerance in a democratic society.”  Do we need to “draw the line”? What does that mean? Do younger multi-lingual, multi-ethnic Canadians, if they happen to read newspapers (doubtful?) just roll their eyes, and say, “get over it?”  Does the wearing of a piece of cloth, when it covers everything but your eyes, push you into an “unacceptable zone”? What would happen to our “national discourse” on multiculturalism if at least one of the writers featured on the Globe’s masthead, and “visible” (pun) online, actually wore a niqab?

Just writing this makes me want to wear a niqab for at least two weeks, everyday, in public, and go about my business, sipping my tea, reading, writing and dreaming in English. I would be me, except, different. Would my attire push me into that “not reasonable zone”?  What if I were to go “Goth” for the same amount of time, me with my progressive lenses, grey hair, brown skin and Goth? Would that be “crossing the line?” Is it disrespectful of me to suggest this, to those who choose to wear such garb?

The reaction of people, the world over, toward visible difference in outward appearance, of any kind, but particularly in manner of dress, interests me.  What’s “too much”? What’s “acceptable”? When and why not? Many in France and many in Quebec, seem exercised on this subject – as if the ideals of The Republic or the nature of a “distinct society” are challenged by “too much otherness.” What ideals?  What “distinctness”? What do we mean when we use these words? Are such notions “fixed” things – is language, for instance, a product we box and tie round with a ribbon, “inalienable?” Do our “vis min” cultures in Canada think just that and protect their notions of “language-culture” without a corresponding “respect” for what’s “dominant/main-stream”? Do each of us, in our countries, face  “litmus tests of inclusion,” if we “deviate” from “the standard”?  How do gay and lesbian people of colour feel about these issues? What’s it like to live in countries such as Saudi Arabia if you are “other” and does this have any relevance to our discussion in Canada?

This December (2009), witnessed on a local sky-train transit station: a young man, who spat on and swore at an older man, who wore a turban. When I mention this incident to a friend of mine, a lovely person, her family in Canada for many generations, her reaction: disgust, sympathy for the man in the turban, and then a desire to minimize the incident as “not common.” Perhaps she’s correct but then I don’t wear a turban, or a niqab. What’s it like out there in the world, if you are visibily different in the way you dress? How does Canada rate on a world scale?

What would happen if other news outlets in Canada hired excellent-in-English “vis min” writers for regular news beats, not just “guest columns”? Why aren’t more “mainstream” Canadian media outlets, ownership of which is concentrated in so few hands, not hiring more hungry-for-a-great-story beat journalists who just happened to be “vis min”? Because very few journalists are being hired anywhere, is probably a safe bet. But, isn’t it time for Rex Murphy to be replaced by a niqab wearing, Mandarin-English speaking host?

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 4, 2010 6:24 am

    In order to reduce discrimination, people need to be educated on the benefits of diversity. Only then will people truly embrace it.

  2. corsullivan permalink*
    March 16, 2010 12:59 pm

    That’s an impressive collection of questions, Renee, as Anne said. Niqabs are always going to be just plain impractical in certain situations, and I would argue that a language class is one of them. I don’t think I would want to watch a niqab-wearing TV journalist with a strong Chinese accent for very long, either – both the niqab and the accent would interfere too much with the normal flow of communication.

    It’s interesting that you juxtaposed the niqab with Goth attire. A while ago Sarkozy compared burkas to “walking coffins”, and my immediate thought was that this would probably increase their appeal to the Goth set. I think people should be free to wear whatever they like, under most circumstances, but I think considerations of practicality should generally trump the idea of cultural accommodation.

    As for wearing a niqab for two weeks – yes, do it. And blog it. I’m looking forward to your first report, and of course the photos. You can then return to normality for a while before trying the Goth thing.

    • reneethewriter permalink
      March 17, 2010 2:11 pm

      Cor, (and is it presumptuous of me, on this day 17 March, thinking of your name, knowing you are a self-proclaimed atheist, to wish you, sure, a fine day etc)

      The practical v the “politically correct” – I can never decide what “side” of that possibly “false dichotomy” I come down on –

      I will refrain from silly comments about Sarkozy and his aesthetics, when it comes, to, ahem, women and the way they dress. Heh. I will not comment on his wife’s attire.

      re my wearing a niqab. You know, i’m not sure I have the courage – I think Canadians, despite our avowed “tolerance” in general (mea culpa) go beserker when faced in public places with visible differences in dress, whether its a black head to toe covering from “Muslim women” or from “Goths” and also, as mentioned, I worry that such a gesture, experimental on my part, would be too theatrical and too glib. I believe I’ve mentioned aobut my poet’s theatre piece, 10 ways of looking at me and my scarf – the subject of attire, what’s acceptable, what’s not, fascinates.

      sorry that i did not link to your much earier excellent piece on this subject; again, on a Wente article, if I’m not mistaken?

      • corsullivan permalink*
        March 20, 2010 12:19 pm

        Thanks for the St Patrick’s Day wishes. Same to you, a bit belatedly.

        I would rather think of the niqab issue as boiling down to practicality vs. tolerance of others’ personal choices, rather than practicality vs. political correctness – to me the fact that some choices are motivated by religion and cultural is decidedly secondary. Surely it’s also important to acknowledge that the two imperatives are not always in conflict, given that there are lots of things one can do perfectly well in a niqab. However, I tend to think that the niqab should come off in situations where face-to-face communication is important.

        I don’t think people would respond by going “berserker” if you went around in a niqab, although they might frown and mutter. I agree that this would be experimental in your case, but I wouldn’t see it as the least bit glib – on the contrary, it sounds like it would be a significant step outside your comfort zone. It would be theatrical to the extent that you decided to treat the experience as performance art rather than a sociological experiment. For the record, however, I still think it would be worth doing.

        My earlier post on Islamic dress was actually motivated by an article by Barbara Kay, who in my opinion is generally a far easier and more deserving target than Margaret Wente – and that’s saying something!

  3. reneethewriter permalink
    March 16, 2010 12:46 pm

    Thank you, Anne, for taking the time to visit this space and thank you for your detailed (and funny) and thought provoking comments – much appreciated. You know, Prof Yu is a wee bit irritating but so interesting. Yes, I do question myself alot about these issues – so easy, isn’t, to “knee-jerk” one’s thoughts and I think I should go meditate on the use of questions – to generate dialogue or to avoid taking a stand? Good thing to ponder! I welcome any comments you have re individual stories/incidents, personal experience – this is what the CBC POV site is trying to do, i think. And in the end, it’s all we have, eh, our own experience of what these words/ideas/concepts/constructs, mean. R

  4. anne hopkinson permalink
    March 15, 2010 9:00 pm

    Only if the niqab-wearing, Mandarin-English speaking replacement is good at the job. I have to admit, I’m tired of Rex Murphy. I’d just like someone new, and I couldn’t care less what gender, colour, or ethnic background they are. And Henry Yu. Can you say myopic? “What’s wrong with Kits?” I would ask “Why don’t Asian people buy property in Kits?” There’s nothing preventing them, they choose to buy elsewhere. As for his weak French skills — join the club Henry! This is a commonality between millions of Canadians. His Cantonese is weak too? Maybe he’s not so good at languages, or maybe he didn’t listen to his parents. Bingo — another commonality with millions of Canadians. I notice Renee has a plethora of questions in this piece of writing. Is that her enquiring mind, her genuine desire to foster inclusion and debate, or is she reluctant to state her opinion? I am somewhat reluctant to state mine, as my opinions are influenced by individual stories, particular incidents on the news, and personal experience. And I keep rehashing and double-thinking what I feel. Thanks for the provoking piece, Renee.

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