English Translation: David Rand
Alban Ketelbuters is a doctoral student in literary and feminist studies at the Université du Québec à Montréal and in history and civilizations at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales.
The original French version of this article appeared in the Huffingon Post Québec on November 9th 2015, under the title Zunera Ishaq, le Canada et le niqab.
We reproduce this article here with the kind permission of the author.
If the niqab were promoted by fundamentalist Catholics, the vast majority of progressives and feminists would have condemned it. Many of those who are intransigent when it comes to macho violence orchestrated by white males from a Christian background—violence which normally meets with immediate and unanimous condemnation—suddenly become much more discreet, nuanced and comprehensive when citizens from a Muslim background are involved.
In a society which regularly denounces rape culture, a pornographic banner as archaic and demeaning as the niqab, a vector of a fascist ideology, which portrays in such a caricatural manner the inferiority of the female gender, would not be the subject of any debate whatsoever in academic or political circles.
Cultural relativism has become so widely entrenched in North America that women may henceforth swear an oath while wearing a face-covering.
Is such a glorification of religious obscurantism not tantamount to a slap in the face to the millions of women who, in countries of the Middle and Near East, in Northern Africa, in other regions of Africa and in Asia, have risked their lives fighting to be free of it? Worse, it fuels the deadly confusion which consists in failing to distinguish between democratic secular Muslims and reactionary fundamentalist Muslims.
At a time when a political, imperialistic and totalitarian Islam continues to advance on a planetary scale, many progressives and feminists have generated an even more unhealthy social climate by taking positions in complete contradiction to the ideals which they claim to defend. When those who purport to defend the ideals of progress, social justice, equality among peoples and between genders, education, culture and general emancipation willingly accommodate religious sectarianism, defend the veiling of the hair, bodies and faces of part of the population, when they hypocritically denounce patriarchy in some forms but not others, when they abandon the struggle for secularism, then it is legitimate and necessary to question the credibility and nature of that political “left.”
When progressives fail to denounce the niqab for what it is, a vehicle for an extreme right-wing sectarian ideology, or when feminists who track the most trivial of macho jokes and daily denounce (and rightly so) the patriarchal residues still active within society, but are incapable of the least critical examination of such an aberration of democracy, then we need not be surprised when both progressivism and feminism become the targets of growing disaffection and virulent criticism.
As the psychoanalyst Fethi Benslama observed in his “Declaration of Disobedience for Use by Muslims and Those Who Are Not” (Flammarion, 2005), the logic of patriarchy may govern other civilizations just as it governs Islam; nevertheless under Islam it has characteristics which make it more virulent, more cruel and more difficult to dislodge. Institutionalized inequality and the legalized debasing of women via theological law are patent realities. Radical Islam has found in the veil the devious means of restoring to the public sphere the idea that the female body is an object of shame.
What is the point in ferreting out the least little inequality while remaining silent in the face of the most spectacular of inequalities? Why must citizens of Muslim culture or religion who willingly adapt to the customs and manners of their host country be sacrificed to the most reactionary fundamentalists whose goal is to give sharia law priority over all other considerations? Why remain silent in the face of Islamist fanaticism when it has never been more present, more victorious or more murderous on a world scale?
Why do feminists celebrate each year the memory of the victims of the École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal, and yet remain silent about the ordinary despotism which continues to operate through the Islamic veil? Must Islamists walk their women like dogs on leashes before male politicians finally do something about it?
To fail to denounce this extreme right-wing ideology eating away at western democracies, as does a large part of the intellectual and political left, and for obscure reasons, is a veritable betrayal. For today, we must face the fact that many progressives and feminists no longer fight against religious fundamentalism. Rather, they merely accompany it, and even encourage it.
Nothing is more absurd and criminal than blind tolerance of religious fundamentalism of any variety. The Zunera Ishaq affair is not an isolated case. The religious pluralism inherent in any democracy must not include those tendancies which, regardless of what anyone says, are more properly classified as sects.