Very few pieces of faith based clothing in Canada have ignited as much impassioned debates as the Muslim practice of the niqab. Covering the woman’s body and hair and leaving only the eyes visible, the niqab has often been problematized as a symbol of Islamic extremism, women’s oppression and lastly the failure of Muslims to integrate. The Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW) is no stranger when it comes to addressing the very issues that affect Canadian Muslim communities, including debates concerning Muslim women and their choice of dress. Committed to the equality, equity, empowerment and diversity of Muslim women and their voices, for more than 30 years the national organization has delivered community based projects and advocated on behalf of Muslim women and their families. CCMW has previously issued position papers about the niqab and also presented our statements to government bodies. This has resulted in the media, policy officials, community organizations and other inquiring minds asking the Council to weigh in on the debate.
This study can be seen as a response to this growing national conversation and a reflection of CCMW’s values and continued commitment to the plurality of Muslim communities. It represents an attempt to cast light on the existing agency of and provide space for Canadian Muslim women who wear the niqab to speak for themselves. This study is not intended to dwell upon the religious or theological basis of the practice itself, but rather it is first and foremost about the lived experiences of the women and the diverse narratives that they have shared in their responses. The niqab itself is a complex issue and raises many questions for Muslim communities and the wider Canadian population itself. These questions do not yield simple answers, but they must be explored through open and honest discussion.
The findings of this report authored by Dr. Lynda Clarke of Concordia University paint a dynamic, engaging picture of Canadian women who wear the niqab and challenge many of the mainstream presumptions and stereotypes that are presented in the media, policy circles and the wider public. A total of approximately 81 women who wore the niqab participated in this study, 38 of whom responded to online surveys, 35 that participated in focus groups in Mississauga, Montreal, Ottawa and Waterloo and 8 who participated in in-depth individual interviews.
Keeping in mind the limitations of the sample, based on available data in the study the typical profile of woman in niqab is that of a married foreign-born citizen in her twenties to early thirties who adopted the practice after arriving in Canada. Most of the women possessed a high level of education, having attended university, graduate school, community college or some form of vocational education. The majority of the participants were homemakers, while others were self-employed or worked in a range of fields including Muslim communities, consulting, engineering and web design. Those that did not work expressed a desire to in their lifetime, but were concerned with the exclusion they would likely face in the workplace.
In terms of religious orientation, the majority of the respondents in the study adopted what can be viewed as a “conservative” approach to Islam. For instance, the majority of respondents did not agree with the practice of dating and did not believe that homosexuality was an acceptable practice. Yet the presence of a conservative religious outlook amongst participants did not translate into a uniformity of attitudes towards the niqab itself and whether it was a religiously mandatory practice. 44.7% of those surveyed established that it was necessary for a Muslim woman to wear it; while 47.4% indicated “Not necessary, but advisable” and 6.4% indicated that it was not, illustrating the variety of religious understandings concerning the article of dress amongst the participants themselves.
The reasons for why Canadian women wore the niqab, as the author notes were “highly personal and individual” with a mixture of responses and rationales. Yet, “religious obligation” including attaining a deeper stage in one’s religious development and “expression of Muslim identity” featured prominently in participants’ explanations, with sub-themes such as self-study/religious role models, appropriate gender-relations, confidence/self-esteem and freedom from the pressures of fashion also playing a determining factor. Present in only a minority of rationales for wearing the niqab were husbands and families as many of the participants came from families where they faced opposition for wearing it, often taking on the practice without consulting their families. While a small number of women cited spousal encouragement for why they wore the niqab, many women indicated facing spousal opposition and explained that their larger struggle was with soliciting spousal support for their decision.
In response to religious accommodation and access to government services, including social, legal and health, all of our participants indicated that there would be situations when it was necessary to uncover or show their face including airport security, ID cards, accessing hospital services or even driving. As one interviewee indicated, “It’s part of our religion to cooperate with the government, so we have to.” When asked if it was appropriate to show their face in accessing government services, most of the participants indicated “Sometimes.” While many of the respondents indicated a preference for female service providers (physicians), some of the participants did not oppose receiving services from men. Interestingly, rather than describing their access to services as problematic, most of the women in the study expressed that their niqabs did not affect their access and relayed positive sentiments. Similar views were expressed when asked about access to education, where the majority of participants expressed comfort and acceptance in their educational programs.
This larger trend of tolerance and accommodation within Canada is reflected in the optimistic attitudes that the women in the study expressed towards Canadian society as a whole. While some participants relayed their negative experiences which ranged from physical assault to verbal harassment, not a single participant in the study described her overall experience in Canada as being negative. Participants described these harmful experiences as reflecting a minority of the Canadian population and instead relayed a strong affinity to Canada, praising its multiculturalism, its respect for human rights, its freedom and life changing opportunities.
The recently proposed Charter of Quebec Values has once again brought religious forms of dress and the question of religious accommodation to the forefront and CCMW’s position on the matter has remained steadfast. While CCMW does not agree that the niqab is a religiously mandatory practice, the Council upholds the right of every woman to dress as she wishes as she has the freedom to interpret her religion as she believes. We denounce any state action which limits the ability of peoples to wear religious clothing as it is not the role nor responsibility of governments to control women’s and men’s bodies and forms of dress. Moreover, CCMW agrees that the accommodation for Muslim women to wear the face veil must be within reasonable limits and that women should show their faces under certain circumstances for the purposes of safety and security, a sentiment that was shared by the overwhelming majority of women in this study.
CCMW would like to extend its gratitude to the Ontario Trillium Foundation whose generous funds allowed this project to become a reality. The Council is also grateful to its Chapters and volunteers who worked tirelessly to gather participants and organize focus groups. CCMW is also indebted to Dr. Lynda Clarke and her research team at Concordia University, whose hard word and resolve made this study possible. Lastly, we are eternally thankful to the Muslim women from across the country and the province of Ontario that shared their life experiences with us and to whom we dedicate this publication. Our hope is that the research presented here will help build a more inclusive Canada by developing a greater understanding amongst policy officials, the media and the public, by providing them with knowledge about Muslim women and the niqab that is rooted in the voices of Muslim women themselves. As the late Václav Havel reminds us, “Different cultures . . . can share only what they perceive as genuine common ground, not something that some simply offer to or even force upon others. The rules of human coexistence . . . can work only if they grow out of the deepest experience of everyone, not just some.”
About the Publication’s Author
Lynda Clarke is Professor of Religion and Islam in the Department of Religion at Concordia University in Montreal. She focuses in her research and teaching on Shiism, gender and law, and has also written on Islam in the West and Canada. Her most recent publication in the latter field is “Asking Questions about Shariah: Lessons from Ontario”, a chapter in the volume Debating Shariah: Islam, Gender Politics and Family Law Arbitration, published by the University of Toronto Press in 2012. Professor Clarke is a longstanding ally of CCMW, having collaborated in several other projects, including the Muslim Marriage Contract Kit designed to provide a basis for Muslim couples to construct a more equal marriage using Muslim law. She is also the co-author of the CCMW book on Muslim and Canadian Family Laws.