By Lela Eromobor
Tuesday, October 11th during AP, professor Vrinda Narain, from the McGill faculty of Law and author of two books, Reclaiming the Nation: Muslim Women and the Laws in India as well as Gender and Community: Muslim Women’s Rights in India, came to present a lecture entitled “Feminism, Law and India”. She focused on multiculturalism as a Canadian constitutional value as well as a public policy, and the present tensions and controversy surrounding the notion as it raises questions on gender equality and religious freedom within minority groups and particularly, Muslim women.
In 1971, Canada became the first country to adopt multiculturalism as an official government policy, which meant to ensure equal rights and treatment amongst Canadians, regardless of ethnicity and religion. This policy also aimed to recognise multicultural heritage as part of the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society and the freedom of Canadian citizens to preserve, enhance and share their cultures. Multiculturalism has become a core characteristic of Canadian society, which is a fact I think most people can agree on, more or less. Montreal has a plethora of authentic restaurants from different ethnic backgrounds from all over the world. Even Marianopolis exhibits multiculturalism with the Armenian club, Club Franco, and the Desi Club, amongst other ethnic-centered clubs. However, during her lecture, professor Narain mentioned instances that reflect the difficulty our society has had to fully adopt the concept, notably with the 2013 Quebec charter of values, Bill 52 and the 2015 Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act. These government actions, according to the professor, make it a point amongst others to regulate and control specifically Muslim women, as the limitations on the wearing of the hijab, niqab and burqa are debated. This is because mainstream norms clash with some cultural beliefs. Western feminists often exclaim that the hijab is a symbol of oppression whereas Muslim women who freely choose to wear it argue that the hijab is in itself a feminist stance, as it represents the rejection of the sexualised and objectified image of a woman and the societal beauty standards imposed. However this is where the concept of state multiculturalism comes into play, which the professor defined as “the state says to what extent religious freedom can be exercised”.
In Quebec, a woman who wears a face coverage (niqab) would not be allowed to be serviced or offer her own services in a government controlled agency. Laws like these have been created to promote equality, however differences aside, the fact of the matter is, they deny these women from accessing healthcare and increase their difficulty when looking for employment. Furthermore, the niqab cannot be worn when new immigrants are being sworn in as citizens, and some of those who agree with this law claim that women of faith that practice go against “Canadian values”. However, who really has the right to say what gets to be accommodated and what doesn’t? The professor returned to discuss western feminists once again, explaining that Quebec feminists and the national feminist perspective seem to have a stereotyped image of immigrant women and women elsewhere. Do they really know whom they are speaking for or the context of their situation? Western feminists often speak over immigrant women and spread their own western ideologies, which has the reverse effect of disempowering the same women they try to defend by pushing to take away their freedom of choice under their own definition of liberation. However liberation is a subjective concept, and while for some women it may be by freeing the nipple, others may and are allowed to also feel liberated by covering up and dressing modestly without the fear of being scrutinised.
In my personal opinion, western feminist movements like Free the Nipple look to denounce the hyper sexualisation of the female body and the impossible standards imposed, and for some Muslim women, the hijab represents the same concept. Although they may represent opposite ideas, they both fight for the same values. Some western feminists, although supposedly more progressive, do not seem to grasp any concept of feminism that does not directly follow their own.
There have been other notions proposed to tackle this sensitive subject, including the notion of secularism, which denounces multiculturalism, reasonable accommodation, in which we look to adapt to different cultural customs within certain scenarios and finally intersectionality.
Professor Narain also spoke on the responsibilities of minority communities, by saying they should turn the fate back on themselves to try and identify oppressive customs within their culture, which is a notion not solely reserved for minority groups but society as a whole, which includes western society. Mainstream feminists should also look within themselves and alter their perspective on Muslim women and the belief that they are all victims of the patriarchy that desperately necessitate mainstream feminism. She finishes by saying that the stereotyping of immigrant women has drawn questions of their socio-political place in society ad Muslim women are being seen as threats to Canada’s secularism.
After her lecture, professor Vrinda Narain answered the many questions students had. I asked one myself, on her opinion on the burkini ban in France, (which to me is ridiculous and bluntly racist, as no one has ever spoken against nun beachwear, which is also a thing). She responded by saying that it all comes down to the racism deep rooted in politics. France also banned the wear of hijabs in public schools, (a law that has been followed in many French schools overseas that adopt the French educational system, including Montreal’s very own Collège International Marie de France, one of the two French private lycées in the city). This law, according to the professor, was aimed to make the society more inclusive but the reverse was done, as it pushed veiled Muslim girls out of the accessible public school system and forced them into private education.