The first time I saw a woman draped from head to toe in shapeless black cloth, I was pretty sure she was wearing handcuffs underneath. I gave the guy she was with the side-eye for keeping her imprisoned.
Of course, for all I know, she was wearing the pants of the family and ruby red lipstick under her black veil. I’ll never know because I didn’t bother to stop and say hello, never mind discuss the state of the patriarchy. I just kept walking, quite secure I had her situation sussed.
But wait. If all of a sudden we’re worried about women wearing clothing “that’s rooted in a culture that’s anti-women,” as Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said about the niqab, we can’t just pick on a few Muslim women. We have to throw open our own closets and fish out that pushup bra, the stilettos and that beloved little black dress, the one with the slit up to here.
Or head on down to your friendly neighbourhood bridal store. Plenty of strong, powerful women who make their own decisions, have successful careers and pay for their own weddings, happily put on a white dress (symbolizing virginity) and have their fathers walk them down the aisle to “give them away” to their shiny new husbands.
So why is it OK for brides to wear a white veil that symbolizes women as chattel for part of a legal ceremony, but it’s not OK for a woman to wear a niqab for part of a Canadian citizenship ceremony? (The veil is lifted in private to verify identity before she says the oath). Is it just the frequency thing — wedding day versus every day? Is it because the women in white are perceived to choose to incorporate symbols of male oppression, whereas we’re not sure about the women in black? Maybe we should ask one.
Nedaa Al-Jezani has big brown eyes, ankle-high blue suede boots with shiny gold zippers and a black veil covering her nose and mouth. “I choose black because it’s easier to go with everything,” she explains with a little laugh.
Al-Jezani, a graduate student from Saudi Arabia researching stem cells at the University of Calgary, wears the veil for religious reasons. “It’s the woman’s choice,” she says. “This doesn’t ignore the fact some people control women, but in my case, and other cases, we choose to wear the niqab.”
While no one around town gives her a hard time about her veil, she’s a little confused by all the fuss in the papers. “One of the reasons I came to Canada over America and Australia is the freedom you have here. It doesn’t matter your religion. It doesn’t matter your colour, your gender,” she says. “You are equal here in Canada.”
Well, we thought so anyway.
I’m sure we can all agree that if a woman chooses to wear a niqab, just as if she chooses to wear a white wedding gown or a little black dress with a slit up to here, then there’s nothing left to say but “Rock on, sister.”
If, however, the choice is made for her and she is, in fact, wearing handcuffs underneath her veil, what better way to help her lose the chains than welcoming her into our community, getting to know her a little and letting her know that in Canada, she gets to choose her own wardrobe?