The offense of clothes

Right now, the rights of Muslim women to wear niqabs in public here in Canada is under scrutiny. It’s a contentious issue because one woman, Zunera Ishaq, chose not to take part in the Canadian citizenship ceremony because she would be required to show her face during the swearing in. According to this article by Raheel Raza, Ishaq did show her face while taking the citizenship test, but refuses to for the ceremony. What’s interesting in that article is that it’s written by one Muslim woman, criticizing the use of a niqab by another Muslim woman.

I am not Muslim, so I don’t have an opinion on what a Muslim woman should wear in public. However, I think the underlying issue here isn’t one of religious freedoms (because you can practice any religion you want in your own home), but of cultural norms. In Canada, it’s not typical for a woman or man to conceal their face – unless it’s extremely cold outside.


But other clothes are also deemed inappropriate in Canadian society. A pre-teen dressed like a young adult is considered inappropriate, and indeed even wearing a top where bra straps are visible can be cause to be sent home from school (I’ve only linked to one example, but there are many).

It’s not just the makeup that’s disturbing

I am a punk rock music fan, but I couldn’t show up to work wearing a band t-shirt from Dayglo Abortions (and I did have this T-shirt in my collection). However, I could wear it around the house. And my 8 year old can wear spaghetti-strap tank top at home. The point is that though it’s not culturally acceptable to wear those things in public, we’re all free to wear what we want when in our own homes.

Of course breast feeding in public isn’t quite acceptable here either. 

I certainly also get the connection to the culture of origin. I’m also an immigrant, and luckily for me, I can wear my cultural dress without offending anyone. Actually, the blouses from Romania have become chiq in the fashion world. So I’m lucky that it has become somewhat normalized here in Canada.

But if I were to wear a full traditional Romanian outfit, you can bet that people would stare. Not because it’s freakish, but because it’s different than the normal everyday. I would expect people to look at me because I wouldn’t fade into the background. Along the same lines, a woman wearing a niqab also draws attention to herself. I wouldn’t be looking at her and judging her, but it would register as unique and out of the ordinary, so my eyes would be drawn to her.

Do you expect that people will follow the norms of the culture where they live? Certainly as a tourist to a more modest country, I would need to respect the customs of dress. So is this really a matter of showing respect for the Canadian culture (our chosen country of citizenship)? Or should we Canadians be open to allowing people to express themselves through clothing? After all, it is just clothes.

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