Out of Sight, Out of Mind: the Niqab Debate and Ableism

The Quebec niqab thing keeps going and going (ugh), and I’m still avoiding talking about media coverage of the issue head-on, mostly because I think I’ll explode if I think more about the absurdity of it all, and I’ve written on niqab so much already that there’s not a lot else to say.  This post at Racialicious is a pretty good overview of the issue, and of some of the media and activism that has come out in response.  (Also, avoiding the media discussion isn’t the same as ignoring the issue.  See this link for a list of ways to take action, if you are so inclined–particularly any readers in Canada.)

And yet I can’t seem to avoid it entirely, because here I am writing about it again – at least, one dimension of it.  One quote from this (excellent) article from the Montreal Gazette raises an issue to think about that most other articles have not touched:

The claim that to teach language the teacher needs to see her mouth is to state that blind people cannot teach or learn language and that on-line language classes are bogus.

(To give some context, the latest fuss in Quebec comes largely as a reaction to a  woman, originally from Egypt, who was told she was required to remove her niqab in her French language class, so that her teacher could see her mouth in order to help with her pronunciation.)

It seems obvious, and yet, remarkably few of the articles about the niqab ban (in fact, none that I’ve seen aside from this one) ever even acknowledge the possibility of a context other than one where everyone is sighted.  My own writing on MMW about it has been equally ableist in this regard (ironically, I have actually talked about this before in academic papers, but somehow that particular analysis hasn’t made it onto the blog yet).

Of course, the majority of people are sighted, so it’s not necessarily wrong to assume a context that involves a high degree of visual communication; much about the very concept of religious covering depends on assumptions that everyone involved  is sighted.  What’s problematic is when this context is assumed to be everyone’s experience.  Moreover, the privileging of sight can have disturbing implications for what’s being said about those who do not see, or who process visual information differently from what is assumed to be the norm.

For example, when someone talks about being able to see the mouth as necessary for the proper instruction of a language, what are they saying about the abilities of someone who doesn’t see?  If having the chance to see each person’s face is supposedly a core feature of Canadian (or French, or whatever) society, what can we take from this about the social place of  people who are blind or otherwise visually impaired, or who have difficulty processing facial features or making eye contact?

If, as was raised in a Toronto court case last spring, it is essential to see the face in order to judge the credibility of a witness, is the implication then that blind people can never be competent judges or jury members?  (Adding to that, if “seeing [the complainant's] face as she testifies is a fundamental right” of a defendant, is a fair trial impossible if the defendant is blind?)

In other words, I think we need to ask who is being excluded from these (and other) conversations about niqab, and whose experiences are implicitly ignored, judged, or dismissed.  This is not meant to detract at all from the significance of what’s happening with regards to the niqab itself, but rather to show how Islamophobia is overlapping with ableism, and how it is not only the 25 women in Quebec who actually wear niqab who are being dehumanized and marginalized in many of these discussions.

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