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Guest post: What veils us

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

In 2010, I launched the Ce qui nous voile (“what veils us”) project, challenging some of the misconceptions about women who wear the veil in the hopes of leading to greater acceptance and promoting a more harmonious coexistence. 

The women I spoke with told me they chose to wear the hijab. Their decision is both religious and identity-based. For them, the veil is a sign of modesty, a reminder of their obedience to God and a way of affirming who they are as Muslim women. While their choice to wear the hijab is naturally influenced by those around them, it is no different from the other “choices” that we make, including men wearing pants or women wearing makeup.  Such “choices” seem so obvious that we often forget how much they are determined by our culture. This automatic or blind thinking distorts our perception of the unfamiliar.

That is why I also wanted to probe the reasons behind some people’s discomfort with or objection to head coverings, and grasp the barriers to understanding between the various groups. Paradoxically, it was perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the project, which entailed exploring my own culture and its “blind spots” that were brought to light via this contact with differences. 

Quebec’s not-so-distant past, when the Catholic Church had enormous control over people’s – especially women’s – lives, and the subsequent deep rift between church and society, partially explains the resistance to this new display of religious belief. The feminist struggles that led to greater recognition of women’s rights in all segments of society have also shaped people’s perception of women’s issues.  

As a result, many Quebeckers feel that religions are limiting and sexist, and interpret women obeying different dress codes as an obvious sign of domination and machismo. They cannot conceive that someone might freely choose to wear the hijab. In this clash of cultures, there are people who see only oppression in a bit of cloth considered as an expression of freedom of choice by others. 

In my view, there is an urgent need to build bridges between people. The impact of Islamophobia is overwhelming for women who wear the veil and who are discriminated against when looking for work or housing, and face hostility in the workplace or during their daily commutes. 

Ce qui nous voile sought to open up a space of contact between Muslims and non-Muslims and promote mutual understanding. While we were aware of the limitations of intergroup meetings, we tried to get the most out of them. To encourage spontaneity, the discussion forums were free-form, with no speeches, panelists or questions/comments from the floor. The result was the emergence of intimate conversations about things that are difficult to talk about publicly, stories we think we cannot share on stage, and questions we think are stupid or have already been asked a thousand times. People are not clichés. Listening to others talk about their personal experiences blurs seemingly clear-cut notions by adding a layer of complexity to our stereotypical images.

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