I moved to Canada when I was fifteen. Going from waking up every morning feeling homesick and claustrophobic to feeling like Canada is as "home" as it gets was a long journey.
We brought six bars of soap with us from Pakistan. I'd close my eyes and smell that soap and sigh every morning for the first few weeks because it reminded me of home. With a family of six sharing one washroom we ran out of it very soon. I'm pretty sure I cried when we threw out the last mushy bit of it.
I fantasized about finishing high school and university and moving back. But as a family we never talked about how homesick we all felt in those first few months. Because to admit that would have been too scary. We put on strong faces and went to school, to work, to get groceries, to play in the park. We faked it till we made it.
Ten years later, and three years ago from now, my siblings and I went to England. It was our first venture together outside of the country since moving to Canada. While in England we noted how Canadian we all felt. I realized what people mean by "characteristic Canadian politeness" when I saw my younger brothers helping other passengers with their luggage on the trains we took. When we landed back in Edmonton, there was endless canola on the side of the tarmac. Summer was in bloom in the prairies. I closed my eyes and sighed. This time it was a happy sigh. We were home.
Nothing has done more to erode that sense of belonging in Canada than the very long federal election campaign in 2015. I rack my brain trying to think of how many Muslim women I know in Canada who wear a niqab in Canada—and I know more Muslim women than the average Canadian. Yet whether Muslim women could wear a niqab to a citizenship ceremony or not was apparently an election issue that was important for us to spend an inane amount of time discussing during the election campaign.
It became impossible to go on social media without running into discussions on Muslim women's right to religious freedom and often what felt like their right to exist in public spaces. I voted ambivalently for the liberals but was actually quite relieved to find out that Canadians had rejected the kind of divisive rhetoric that uses Muslim women as pawns. That sense of belonging that I had felt the year before never returned though.
Niqab-wearing Muslim women make up approximately 3% of all Canadian Muslim women and Muslims in turn make up 3% of the Canadian population. So niqab-wearing women make up 3% of 50% of 3%, or roughly .045% of the Canadian population. I don't even have the patience to calculate how many of those women live in the province of Quebec. But apparently this small percentage of women is causing problems in public spaces by getting in the way of "State religious neutrality.” Wow, I didn't realize it was the state's job to ensure religious neutrality on public transportation.
I know Muslim women. I was raised by one, am friends with many, and as ambivalent and private about my religious beliefs I may be, I am one. Muslim women were and are my grandmothers, my teachers, my cousins, and my classmates. Some wear a burqa or abaya, some wear a chadar, some wear a scarf or hijab, some don't wear any clothing that identifies them as a Muslim woman.
Some are doctors, some are teachers, some are engineers. They work in industry, in academia, in government. They are students and volunteers. Not to mention the many hats (or should I say hjiabs) they put on in their personal lives as mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters.
They are as fierce as they come and as gentle as they come. Some are brave in the ferocity with which they lead their public lives and others are brave in the quiet strength with which they lead their private lives. They make me laugh with their humour and feel secure with their unconditional love and kindness. They help me with their abundant wisdom and challenge me to be better. They are complex, beautiful human beings and my life is so much richer because of knowing each and every one of them.
What they are not is a punching bag for politicians who want to use dog whistle politics to score political points. So if you don't know at least one Muslim woman in her full complexity, if you have never appreciated the wisdom or intelligence of a Muslim woman, if you've never cared for her or been taken care of by her in a moment of fragility, if you've never let yourself be led by her strength and leadership, kindly refrain from having an opinion on what she can or cannot wear. If the only sentiment you have experienced towards a Muslim woman is that of pity, you're not qualified to have an opinion on the matter.
And if you seriously think that legislation dictating what a Muslim woman can wear can free her from oppression, consider this. If she truly is oppressed by the male figures in her life, they will probably ensure that she doesn't leave the house if she cannot wear her niqab in public. If that's not true and she's wearing the niqab of her own choice, then this legalisation has just curtailed the agency with which she leads her life.
Don't call that feminism.
Originally published on Facebook on October 19.