Modesty and menace


Last week, while being buffed for an interview on a French-language TV talk show, I observed a quartet of young Muslim women trooping in for their touch-ups.

They were amateur models who, in the segment following mine, would serve as visual accompaniment to a commentator’s discourse on the diversity of Muslim “fashion.” The girls primped, and tweaked their respective costumes: a hijab, two different styles of chador and the full-body, face-veiling niqab.

Lately it has become more acceptable to admit to “cover recoil.” Certainly I felt a frisson of revulsion when the niqab-clad young woman lowered a second veil over her entire face. With eyes visible, she had been barely identifiable as a woman. When they disappeared, she no longer registered as a human being. She was a … creature.

The niqab, still a rarity here, is a hot issue abroad, where several political leaders have held forth on its negative social effects: British Prime Minister Tony Blair has called it a “mark of separation.” Blair’s foreign minister, Jack Straw, announced he will no longer interview veiled women in his constituency office. Italy’s Romano Prodi declared, “You can’t cover your face …. It is not how you dress, but if you are hidden or not.”

Coincidentally, in England a Yorkshire school suspended Aishah Azmi, 24, an assistant teacher, for insisting on wearing a niqab in class. (She had not worn a veil at her interview.)

Azmi’s case may be a tipping point in Britons’ patience with Muslim entitlements. Politically correct deference to complaints of discrimination by Azmi and leaders of the Muslim community did not spring forth with their wonted alacrity, and Azmi lost three claims of discrimination and harassment before an employment tribunal. Let us fervently hope this is a sign that frankness around the indecency of the niqab will henceforth be the order of the day.

Yes, indecency. A great deal of hypocritical ink has been spilled about “respecting difference,” the “right” of women to affirm their cultural identity and the injustice of “forcing” women to adapt to Western norms. These multicultural pieties don’t reflect essential Canadian values, just a fear of being labelled Islamophobic.

For in reality, in the interest of decency, social comfort and civil norms, we “force” people to refrain from doing all kinds of things.

Our decency spectrum features a somewhat elastic middle zone of socially appropriate behaviours, as well as two end zones: One is over-exhibition in public — nakedness and unseemly intimacies; the other — total cover and discomfiting social distance — is over-inhibition in public. Both extremes provoke negative social tension. We don’t second-guess the familiar old transgressions of the over-exhibitionistic zone. There would be no talk of “respecting difference” or “rights” if someone strolled naked into a schoolyard.

But the opposite end of the spectrum is more nuanced. We’re clear about men in ski masks in banks and other urban spaces, because we instinctively associate the hidden male face with deviancy or violence. But cover in general amongst women signifies sexual modesty (an appropriate middle zone behaviour and a Judeo-Christian heritage value), so we’re pre-programmed to approve — or at least not disapprove — of all cover’s various “fashions.” Yet as members of an egalitarian and individual-promoting culture, we are offended by the shocking depersonalization of women the niqab in particular confers. It’s a muddle; theory wars with instinct.

Our discomfort is compounded by the association of full female coverage with regimes such as the Taliban’s and Saudi Arabia, which are not only notoriously repressive of women, but embody or support virulently hostile attitudes to the West. The question inevitably arises: Why would any free Western woman (whose mother certainly never wore a niqab) voluntarily exchange her individuality for such drastic physical and social self-erasure, except as an ideological gesture of support for anti-Western interpretations of Islam? I am sure I am not alone in longing for the reassurance of some other benign and credible explanation.

Body cover in the name of sexual modesty is a universally respected phenomenon. But face cover is a universal symbol of menace, shame or the intention to deceive one’s fellows. We’ve long had penalties for the offence of public self-imposition, but unlike England and Europe, we haven’t had to consider suitable dissuasive strategies against the civic insult of public self-nullification. A flimsy veil is a social wall. It’s easier not to build walls than be forced to tear them down.



Barbara Kay "Modesty and menace." National Post, (Canada) 25 October, 2006.

Reprinted with permission of the author, Barbara Kay, and the National Post.


Barbara Kay is a Montreal-based writer. She has been a Comment page columnist (Wednesdays) in the National Post since September, 2003. She may be reached here.

Copyright © 2006 National Post

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