Face Coverings: What’s the BFD?


niqab1In reference to the now infamous and distracting niqab debate, Stephen Harper has recently stated that it is “offensive that someone would want to hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family”.  The Conservative Facebook page has recently posted the quote and asked Facebook users whether they agree or disagree.  The problem with this isn’t simply that it is both a leading and misleading question, or that it places a conversation in strict binary terms; the problem is that Harper and the Conservatives are, as Edward Said would say, ‘orientalizing’ the cultural practice of the niqab and maliciously misconstruing it in the hopes that it will distract from the actual issues that this election should be about.  At the end of the day, head coverings and face coverings are, whether we realize it or not, a part of everyday culture in almost every culture.



Source can be found here.

One of the key flaws in the phrasing of the statement is that Harper claims that a woman who is wearing a niqab is hiding her identity: this is simply not true.  In fact, the opposite is the case.  If a woman, in this case Zunera Ishaq, chooses to wear a niqab in her everyday life, that is a choice that represents her culture, religious beliefs, and personal life choices.  These are each things that define a person’s identity.  To not wear the niqab when Ishaq would typically wear it is a misrepresentation of who she is.  Therefore, what Harper is actually asking is that those who wear niqabs misrepresent themselves.  He is asking Canada to adopt a melting pot and trying to compel those from other cultures to conform to Western cultural practices.  Canada, though, is a mosaic, in stark contrast to the American melting pot Harper seems to have confused Canada with, and as such welcomes the unique characteristics of each culture that it might be woven into the fabric of Canada’s diverse tapestry.  Harper’s claim is especially deceptive given that Ishaq, the woman who has sparked the niqab debate, has not hidden her identity at all.  She has explained her position in a public forum, provided identification at the swearing in, and gave her name.  There is no hiding going on here, only a malicious manipulation of the facts by Stephen Harper.



Zunera Ishaq, the woman at the center of the 'niqab' debate.

Zunera Ishaq, the woman at the center of the ‘niqab’ debate.  Image borrowed from here.

There is of course a possibility that Harper in being sincere, in which case he exposes his antiquated and chauvinistic belief that a woman’s identity is defined, not by the content of her character, but her physical appearance, or more specifically, her face.  To suggest that one’s identity is hidden when one’s face is covered is to suggest that one’s identity is defined by their face: this is an overtly chauvinistic view that defines women through their appearance and also has ableist overtones.  For a point of comparison, one might consider a typical resume, which usually includes one’s work history, education, related interest and hobbies, as well as some references. If a woman were to send a resume to a potential employer and she were asked to include a headshot, would that be appropriate? Of course not. Her employment should not be determined by her appearance, and neither should one’s citizenship.  Likewise, the implication this sentiment carries is that one must be able to see somebody’s face in order to be able to know that person or have an understanding as to what their identity is; however, blind people are able to identify friends, family, and colleagues without being able to see them, suggesting that Harper’s sentiment is misguided at best, and frankly ableist for all practical purposes.  Whilst Harper may be sincere in his assertion that a woman’s identity is defined through her appearance, this is both a chauvinistic and ableist view.


Image borrowed from here.

Image borrowed from here.

In one debate, Harper also said that he “will never tell [his] daughter that a woman should cover her face because she’s a woman”, alluding to the niqab debate, but through their actions, both he and his wife have told his daughter exactly that.  In a family photo from 2006, for instance, Harper’s wife, Laureen, is clearly wearing makeup, while Harper is not.  What is the message here?  That a woman, when in public, is expected to cover her face, albeit with makeup, whilst a man is not.  Some might suggest that this is a false analogy, but the sentiment behind covering one’s face with a niqab or makeup as a cultural practice is analogous.  Some women wear a niqab for fear that men will judge them based on their appearance, and so remove the object of judgement; Western women also believe that they will be judged for their appearance, but rather than hide it, they enhance it with makeup.  In both cases, their authentic faces are being covered with a mask of sorts in response to the way in which they are viewed by men in a social context.  This is a cultural difference only and speaks to Harper’s ‘orientalization’ of the ‘other’.


This orientalization of the other is furthered by Harper’s claim that the practice of wearing the niqab is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women”.  Whilst one could fairly claim that misogyny exists in Middle Eastern culture, the truth of the matter is that it exists in all cultures, or perhaps Harper forgot about École Polytechnique Massacre (aka Montreal Massacre).  The problem with this assertion is that it assumes Ishaq has not chosen to wear the niqab, but rather has been forced to wear it.  However, the fact is that in most Islamic countries, fewer than 10% of the female population choose to wear a hijab, and in only two countries does the percentage of women who wear a burqa exceed 10%.  Therefore, women all over the Islamic world choose whether or not to wear the niqab, and though social conformity and familial pressure no doubt does play a role for many, this is a choice that women have.  Harper’s goal, then, is to remove that choice by shaming the women who wear the niqab, all the while he is inferring that those who make this choice are allowing themselves to be subordinate to misogyny.  If that’s not anti-women, I don’t know what is.



Source for this image can be found here.

Source for this image can be found here.

The irony of Harper’s stance is that his rhetoric suggests he is doing this to promote women’s rights when his track record shows that he cares very little about women’s rights.  For instance, the country where the niqab is most common is Saudi Arabia, who Harper seems to have no problems with, given that he made $15-billion arms deal with the country. This despite the fact that Saudi Arabia only allowed women to vote for the first time this year and still does not allow women to drive.  Harper also sold The Canadian Wheat Board to Saudi Arabia, and when King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia passed away, Harper said nothing of the human rights violations carried out in Saudi Arabai, nor did he say anything about the fact that bin Abdulaziz never allowed women to vote in municipal elections (federal elections do not exist in Saudi Arabia).  Instead, Harper praised bin Abdulaziz, saying that he was a “proponent of peace” and “undertook a range of important economic, social, education, health, and infrastructure initiatives”.  So while Harper is quick to suggest that the culture that endorses the niqab is ‘anti-women’, he is happy to do business with them.  This should not be surprising given that Harper has “refused to implement the recommendations of the 2004 Pay Equity Task Force”, which would ensure pay equity for women.  Harper’s rhetoric suggests that he is on the side of women, but the truth is, he is only exploiting women in an attempt to distract voters from real issues and has only stood in the way of progress for women.


Is this juxtaposition fair? Or too extreme?

Is this juxtaposition fair? Or too extreme?

What is particularly troubling is this belief that strangers should have access to a woman’s face.  Those who argue that they have a right see somebody’s face are demanding a right to somebody else’s body that they simply do not have.  It would be akin to asking to see a woman’s breasts.  Though the West may see a difference between exposing one’s face and one’s breasts, these are cultural differences. Some cultures don’t see a need to cover one’s bosom, whilst others insist on covering ankles and faces.  For the latter, being compelled to uncover your ankle, or hands, or faces would be akin to a Western woman being compelled to bear her breasts for a stranger.  This is the antithesis to women’s rights, contrary to what Harper would have voters believe.  He is demanding to see a part of a woman’s body that she views as private and intimate.  What right does Harper, or any man for that matter, have to tell a woman she ought to reveal a part of her body to him?


niqab2There are also those who see the niqab as a potential security issue.  Though I do understand this concern, it frankly borders on paranoia.  None of the terrorists on 9/11 wore niqabs.  Those who carried out the Boston Marathon Bombing did not wear niqabs.  The Ottawa shooter did not wear a niqab.  Where are these ‘terrorists’ who are committing crimes under the guise of a niqab?  They simply do not exist.  In fact, the only people in North America I can recall wearing masks while carrying out violent attacks were the Ferguson police as they launched tear gas on protesters, and the KKK. Ironically, enough, not covering your face is considered more of a safety hazard in some countries.  In Japan, for instance, wearing a surgical mask is seen both as a way to prevent the spread of germs, and as a way reduce the pollution one breathes in.  Even in Canada people wear scarves in the winter to cover their faces to prevent exposure to cold temperatures.  The fear that women who wear niqabs pose some kind of security issue is unfounded and rooted in xenophobia.


Sources for this image can be found here.

Sources for this image can be found here.

The intent behind Harper’s argument against the niqab is transparent: he is appealing to people’s ignorance and prejudice.  Like the Emperor who tries to turn young Skywalker, one can almost hear Harper say “Let the hate flow through you!” as ignorant voters decide to cast their ballot solely on the basis of this ‘niqab’ debate.  There are parts of other cultures I don’t understand, and parts that I don’t approve of, but I am not going to tell a woman what she should or shouldn’t wear so long as it doesn’t interfere with the rights of others.  We live in a world where many people judge others based on the way they look.  Women who wear a niqab, or even a hijab, are telling those around them that they will not be judged based on what they look like.  They may be judged for their beliefs, and their choices, but they will not be judged based on a face which ought not to define them.  This is not a security threat, it is merely a cultural phenomenon that some people don’t understand, and that Harper has tried to exploit so that Canadians might forget about the real issues.  When going into the voting booth on Monday, October 19th, instead of thinking about a woman in a niqab, consider that Harper has raised the debt to its highest point ever; that he’s lost more jobs than any other Prime Minister since WWII; that he’s closed more Veteran Offices than any of his processors, that he censors scientists who disagree with his policies; that he’s sold arms to a royal family that reportedly funneled money to Al Qaeda, and that signed trade deals with China and Pacific Rim countries that will severely damage Canada’s agricultural and industrial industries. Those are the real issues.  Everything else is misdirection.


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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.


  1. Catherine Bennett- Garrigan says:

    This is super interesting. Wearing a niqab is of course a matter of choice if you are a woman residing in a’ free’ country.That it comes down to politics is so unnecessary.It is what works within the mind of a woman that decides to wear one (or not) that holds all of the value. I find it past sad that misanthropy occurs on any level but over a choice of dress is really disheartening. People of all perceived races in the West wear pashmina shawls all the time as a fashion statement. Very easy to cover your face with those. Looks like extremist politicians are targeting women because they fear all Muslims are extremists. So they are attacking religion and engaging in sexism. I guess that is the BFD.

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