Burqas, hijabs, niqabs, oh my!

McGill Daily

I suppose it’s time to address the rather large and noisy elephant floating between the margins of Aristotle’s lackey.

Law 94.

Just last week, the National Assembly passed a law banning the niqab from such critical public spaces as universities, government offices, daycares, and hospitals receiving government funding. The support for the ban has been strong throughout Canada, with an 80% approval rating according to a survey conducted by Angus Reid. Criticisms have been sparse, coming primarily from an unsure Muslim community, various lawyers, scattered academics, and select university papers.

But the general discussion on this matter has just been a mess, with a near complete avoidance in English-speaking Canada of the question of the role of identity. Given the provincial nature of this legislation, however, I will limit my discussion to Quebec.

As mentioned briefly in an article last month by Sheetal Pathak (“Muslim women don’t need saving from themselves,” Commentary, March 18), the Canadian Muslim community is itself divided on this issue. Unlike the hijab, there’s no real consensus on the status of the niqab. A small minority see it as an obligation – or at the very least, the superior form of the modesty principle prescribed by Islam.

While this debate is legitimate, it’s irrelevant to the issue at hand – the discussion on the matter within the Muslim community needs to move beyond the question of necessity. If there are women who believe it is their religious obligation to wear the niqab while living in North America, then that choice must be respected.

That cyclic debate along with broader reductionist debate on “choice,” grossly undermine women’s agency and completely overlook the greater context of Law 94 and the persistence of a discourse ultimately not about gender equality, secularism, integration, or identification, but about identity. And just as identity politics create a limiting framework for political discourse, identity politics can and often do create limiting platforms for legislation and issues regarding minority populations.

Quebec is not France. But like French identity, Quebec identity is built upon a shared linguistic and ethnic heritage as embodied by the historical interactions between church and state, epitomized by the near-total rejection of Catholicism during the Quiet Revolution.

And like France, Quebec has seen a surge in its immigrant population – which challenges a system long sustained by the province’s homogeneity. It is understandable that the majority of Quebeckers – outside Montreal especially – would fear the erosion of an identity with a tumultuous past. Quebeckers are, after all, a minority within Canada so the issue of identity is already fragile.

While this fear is understandable, it is not justified and it certainly should not be the source for any law. With only a few dozen women in the province actually wearing the niqab, how much of a problem does the covering actually cause? France’s proposed ban on the burqa, recently judged unconstitutional by an advisory board, affected only 367 women out of 5 million Muslims. How necessary is a law for an exception – especially at the expense of appearing hostile to a significant and growing minority? What’s more, where exactly is the line drawn? When does “reasonable” accommodation become “unreasonable”? Can any demand be unreasonable if it’s made in the name of identity and ideology? Is it unreasonable if by the minority and reasonable if by the majority?

All of this is not to ignore the obligation upon the Muslim community itself, as with any other ethno-religious group, to sincerely engage with such issues and ask themselves what is a “reasonable accommodation” to ask of the state. But this question and its implications are to be addressed and dealt with by the respective communities themselves as it hinges on their own identity and place in society.

For many, a law that discriminates against an exception may not be really consequential to the “big picture” in a negative or a positive way. It is, however, crucial that we consider the sort of framework this persistent debate and this particular legislation create for future discussions on matters concerning minorities. This discussion is not black and white, nor do I wish to even hint at such a claim. There are, however, some factors which play a stronger role than others and we must pay heed to their influence.

But until we get to future debates, I’ll keep rocking flashy and colourful scarves that my students seem to love for as long as I can.

TEDx Talk – Mesmerizing Commute

Because I’m all about self-promotion and glory. Here’s the video of my TEDx talk at McGill University.

McGill Daily columnist, Sana Saeed, transports us with her powerful writing, proving that the more avenues we create to be public as a society, the more private we become as individuals.

It’s based on a piece of mine which was published over a year ago. The major point that I am making is that the more we create ways to interact with the public – social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, blogs or to enhance it such as with cellphones, iPods, and so forth, the more we actually are becoming private. The Public has been an essential part of Western social and political thought for thousands of years, going back to the Ancient Greeks. There was an importance that was ascribed to the Public, it had something that one could never find in the private. And this “something” was related to interaction which led to the exchange of ideas – be they good or bad. It was in the public sphere that we would learn about ways to better govern ourselves, to better our society, and our individual selves. We’d clash over ideas and we’d reunite over ideas. This, we are beginning to lose. This was the beauty of the public, the face to face confrontation of words and ideas that is becoming more and more obsolete. There is nothing wrong with these new avenues we’ve created to engage with and expand the public, but it has taken away our appreciation of the beauty of the public sphere. We must break our private havens. We must not be afraid to confront the ideas and words of others. We must not be afraid to initiate. If we lose this, if we lose our public – we lose far more than just a physical presence. We lose, in a sense, our humanity. We become desensitized to the thriving life around us. We voluntarily alienate ourselves from each other, albeit unconsciously.

So, go ahead and look around. Observe. Breathe. You might see something beautiful.

Multiculturalism is a Sham: The Canadian mosaic trivializes immigrant culture under a façade of respect

Recent Column.

I’m going to say it. I’ve been holding it in for a while but the time has come for me to say it: the Canadian mosaic is complete and utter bullshit.

Catch your breath.

In classical Western political theory, the key to state stability has often, if not always, been seen as the maintenance of a homogeneous society. Foundational divisions of any sort create a threat to both the state and the fabric of society. And how was this homogeneity achieved? Primarily through education, as philosopher Ernest Gellner so wonderfully noted. Industrialized societies require strong bureaucratic states and these states must in turn create educational systems, the goal of which is not learning but rather the creation of a perfect citizenry to serve that state materially and ideologically.

While it was easier to achieve homogeneity during the time period when such monistic, dead-white-man liberal theories were popular, today’s pluralism forces another approach. Theorists and statesmen are trying to come up with ways to deal with the issues pluralism has brought up in the West. Problems of religious values and rights, individual rights, language, secularism, immigration policies, and gender have all been pushed and pulled. While some countries have tried to deal with their minority populations through assimilationist policies, others have opted for seemingly more inclusive models.

Like Canada.

During the mid-to-late 20th century, Canada’s demographic landscape saw some major changes. The population, which at the time of confederation was primarily French and British in origin, had begun to transform into a collage of various ethnic identities. In response to these changes, Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s federal government sought not only to ensure the political and social integration of these populations, but also to allow them some form of cultural continuity in order to contribute to what would soon be called Canada’s mosaic identity.

The development of Canada’s multiculturalist policies saw three major stages intended to homogenize the Canadian citizenry’s thinking about its society’s nature and makeup. The incipient stage (pre-1971) consisted of gradually socially accepting the ethnic and cultural diversity that was becoming more and more apparent. The formative stage (1971-1981) legally recognized this diversity. In 1969, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism recommended an ethno-inclusive integrationist policy, leading to the formal creation of multiculturalism. Equality became the end goal, and removal of racist or unfortunate circumstantial obstacles became the means. In the period of institutionalization (1982 til present), multiculturalism was protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and in 1988 a reform of the policy made the Multiculturalism Act into official Canadian law.

That’s five years of Canadian grade schooling right there.

Here we are, 20 years later. Are we heading toward a society that has successfully been able to balance its heavily heterogeneous populations, which in turn have contributed to the prosperity of our country? That was the point, was it not?

No, not really.

Multiculturalism, as an official policy and not as a demographic reality, was never meant to sustain our diverse Canadian cultures. Instead, it has been a way to create a façade – a fictitious support of diversity that in fact suffocates it.

Let’s take the instance of “illiberal” cultural practices and beliefs, however they are defined and categorized. How does our multiculturalist structure allow us to deal with them? Will Kymlicka, Canadian scholar and Official Defender of Multiculturalism, provides some insight into this question in Multicultural Citizenship. Kymlicka argues that multiculturalism should seek to liberalize facets of various cultures that appear to the government to be ‘illiberal.’ It is ethnocentric to think that cultures are intrinsically “illiberal” and thus incompetent to change. He argues that since there is a link between choice and culture that allows individuals to live and work in their relative cultures, there is a right, a right that is waived once immigrants have left their native countries. Kymlicka concedes that there are limitations to liberal tolerance. A liberal state cannot allow groups to restrict the individual freedom of their members nor can these groups impede on the rights and freedoms of other groups. The question is thus not about whether liberals believe in toleration; it is about what kind of toleration they support.

Awesome, but isn’t the attempt to “liberalize” a culture or group another form of assimilation? Multiculturalism then serves only to create a sort of symbolic identity. People shed any real, substantial ties and practices to their cultures as generations progress, holding onto the very superficial. Additionally, assimilation through liberalization becomes inevitable even without government intervention; individuals become liberalized and distanced from their own cultures and ethnic identities not only through daily interaction with individuals outside their “ethnic” or “cultural” group, but also through the daily barrage of the media. The change is slow, but emphatic: the second generation Indo-Canadian begins to date; the third generation Catholic Italo-Canadian supports gay marriage; and the Syrian-Muslim girl living in Canada since she was six years old begins to drink.

So, do we really believe that we are helping sustain cultures when in actuality all that is being sustained are colourful costumes, delicious cuisine, and fun dances that we can add to further enhance our mosaic?

Most importantly perhaps, what does it mean to receive state-enforced values of equality? If the state is telling us through education and other institutions that we are equal, that we must respect one another, are we really creating any values of substantial worth? Within the past two decades we’ve seen a sharp rise in ethnic tensions in our country. From the wearing of the Islamic hijab during sports to the bearing of the Sikh kirpan to school, any “minority” tradition or practice that seeks to integrate itself into the dominant culture has become a polarizing issue: it has been welcomed not with open arms, but with angry outcries. While one side of the debate argues for integration, the other side, which is becoming louder, argues for assimilation. For Canadians who are espousing assimilationist opinions, it may very well be the fact that they are frustrated not with what is happening but with how it is being dealt with by the government. The government must think of ways not only to ensure the rights of minority groups, but to keep the dominant culture content – a balance which is seemingly becoming harder to achieve.

At the root of this problem is the educational system that has been constructed by multiculturalist policies. What we have is a material educational approach to Canada’s diverse populations. Young Canadian students reading their social studies textbook might see their country as the Canadian mosaic but fail to grasp the profound understanding of the term. Instead, they are made to believe that this mosaic, colourful and cohesive, each piece complementing the other, is what Canadian society is like, leaving them unprepared for the realities that face thousands of so-called hyphenated Canadians everyday. And this needs to change.

The policies of multiculturalism may have worked for Canada and its citizens for the short-term, but are we prepared for the potential long-term affects?

But, then again, I’d rather live here than anywhere else, so I’ll just shut up now.

Milestones

Two year old article published for my university’s faith-based magazine Radix. Not the best writing, but some food for thought..

I’ve come to despise milestone celebrations. Not all of them, just the ones which affect me numerically. Turning Thirteen and Sixteen have been the only two which spawned excitement. Eighteen and Twenty, on the other hand, created nothing but grief and consistent nihilistic self doubt. 

(I promise I’m actually a jovial person and only express such depressing thoughts to get things published. You don’t know Kafka for a brilliant exegesis on what gave him comfort and happiness in life, do you?) 

The soundless depressions of Eighteen are related to the teenage need to fit in as well as my faith. The depressions of Twenty, on the other hand, have had more to do with allowing Oil of Olay and Garnier commercials propagating the preponderance of youth to take over my nightly thoughts. Oh, and my severe lack of direction in life. Yeah, that too. That’s rather depressing. However, since I’m currently Twenty, I’m unable to give you the retrospective clarity I can give on my other ages. So, I’m just going to focus on the day I turned Eighteen. What a day that was. 

June 10th, 2005. Prom night. I was set. For under 220$ I was able to look like 300$. Yes, that’s how good I looked.  I was ready to dance the night away; solo, as always.  

This was prom weekend. A legendary event at my high school. This would either be the best social event of your public education career or the worst. Who knew that I would end up falling somewhere in between the two. The prom itself was magnificent, minus the cries of my best friend’s recent ex. Dry grad (an alcohol-free carnival held for grads from 12 am until 6 am) was also a blast. Inebriated on Bawlz (an excellent energy drink), my friends and I enjoyed ourselves until the wee hours of Saturday. By 12 am on June 11th I had turned Eighteen in a limo, so I thought I’d enjoy the remnants of my immaturity before I was fully acknowledged as a legal adult. Good times, good times. So far grad weekend, and my birthday, were turning out amazingly. I felt mature, I felt happy, I felt confident, and I felt ready for more. On the evening of June 11th, I was invited to a grad party. It was supposed to be one of those epic high school parties, you know? The kind at which crazy stuff happens, hilarious pictures are taken, and are later used to blackmail you when you enter a public career. Yeah, one of those. It was epic, but for entirely different reasons.

While I was a rather social person, I was never the sort to go to parties. A good time to me was watching movies with my best friends on a Friday night. It wasn’t the actual watching of a film which was the fun part, but rather being in the company of humans I loved. Alcohol had not been a factor with my friends and I. I don’t choose not to drink only because my faith, Islam, forbids it. For me, it’s a stand against what I believe is a socially destructive drug. But that’s a whole story in and of itself. Back to what I was saying: my friends weren’t huge on the drinking, they’d drink champagne at weddings or a few sips of wine at dinner at that point, and so I had not been exposed actual drinking. I always felt comfortable with my friends, knowing that we had this major social practice in common (for the most part). The party, however, was another thing. It was my first attendance at a party where alcohol would be present. I knew it was going to be there, but I didn’t think of it as being the focus of the night. Again, I was looking forward to just some crazy fun. I don’t know what I mean by that or even what I was exactly looking for – I just know that “crazy fun” was what I was looking for. Things, however, turned out differently. After being there for about an hour, I noticed that the focus of the night was celebration vis a vis inebriation! There was a lot of alcohol, and people slowly getting drunk. I found myself confused and increasingly uncomfortable. I even remember getting into a discussion with a good friend over the merits of alcohol … or the severe lack thereof. I remember the stench of alcohol and the reek of decreasing sobriety. I remember being offered again and again various alcohols. People didn’t seem to believe that I didn’t drink. 

 “But, you’re so wild …how and why do you stay sober? Wait, are you even sober or just drunk and kidding around?” 

After a few hours, I ran around the house to find my best friend and asked her to drive me home. An epiphany had struck, and I struggled to quickly recover from its blow. I couldn’t. The salty waters (a clever way of saying tears) gushed out within seconds of entering her van. 

I realized something that night; something which I know is not with me alone. No matter how much I was a part of “the group” or this society, I never could actually be a part of it. It wasn’t my faith which was an impediment, but the way this culture conditioned its followers. By saying “no thanks, I don’t drink” about 67 times that night, a wall had been created between myself and my peers. I had become marked. I was that designated driver (without even a learner’s) for life. I sat in that car, and cried. Every teen wants to fit in, and I was no different. When I finally felt as though I did fit in, I was quickly reminded that I never could. But it’s not really as though not fitting in is a bad thing; I’ve gotten over it for the most part and have learned to overcome the constructed barriers.  

It just sucks when you realize that on your birthday. 

Save Your Pity: Migrants don’t need your pity, or their own

Original source.

Rehearsal came to its unfortunate close. Laughing and joking, we wrapped up our first “Greased Lightening” performance. We were doing a tribute to Broadway that year, creating a grand mixture of some of the greatest songs and dances to have graced the coveted stage. It had taken me a while, but I finally felt as though I had found my niche during my first year at the all-American Carrie Palmer Weber Middle School, located in the bustling and quaint town of Port Washington on Long Island. My once-foreign features were made familiar when I joined a more diverse crowd. I was Latino, Italian, Persian, or Greek; I wasn’t the new Pakistani girl in a primarily Jewish elementary school anymore. Middle school, Grades 6-8, allowed for an automatic maturation. There were more opportunities for me to create my American dream: chorus, drama, chess club, student council, yearbook. I delved into any student club for which I could find time and interest. While unaware of my subconscious intentions at the time, this was how I was going to be finally accepted as the American I had always believed I was. The Baby-sitters Club books and Nickelodeon had taught me well: I was going to be a mixture between Mary Anne and Clarissa. 

Exhausted but combusting with energy, I said my goodbyes and acknowledged friends with reassuring nods to indicate that late evening phone dates that would have to follow. I grabbed my belongings and left to look for my father’s silver Ford Taurus, most likely waiting outside the western exit of the school.

I jumped into the car, answering his unspoken questions about my day and rehearsal. He just smiled, nodded and murmured occasionally to show me he wasn’t completely annoyed by the irrelevance of my unending blabber. He seemed more subdued than usual. Must have been a tough day at the bakery, I figured. My father ran a successful business making well-known goods across New York City. Things got tough at times, but after 10 years of an entrepreneurial struggle, he had established a good business.

When I arrived home, I found my mom sitting on the floor of the main bedroom, with all her personal papers loose-leafed across the floor. She was frantically searching, ripping and throwing away things of no importance and collecting whatever seemed valuable. She looked up at me as my father joined her to look through the sea of endless papers. There was a brief silence as my dad, through his eyes, seemed to provoke my mother to speak.

“We’re moving to Canada.”

My initial reaction is not something I’d like on the record, but let’s just say a fit of epic proportions was thrown. Thrown all over the place. I was completely aghast – why on earth had my family decided to move, without any sort of consultation with me, to a frozen tundra with igloos and an ugly head-of-state matriarch? 

But my and my young brother’s cries of disgust meant nothing in the face of my parents’ determination. The 11-year-long American citizenship process didn’t really pan out and we had been offered access to Canada on the basis of my mother’s medical qualifications. She hadn’t been able to practice in the United States, given that she committed the grave sin of becoming a doctor at one of the best schools in a developing country. To be offered a position in her field with that sort of pay, and really with no other choice, my parents packed up everything and we were on our way to Canada within two weeks.

And we were not impressed. Not only was life completely different in Vancouver, where we moved after a brief and yawn-inducing stint in Toronto, but none of the promises of the new promised land seemed to hold. My mother was told that she forgot to read the verbal small print on her immigration conditions: not only did she have to take about four years of Canadian medical school classes and residency, she had to take Grade 12 English.

Just to make sure.

The hit was immediate and spread quickly. My parents found themselves completely lost, financially and emotionally weakened. The most basic of things, to my 12-year-old mind, became beyond luxurious. We slept without mattresses for a year, with virtually no furniture in our house, while my parents looked for ways to regain financial security without tapping into their savings. My mother trained to become a midwife while my father worked security. Both of my parents come from upper-middle class strata and both are highly educated with years of unmatchable experience under their respective belts. But pride must be swallowed in order to keep the family fed.

Eventually both made their ways to calling centres, where they found themselves in the company of other medical doctors, former professors, accountants, civil engineers, economists; you name the career and it was there amongst a sea of headsets. They slowly moved up, got better positions, and started becoming more comfortable in our new lives. We all did. My brother and I had our American-ness stripped of us, and we were hesitant to accept a country which had torn us away from what we loved based on what we saw as deceit. The consciousness of our new immigrant identity forced us to wake up. Everything we did, said, wore, felt was spoken, worn, felt in the context of being essentially “legal aliens.”

It was hard for me to see myself as Canadian for many years, even when I took the oath of citizenship in 2004. I had my occasional bouts of patriotism, but they were always superficial and brief. I was angry; I was upset. My father’s business had been destroyed, my mother’s dream slaughtered, and I never got to do the tribute to Broadway: I never got to live my all-American dream. The only solace I ever found was in hockey – and even that was usually depressing, thank you very much, Vancouver Canucks.

But this sort of self-pity is nothing more than self-fulfilling. Pity gets you nothing, whether it’s from yourself or others. And I’m not asking for your pity either, as you read this brief account of my family’s migration story. No immigrant or migrant wants pity. And they don’t need it either. Instead of pitying, as members of a country built on the backs of immigrants we ought to rethink how we as a society engage with our immigrant population. And I don’t mean through the shoddy multiculturalist façade we’ve thrown up in an attempt to simultaneously appease and liberalize. It’s time for serious and practical immigration reform both at the structural and societal levels. 

But I’ll save that discussion for another time. I have a hockey game to catch.