In praise of the invisible hijab (National Post, April 12, 2006)

Two weeks ago, I proposed that Canada follow France in banning religious accessories from our public schools. I argued that all religious costume on children is a needless social distraction in a secular institution, and an impediment to peer bonding.

But I was particularly severe on the hijab, because female coverings are a slippery slope, and in the future might, as in Europe, lead to demands by some Muslim schoolgirls for full body coverage. This would be problematic, as most Canadians understand full cover to be incompatible with the value of gender equality.

Unsurprisingly, the column elicited spirited responses, chiding me for my ignorance and lack of tolerance. Masuma Khan writes: "The hijab is an attempt to prevent women from being treated as sexual objects. [It] is a form of empowerment."

University student Nora Arebi adds: "The [point] of the hijab is to protect a woman from sexual abuse (a norm in this society)."

But reader Jacoline Loewen counters these opinions with a fresh perspective in the debate -- her teenage son's belief that "the hijab is unfair as it reduces men to the stereotype of a sexual beast."

A palpable hit. Ms. Khan and Ms. Arebi imply that without the talismanic cue card of cover to check and tame them, men are so dominated by their sexual impulses that an uncovered woman is at best viewed simply as a sexual object, and at worst an invitation to assault. Ms. Khan further states: "When I walk down the streets of Canada and I see a woman wearing the hijab, burqah or jilbab, I see not an oppressed woman but a liberated one ... who choose[s] to live a more spiritual and beautiful life."

I find it a very curious strain of logic that can see liberation in a garment that not only depersonalizes its wearer, but is associated with the most female-repressive regimes on Earth.

But then, where is the "empowerment" or "liberation" in any kind of cover? Real empowerment for women means social parity with men, which in turn means freedom from fear of them. So, since Ms. Khan opened the door to the wider subject, why does it fall to Muslim girls and women to bear the burden of men's alleged weakness in the face of their beauty? If Islam teaches that men are incapable of sublimating their sexual attraction to women without physical props -- even though millions of Western men, including Muslims, do so with amiable collegiality in all areas of study and work -- why doesn't the onus fall on orthodox Muslim men to avert their gaze or wear blinkers in the presence of women?

That will never happen. In patriarchal cultures, the terms of sexual modesty are set by men, but the responsibility for maintaining sexual modesty rests entirely with women. Conversely, gender relations in the West are informed by the chivalric code ("Trouthe and honour, freedom and curteisye" -- Chaucer, 14th century). According to the chivalric code, manliness is compatible with honourable, non-sexist behaviour toward women. While women set the terms for modesty, both sexes take equal responsibility for observing them.

And Ms. Arebi errs when she links cover to protection from sexual abuse. Although it is only widely reported in free societies, sexual abuse is a "norm" everywhere, whether it happens in a parking lot, a church, a madrassah, or at home. In short, cover does not deter real predators; and cover is superfluous in the company of gentlemen.

But Ms. Arebi and Ms. Khan are adults, free to rationalize their choice as they will. My concern is for schoolchildren. The chivalric code is about reciprocity: A self-respecting girl communicates sexual modesty through dignified appearance and behaviour -- the invisible hijab of the heart, if you like -- with boys who co-operate by respecting her standards. Religiously imposed cover, however, broadcasts a hostile and humiliating message to male schoolmates: I must protect myself against your immutably sexist nature.

When Canadian and religious values collide in secular institutions -- and a collective insult to either sex signals just such a case -- Canadian values must prevail. We should give schools the right, as Britain just did, to set neutral, standardized dress codes that exclude religious symbols. It's a fair and logical solution. But would our PC courts agree? (Sigh....)

© National Post 2006