Niqabs, Media, and Taking Action

Niqabs, Media, and Taking Action May 18, 2010

Today is the Day of Action on Quebec’s Bill 94, which I wrote about last week.

In honor of this, I wanted to share a video of a community dialogue on the bill, which took place in Toronto in early May.  It was a really impressive event, with a very engaging panel and over 150 people in attendance.  The video is pretty long, but well worth the watch for anyone interested in learning more about various personal, social, and legal perspectives on the bill’s implications:

NO to Quebec Provincial Bill 94 from Las Perlas del Mar on Vimeo.

I can’t cover everything about it here, but I wanted to touch on a couple of the media-specific points that were made.

Anver Emon, a law professor from the University of Toronto, focused his talk (which begins around 12:04 in the video) on “the global pre-occupation with the covered Muslim woman.”  Asking who this covered Muslim woman is assumed to be, he showed a slide of packaging for couscous, sold by a major Canadian grocery store chain, that featured a niqab-wearing woman, with only her seductive, kohl-adorned eyes showing (MMW has discussed this exact product before.)  He described the woman as “someone who we want to, perhaps, devour…  She’s exotic, she’s different, when we’re really bored of meat and potatoes, we turn to the covered Muslim woman in the aisle of Loblaws.”

He then moved to talk about the more sinister representations that exist, showing an image from the recent anti-minaret campaign in Switzerland, where a covered Muslim woman is depicted alongside minaret-shaped missles (MMW has also discussed this one.)  Instead of being the exotic object of consumption, the Muslim woman is represented as “an object of threat, insecurity, and serious fear.”

Emon’s point was that “no one actually really cares” about who the covered Muslim woman truly is.  Instead,”what matters is what ‘we,’ those in power, those who control the discourse of governance, say about her.  What she is is what ‘we’ do not want to be.”

Following Emon was Asmaa Hussein (starts around 23:35), an activist within the Muslim community and recent graduate in Social Work.  Hussein shared a collection of statements about the niqab that have been recently made in “very mainstream media outlets:”

  1. It’s the cause of Vitamin D deficiencies, and, consequently, women’s teeth falling out
  2. A manifestation of a woman’s vanity
  3. A sexual fetish
  4. Something “hideous,” as one columnist wrote in the Toronto Star
  5. A symbol of the female being submissive to, and oppressed by, the male
  6. An affront to the “Canadian value of facial recognition”

After the audience had finished giggling over this last point, Hussein raised a question of how many of the reporters who wrote these pieces had actually spoken to women who wear niqab.  She also questioned the “research” that some of these reporters claim to have done, wanting more information on what their sources were.  In many ways, Hussein’s comments on media portrayals echoed Emon’s earlier assertion that the experiences of Muslim women often receive far less attention than the assumptions and judgments being made by those with power to shape the discourse.

We can see Bill 94 as one way that the problematic representations that Emon and Hussein raised in this dialogue (and that we discuss so often on MMW) can have very concrete implications for Muslim women.  The conversations around the bill then further increase the predominance of images that are informed by racism, sexism, and Islamophobia.

As I mentioned previously, today is the Day of Action on Bill 94, and you can see my post from last week for a list of suggested actions to take.  The No Bill 94 Coalition is particularly encouraging people to send emails to Quebec’s premier, Jean Charest.  A sample email to send can be found here.

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