Ask Me Anything: Conversations on Niqab

The new CBC weeknight show Connect with Mark Kelley recently aired a segment on niqab as part of its “Ask Me Anything” series, in which members of the public are given the chance to ask questions about the experiences and perspectives of a designated person.  Previous “Ask Me Anything” conversations have included a nurse who had swine flu and a Canadian soldier who recently returned from Afghanistan.

Last Thursday’s segment featured Rabia Khan, a university student and part-time teacher, and the theme of the show was her decision to wear niqab (covering her face), which she has worn for the past three years.  Khan was seated at a table in the middle of a busy shopping mall, across from an empty chair, where people could sit and ask her whatever they wanted about the niqab.  The five-minute clip, showing snippets from a few of the conversations that she had, is available here.

My first reaction was to feel really nervous for Khan.  Although she appears clearly comfortable and enthusiastic with the project, I was worried about what she was being set up for.  What kinds of things were people going to say to her, given that they had free reign to ask her “anything”?  The edited segment that was aired doesn’t show any overt hostility, although it’s hard to know what kinds of things may have been asked and then edited out.  It’s certainly far from a safe space, and I’m not sure exactly how fair it is to put someone (who’s already in a minority position) in such a vulnerable context. However, Khan at least seemed aware of what she was getting herself into.

As it was, Khan and the questioners shown in the clip all show a genuine willingness to have a conversation in a friendly way, even despite disagreements. Khan is friendly and personable, and the questioners also seem friendly.  Considering the way that the media can sometimes build up the niqab as fundamentally antithetical to any other Canadian experience, it was refreshing to see people move beyond these polarizations and actually having a genuine discussion.

Khan spoke to a number of fellow Canadians: she explains to an older couple that she covers for her own protection, and for the protection of others.  She explains that she loves wearing it.  She also tells them that when she started university four years ago, she found herself with “too much independence for [her] own good,” and “wanted to keep [her]self intact with God, and to commit to [her] religion.”  It would have been interesting to see further questions about to what degree the niqab affords her the protection she wants, or about other possibilities for maintaining a relationship with God in the face of newfound independence; however, it was also a very short clip, and the issue in question was Khan’s own experience, in which she clearly feels that the niqab has had a positive impact.

Later, another woman asks Khan if she is married (she is), and if her husband is Muslim.  Khan responds that “Muslim women only marry Muslim men,” a response that bothered me, because it sounds like a descriptive statement – does that mean that the Muslim women who marry non-Muslim men are no longer Muslim?  She later clarifies that “in Islam you’re not allowed to marry outside [the religion],” which is definitely the mainstream position on the issue (and not a debate we’ll have here), and I’m guessing that’s what she meant in her original statement, but her initial response sounded uncomfortably exclusive.  Interestingly, the woman asking her the question called her on it, by referring to a Muslim woman she knew who had married a Jewish man, showing that not all Muslim women marry Muslim men (again, whether or not they should is a different discussion.)

The same woman told Khan that she was born in Toronto to parents who came to Canada in the 1920s because of their family’s persecution in Europe.  The woman spoke about how happy she was to be living in Canada, where there is “freedom” and “democracy” (her tone was especially emphatic on those two words).  She related her experience of growing up, where her family had to change their names to fit into Canadian society, and that now “it’s nice to see that you (Khan) can dress the way you want, and carry out your religious beliefs the way you want.”  I found this to be one of the most interesting parts of the whole clip; instead of the usual “you’re in a free country, so take off that veil” tropes we hear so often, the woman asking the questions was glad that Canadian society created a climate where Khan could wear what she wanted, even if the vast majority of Canadians don’t wear the same thing.

But the end of that particular conversation changed the tone entirely.  As the woman was leaving, she told Khan, “Once again, you’re very lucky (to live in a country where she can dress as she wants).  Don’t abuse it!”  Although she spoke the words cheerfully, almost jokingly, it almost felt that there was some kind of underlying threat, and a clear sign that she did not fully trust Khan.  Niqabs will be tolerated, but only ever with suspicion (and with the power to revoke such tolerance at any time.)  Nothing that Khan said at any point in the clip suggested in any way that she would be “abusing” her right to dress and practice her religion as she pleases, and I find it hard to believe that any of what was cut out of the interview would change this fact.  The woman’s celebration of Canadian society as open to diverse manifestations of religious expression still leaves space for “bad” religious expressions to be questioned and held as suspect, and therefore never seen as fully part of the imagined national identity.

In some ways, the entire show was framed in that context: in his introduction, Kelley talks about niqab being seen as un-Canadian, and immediately afterwards says that “we gave you the chance to ask [Khan] whatever you want.”  In such proximity to the discussion about whether the niqab is inherently un-Canadian, Kelley designates “you” (the audience) as judges of this Canadian-ness, and suggests that this “you” does not include people who themselves wear niqab.*

My biggest worry about the show is that it might imply that all women in niqab should be called on to answer questions, to open up about personal decision to random strangers in a mall, or to justify wearing it to outside communities.  The onus shouldn’t be on women in niqab (or on women in hijab, or on Muslims in general, etc.) to justify themselves to anyone or to prove that they are not oppressed (or scary, or terrorists, and so on.)  After all, how do you prove something like that, aside from just going about your non-oppressed, non-scary life, which apparently isn’t convincing enough for everyone?

Having said that, Khan’s openness to discussing her own personal experiences and opinions seems to have had a positive impact; I just hope that it doesn’t imply that the responsibility to fight misconceptions and discrimination lies solely within those targeted by the discrimination, rather than within those who hold and perpetuate discriminatory opinions that are often unfounded.

* Kelley’s pronunciation of “niqab” sounds a lot like “kneecap,” which made me giggle.

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