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Is the choice to wear the niqab really a women’s issue?

Huffington Post by Sarah Neville 11 October 2015

Ladies: are you wondering what to wear? Fear not, Canadian politicians have got your back. A national dress code is on the way. No details yet, but rest assured, you’ll be free to wear your crop top, thong underwear and six-inch heels. Just don’t cover your face.

The recent firestorm over the wearing of the niqab in citizenship ceremonies has got everyone talking. While we’ve heard much about values and religious freedom, the latest offense is how the Conservatives have framed this as a women’s issue. After a legal smack-down on his niqab ban in March, Stephen Harper declared the practice of wearing it to be the result of a culture that’s “anti-women.” After this week’s Supreme Court rejection of an appeal, he’s musing about mandating the attire of public servants. So is this a culture that’s “pro-women”? Perhaps we just don’t like women to cover up.

We live in a society where women’s bodies are exposed routinely and relentlessly: witness the images on your local bus shelter, in magazines at the grocery checkout or popular music videos for evidence. While young women can, and should choose to wear what they like, there’s an increasing trend to use exposure as a form of empowerment. In March, Toronto students launched “crop top day” to challenge public school dress codes that enforced “modesty” rules which focused on — and sexualized — girls. Young women bared their midriffs to protest the demand that they modify their attire so as not to distract boys. Yes — let’s put the onus on boys to control their impulses, but let’s also examine how the right to wear a belly top has become a symbol of female power. It’s part of a wave of social messaging that equates freedom with exposure. But isn’t there freedom in a woman’s choice to cover up if she so chooses?

We live in a culture that sees female modesty as oppressive, ‘medieval’ at worst, while sexualized ways of dressing are easily accepted, celebrated, even mandated. Look to the restaurant industry for illustrations of women forced to dress in provocative, often uncomfortable clothing as a job requirement. In 2004, Andrea Mottu took her employers to the BC Human Rights tribunal and won a $6000 settlement after being required to wear a bikini top to work. Several chains in Alberta came to media attention for forcing employees to wear high heels — even after bringing doctor’s notes recommending exemptions from this painful practice. The ubiquity of the issue led to the creation of the Edmonton-based website, Feminist Eatery Database. Were these practices anti-women? Where was the political outcry?

I struggle with the notion of enforced concealment that the niqab represents, but accept that some women find ease beneath its cover, and that it represents beliefs that go beyond modesty. Many would feel both vulnerable and exposed without it. If you choose to clothe yourself in a niqab, then being asked to remove it is to be asked to remove your clothing. If requested to drop your pants as part of a citizenship ritual, how easy would you find it to comply?

The fixation on women’s dress is everywhere. When teaching workshops on women’s leadership communication, I’m invariably asked to comment on the subject of suitable workplace attire. The question can be vexing, as I’ve seen many organizations addressing the issue of “appropriate” wardrobe through initiatives that are unquestionably skewed to women. While women are, mercifully, no longer expected to don a version of the male “power suit,” we’re tasked with interpreting societal messages that equate sexiness with power, and balancing them with requirements for “professionalism.” No wonder it can be tough to get dressed in the morning.

It seems that we have come to accept that, for women, freedom lies not in choice, but in exposure; modesty implies oppression. Has the pendulum swung too far? Quite aside from the political opportunism rampant in this case, we should object to this being played as a “woman’s issue.” When women’s bodies are objectified systemically and routinely in our culture, it doesn’t follow that a woman’s concealment equals her domination. What kind of backwards world is this where our right to expose ourselves is more valued than our desire to shield ourselves by choice? We’ll wait for the national dress code to explain the rules.