legislating what women can wear

Submitted by: Ayan Nur

editors note: The following post is a written portion of a speech given by Social Work/Women’s Studies student Ayan Nur. Ayan gave her speech at a Distinguished Visitor panel discussion on the ongoing N.S. v. Her Majesty the Queen et al case that has many layers, most notably the debate surrounding N.S.’s right to wear a niqaab in the Supreme Court while testifying. 

Legislating What Women Can Wear

I am honored and excited to be here today to address the experiences of Muslim women in Canada. As honored as I am today I would like to clarify that the opinions and views expressed by me, although shared by many Muslims do not in any way represent the thoughts and beliefs of all Muslim women. These views I share with you today are my own individual views. They are a culmination of my religious beliefs, my gender, my race, my personal experiences and me identifying as a proud feminist. Although I am a Muslim woman and wear the hijab, I cannot compare the experience of wearing a hijab with the experience of wearing the niqaab. Different women experience oppression differently.

Having said that. I would like to start off by thanking Dr. Forrest and the women studies department for valuing my views to have me speak at such an event. Thank you to my family and friends who have taken the time out of their busy schedules to show their support.

Before I begin, I would like to clarify some terms I will be using in my speech. The first word being, niqaab. The niqaab is a face covering or veil worn by Muslim women in public and in front of men who are not apart of their immediate family. The niqaab has been a hot topic not only in the western media but also amongst Muslim scholars and Muslim women.

A woman wearing a burqa.

Unlike the hijab, many Muslims are split when it comes to the niqaab being a mandatory dress code for Muslim women. Some scholars believe that there is not enough evidence stating the niqaab to be mandatory, while others point out there is clear proof of the niqaab being mandatory. Many people confuse the niqaab and the burqa as being the same thing when in fact they are not. The niqaab is a face covering, while the burqa not only covers the face but the entire body from head to toe.

Women wearing a niqab.

The case of N.S is not only a case that holds great interest only for Muslim women but for every women in this room today, for every women in this country, and for every women across the world.  This is a case not about a Muslim women’s right to wear her niqaab, but of victim shaming. Shaming or blaming the victim has been a technique used for many years by the criminal justice system.  I learned this through watching many episodes of law and order (hehe) and my second year Women and the Law class, which opened my eyes to the injustices and cruelty rape victims go through.  Society places women in a binary of the angel in the house and the temptress. Women are to neatly fall into either of these categories, and when they don’t, society makes sure they are put back in their place.

There is the initial shock and trauma of being raped then there is something called the second rape or second assault. The second rape is a process victims experience by the police force, the hospital personnel, the court system and society as a whole.  When these authoritative figures are insensitive to the needs of the victims, it places the victims in a vulnerable position and can trigger the rape all over again. Having to go through rape, sexual harassment or any kind of physical attack can be scaring, and to add to that nightmare the legal system uses victim blaming to fluster and to place these victims in a vulnerable position. Many times instead of placing the rapist on trail the victim is attacked with questions of their sexuality, the number of sexual partners they have had, what type of clothes the victim had on and so forth. These questions are specifically made to attack, undermine and degrade the dignity of the rape victim. These questions imply that the victim is some how to blame. In the case of N.S, she is not being asked to remove her niqaab because the prosecution wants the truth: she is being asked to remove her niqaab to use this ‘unveiling’ as a form of victim shaming. Since N.S would fit into the binary of “the angel in the house”, the prosecution is forced to resort to underhanded tactics to make N.S feel uncomfortable and vulnerable to attack.

I’ve heard many people wonder aloud why doesn’t N.S remove her niqaab in order to receive justice against her assault, while others have said it’s permitted in Islam that she abide by the law of the country she lives in. First I would like to speak to the reason why N.S chose to keep her niqaab on. Muslim women wear the hijab and the niqaab as an expression of their spirituality and devotion to their Lord.

To illustrate the discomfort N.S has experienced, I would like to give an example everyone can relate to.

Imagine yourself on trail, imagine the courage and conviction you had to acquire in order to face your assailants, then imagine being attacked and told to take your top off or to stand in front of the court room with no pants.  Seems a bit extreme right? Actually it’s not. I cannot imagine the embarrassment and the shame I would feel if someone asked me to remove my hijab. I would feel naked, uncomfortable: I would fidget and become flustered, stutter, not keep eye contact. All these acts are ways to detect if someone is lying. If someone does exhibit these acts, they are assumed not to be telling the truth or hiding something. 

I’ve been wearing the hijab since I was eight years old. In those, many years that I have worn the hijab I have never felt ashamed or oppressed. The hijab has been my source of

A woman wearing a hijab.

comfort and confidence; it has contributed to my path as a feminist and made me who I am today. What many people don’t know is that Muslim women wear the hijab not because they are victims of oppression and a patriarchal society, but simply as an expression of their faith, much like what a cross symbolizes to Christians. The hijab is not something that is between men and women, but rather it is about the spiritual connection with God and the personal connection a woman has with her body. So, when the prosecutors asked N.S to remove her niqaab, she was stripped of her comfort, her anchor and of her identity.

One thing I learned from Women Studies was to respect every woman’s choice. You don’t have to agree or support something you don’t believe in but you do have to respect their personal choice. To take away someone’s choice is to take away their rights.


1 thought on “legislating what women can wear

  1. Great job Ayan. And thanks for the photos – I am now clear on the difference between the burqa and the niqab. I am really hoping that the Supreme Court rules in NS’s favour; anything else can only be viewed as a contravention of a woman’s rights. I think that for most people the “eyes are the mirror of the soul” and given that the niqab means that the court can see her eyes it is beyond unreasonable and a further violation to rule against her. But even as I read through this I am thinking, so what do my words say for burqa wearing women? Surely, this should not be insurmoutable; I have to believe that we can work with all cultural and ethnic practices. Good luck to all Muslim women with an especial vested interest in this, but we need this ruling in NS’s favour because denial to her is denial to all women, no matter the ethnic, cultural, religious, sexual or other issue

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