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Stop Calling Feminists ‘Islamophobic’ For Fighting For the Right of Muslim Women Not To Cover Themselves

By Lise Ravary

February 8, 2017

“Since 9/11 some of us, including politicians in Quebec, have been obsessed by what certain Muslim women choose to wear. Fashion meets bigotry. Why anybody who is not Muslim cares is beyond my grasp.”

These lines, written and read on the air last week by Michael Enright, the oh-so-PC bespectacled and bow tied host of CBC radio’s Sunday Edition, sent me in a tailspin. Islamic head and face coverings for women are a hot button in Quebec, more so than in the rest of Canada, because they’re seen to represent inequality. It always makes me angry in the summer heat to see a woman covered head to toe while her husband wears shorts and a T-shirt.

The much-debated Quebec Charter of Values would have forbidden the wearing of ostentatious religious signs by government and city workers who, it was felt, must embody the neutrality of the state. However, many, myself included, opposed the Charter because it took peoples’ freedom to follow their religion and dress as they wish. My feminist Muslim acquaintances and colleagues reminded me that not all choose freely to cover their hair and dress modestly. It is often dictated by tradition and enforced by fathers, husbands, sons or brothers, or even by other women in their social circles. Sometimes subtly, sometimes with incredible violence.

One of the most famous cases of deadly coercion in Canada took place in Toronto in 2007 when Aqsa Parvez, a 16-years old student at Applewood Heights Secondary School was strangled to death by her father and her brother, because she did not want to wear the hijab.

This makes the line in the essay about “fashion meets bigotry” deeply offensive. As long as women all over the world are killed or hurt because they want to be free to choose what’s best for them, non-Muslim women and men will continue to care and fight alongside them. This is not about fashion. It’s about humanity.

But those Muslim women who face unique challenges are not alone. More and more Muslim-born feminists fight Islamic tradition with amazing courage and disregard for personal risk.

Among them: our own Irshad Manj’ Bangladeshi doctor, author and human rights activist Taslima Nasreen, who has been living in exile since 1993, when religious fundamentalists issued a fatwa against her; and Ayaan Irsi Ali, also in exile, who wrote the script for Theo Van Gogh’s documentary Submission about the treatment of women in the Islamic world that cost him his life.

These people not only write about radical Islam, they live it. They fight it even when radical Islam wants them dead.

In the wake of the Quebec City attack, local politicians fell all over themselves to extend the hand of friendship to the Muslim community. Quebec City mayor Régis Labeaume promised to expedite the procedures for the establishment of a long-denied Muslim cemetery. That is all good. But when Premier Phillipe Couillard, who practiced brain surgery in Saudi Arabia for six years, prayed “Allahu Akhbar” at the funerals of the slain men, explaining that it is wrongly associated with violence, many an eyebrow was raised. 

Two prominent Quebecois Muslim feminists spoke out. Ex-Liberal minister and international consultant Fatima Houda-Pépin, who fought successfully against the establishment of Sharia-compliant family tribunals in Canada, told her fellow Quebec Muslims that they too must denounce violence done to non-Muslims in the name of Islam if they want to combat racism.

Djemila Benhabib, author of the international best-seller Ma vie à contre-courant (“My Life Against the Current’, a play on the word Koran) whose family fled the butchery in Algeria at the hands of Muslim extremists during the Nineties, is one of the leading voices for women’s rights in Québec, yet a promoter of the Charter of values. About the funerals in Montreal and Quebec City, she wrote: “We have witnessed a rare moment when democracy was ‘Islamized’ under our noses.” To her, the politicians had gone too far by wrapping themselves up in the words of the religious and forgetting that they represent everybody. Including non-religious Muslim men and women. 

I don’t think my friends heard or read Michael Enright’s essay on Quebec City’s carnage but knowing both of them, I can picture their reaction to his lines about Islamic clothing, fashion and bigotry. They would be appalled, maybe angry. And rightfully so.

Which is why Michael Enright, and those who dismiss a campaign for human rights as quibbles about fashion, must be shown what lies beyond their grasp.