I am currently teaching a course on religion and multiculturalism. Whenever I run out of material to present in class, or when I see eyes drooping and decide that it’s time for a change of pace, I know of one sure-fire way to win back my students’ attention – mention the hijab. Trust me. Give it a shot. Conversations stop. Eyes snap to the front. Instant undivided attention.
Every student has an opinion. We usually end up talking about the hijab in France. This is the famous example, the classical case that everyone has heard about, through the media or otherwise. Recently, though, there’s been a lot of talk about Muslim head wear in Canada as well. The Toronto Star recently ran an article entitled ‘People Think You’re Oppressed if you Wear the Niqab‘, in which a 21-year-old University of Toronto student defends her reasons for wearing the niqab in the face of the Muslim Canadian Congress’s recent comments that such pieces of clothing marginalise women and are ‘uncanadian’ (whatever that means). Shortly thereafter, the Federal government came out with ‘Discover Canada‘, its new guide for recent immigrants to the country. Most notably, the guide explains that Canada outlaws ‘barbaric cultural practices’, most specifically those that do violence to women. The government had in mind activities like the stoning of adulterers, or practices of genital mutilation. The mention of ‘violence to women’ was vague enough, however, to renew debate about whether the hijab and niqab were forms of gendered violence.
The clip that I’ve linked to above makes up the newest installment in the media coverage of this issue, and is typically conciliatory (and therefore typically Canadian?) in its tone. Taken from the CBC’s ‘Connect’ television programme, the clip shows what happens when you take a woman who wears the niqab and set her up in a busy mall with a sign reading ‘I choose to wear this niqab. Ask me anything.” The result is a litany of questions from young and old (though, as she herself carefully points out, mostly from old) about her practices, her choices, and the teachings of her faith. A heart-warming five minute exercise, after which we can walk away, feeling like we’ve reached out to the Other and therefore bettered ourselves.
Where do we go from here? I seem to be asking myself the same question these days whenever I think about issues of religion and politics, so I may as well ask it again here: What would Charles Taylor (the philosopher, not the dictator) say? On the one hand, Taylor’s proposal of open secularism (and I’m mostly interested here in the practical Taylor of the Bouchard-Taylor commission in Quebec, not the historico-theoretical Taylor) would make this a non-issue; if the niqab doesn’t infringe upon anyone’s rights and the woman professes an open choice, we have little basis upon which to outlaw the practice. No right is absolute, of course, and rights can be curtailed under certain circumstances, but this isn’t one of them.
Alternatively, the clip parallels Taylor’s observations in the commission report in a few interesting ways. First of all, Taylor notes the age gap that seems to exist between the two poles of the ‘attitudes toward immigration’ spectrum. The older generation are much more closed off to difference than the younger, for whom diversity is (and perhaps has always been) the norm. This came through in the video as well, though not in such dramatic ways as could be observed during the town hall meetings of the Bouchard-Taylor commission.
The clip is most interesting to me insofar as it seeks to open up the minds of its viewers by way of that eternal panacea, conversation. Let’s talk about it, to each other, and we can see just how similar we really are. We only fear the unknown. The distant Other is much more terrifying than the proximate Other. Indeed, conversation is, in some ways, all we have. The free and open exchange of ideas is at the heart of the democratic process and, ideally, at the heart of the public sphere. For the Taylor report, this focus on conversation comes through both in its authors’ insistence that narrow and nationalistic definitions of identity be broadened, and that citizens strive to learn from each other. Taylor’s endorsement of the Quebec government’s mandatory ‘World Religions and Religious Diversity’ course for high schools students can also be seen as an attempt to sow the seeds of conversation on a larger scale.
Were any opinions changed during this little CBC exercise? Who knows. But the directors certainly want to leave that possibility open.