“Sultana’s Dream” by Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein

22 04 2010

There’s plenty of furor over Bill 94 in Quebec. This bill will regulate the way in which Quebec institutions and officials respond to minority groups’ religious and cultural traditions and preferences, and it has been suggested to me by Quebecois friends that Quebec is the national leader on this issue; other provinces will soon follow suit.

With this bill following on the heels of the expulsions of two Muslim students from Quebec colleges for wearing niqabs – full-face covering veils – to class, it would be difficult to deny that one of the main issues Bill 94 is intended to address is the question of Muslim women’s clothing.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest says, “the bill is a solution to the need to balance individual freedoms with the values of Quebec society, including the equality between men and women and secular public institutions.” It appears that, beneath the racist rhetoric, this is a bill that is intended to protect women. Certainly, the Taliban forces women to wear the burqa, and we don’t want to support the Taliban in its oppression of women.

But do the burqa and the niqab oppress women, or do the people who would decide how women should dress oppress women? And by forcing niqab-wearing Muslim women to reveal their faces, is the Quebec government protecting them from oppression, or is it putting them in a position in which they are vulnerable to further victimization by male members of their communities, who come from countries in which it is acceptable to treat women in ways that would never be tolerated here? Muslim feminists point out that Islam is not inherently oppressive to women, and that many of the oppressions faced by women in Muslim countries result from too much emphasis being placed on certain passages in the Qu’ran while others are ignored. They oppose the burqa and the niqab as part of a broader system of oppression that limits women’s bodily integrity, their access to education and their right to participate in public life.

By expelling students from government-sponsored language classes for wearing the niqab, is the Quebec government not putting much the same limits on Muslim women? Assuming a cultural vacuum, in which everyone a Muslim woman encounters treats her exactly as they would a white woman, it is easy to say, “If you want access to these services, you can’t wear that outfit.” But no one lives in a cultural vacuum, and chances are good that the decision to remove the niqab will not be an easy one for many women. Especially if she has worn it for much of her life and feels unsafe without it. Especially if – and this is not a generalization, but an if, an in-the-rare-case-when – she is unsafe without it. In that case, the Quebec government has forced her to forfeit her bodily integrity. If she’s afraid to, or not permitted to take off the niqab to attend language classes, there goes her education. And if she doesn’t learn the language that would allow her to integrate into the society she now lives in because she cannot attend language classes, there’s goes her involvement in public life. Someone who does not speak the local language is always extremely vulnerable, and the Quebec government is making it very difficult for immigrant women to overcome this vulnerability.

Canadian society is on its way to becoming one in which men and women are treated as equals. We’re not there yet, but most Canadian women experience a high quality of life with protection from domestic violence, and organizations to help them in times of trouble. It is conceivable that in time, in this environment, an immigrant or refugee woman from a conservative Muslim culture might choose to give up her veil. If she doesn’t, perhaps her daughter will (who doesn’t love Layla in Little Mosque on the Prairie?). But it is not our place as western feminists to force her to do so against her will, denying her a voice. She may have a reason for choosing to wear the niqab. Why don’t we ask her what it is? And listen really carefully?

It seems to me that the Quebec government is hiding racist backlash under the rhetoric of feminism, and making victims of some of our society’s most vulnerable members.

Sultana’s Dream by Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein, a Muslim author from Bangladesh, is a wonderful feminist utopia that imagines a world in which men and women’s societal roles are reversed. This reversal results in many of the same effects as in the societies without men in stories such as James Tiptree Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” and other classics of the genre.

“Sultana’s Dream” was published in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine, Madras, in 1905. Muslim women have been imagining freedom from masculine oppression since long before Quebec could even begin to claim they were liberated themselves. And whether or not to wear a veil is only the smallest part of it.

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