Laura Keil
Laura Keil, Publisher & Co-owner

By: Laura Keil, Publisher

I listened to a CBC radio interview the other day with three Canadian Muslim women – two who wore the Niqab (full body covering) and one who used to wear the Niqab and now only wore the Hijab (doesn’t cover the face.)

These women insisted their decision to wear these religious garments was their choice – in fact, all the women had to negotiate family disapproval for doing so. One woman’s husband was concerned that people would assume he was the one forcing her to wear it.

Their innocent pleas of “this is my choice” rung hollow at first. How can this be a choice for them when so many women are subjugated by it in other countries?

This interview came on the heels of a statement by Stephen Harper last week. He stood up in the House of Commons to weigh in on wearing head coverings at Citizenship ceremonies and declared:

“It’s very easy to understand. Why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practice at that time that is not transparent, that is not open and, frankly, is rooted in a culture that is anti-women?”

Rah rah rah! Women’s rights! Something or other… Wait a second: “not transparent,” “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.” This all sounds very familiar…

I think it would be helpful to think of history as “another country,” one with different cultural practices and one we’ve all visited. Our grandparents spent the most time in this country. Us younger people less time.

But this country called history is rife with similar battles. In the US it was only in 1972 that a succession of legal cases confirmed that women could keep and use their maiden names in whatever ways they pleased on their passport, bank account etc. Before then, it was frowned upon or illegal not to take their husband’s name.

One U.S. attorney-general told a women who wished to keep her name that she was “an oddball,” a “sick and confused woman,” whose need was “not for a change of name but a competent psychiatrist.”

If we look further back in history, in much of Europe, women had no surname at all after marriage. In the words of one court in 1340, “when a woman took a husband, she lost every surname except ‘wife of.’”

Women not being able to keep their birth name was usually accompanied by restrictions or bans on their owning property, voting, running a business and giving their name to their children.

Today, most women continue to take their husband’s names (Laureen Harper anyone?) in essence, changing their identity. Does that mean our culture is anti-women? Is that cause for alarm that so many citizens are changing their names? It must be a headache for security services. Surely it would be easier if everyone kept their birth name.

Surely this name changing business is at least as alarming for security as a Niqab – both obscure our identity. In B.C. both my husband and I can legally switch our last names on a whim.

Here’s the text taken from the government webpage titled “How to Get Married in B.C.”

After marriage, you may:
• Use the surname of your current spouse by marriage, or
• Use the surname of a previous spouse by marriage, or
• Use the surname on your current birth certificate.

Furthermore, “A person is free to use any of the above surnames. Changing from one surname to another does not constitute a name change under the Name Act.”

While it was very tempting to judge the Muslim women on CBC for justifying their “choice,” I had to challenge myself. The women who change their names today are saying the same thing as the women interviewed on CBC: “It’s my choice. It’s not because a man is compelling me to – it’s not because I’m his property as in former times (that far-away country called history).”

Interestingly, Islam does not require a woman to change her name at marriage.

It feels like a case of cognitive dissonance. We’re ok with the Niqab and name changes if it’s a choice and not a symbol of female oppression. But we’re not ok with it in places like Iran, where women protesting the headscarf are being arrested and lashed; or in places where women who wish to keep their birth names are ridiculed and scorned.

At what point can we say this is a choice and not rooted in a culture that is anti-women?

I had to remind myself that these women are not necessarily brainwashed in wearing the Niqab. That while it represents one thing in one place, its significance can be much different in another. And maybe that’s true, and maybe that’s ok. After all, we don’t expect all Christians to hold the same beliefs (think how many denominations are present locally). Why would we expect all Muslims?

A headscarf is just a headscarf. A name is a name. We are the ones applying meaning to it.

I would argue it’s actually very difficult to understand, not easy as our prime Minister says. Because frankly we have many practices that are “not transparent, not open and frankly rooted in a culture that is anti-women.”

Or perhaps, at such a far mental, physical or temporal distance from their patriarchal roots, those practices really are a choice.