Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Day 20: Hiding Behind a Veil

A Muslim woman, who is accusing two of her Muslim relatives of sexually assaulting her, went to the Ontario Court of Appeal because the lower court judge ruled that she remove her niqab, her veil, when the matter eventually comes to trial.

Last week, the Ontario Court of Appeal unanimously acceded to her request in part, in what amounts to really quite a milquetoast decision to the effect that if it makes her feel more comfortable, she be permitted to wear her veil in court. And if she is forced to remove her veil, perhaps a solution is that she be permitted to wait until all the males in the courtroom are herded out before doing so.

But of course, any situation like this needs to be judged on a case-by-case basis, the judges tell us. And if in some way it could be prejudicial to the accused, something else will have to be figured out, because (para. 46 of 2010 ONTCA 670) "[i]n a very real sense, the rest of M — d.S.'s life depends on whether his counsel can show that N.S. is not a credible or reliable witness. No one can begrudge M — d.S.'s insistence that his lawyer have available all of the means that could reasonably assist in getting at the truth of the allegations made against him."

And this week in Calgary we elected the first Muslim (Ismaili) mayor of a large Canadian city.

Clouds playing hide-and-seek with the moon
The irony is not lost on me: on one side of the country we have a man who has embraced this country and its culture, who cares passionately about its people - ALL its people - and has promised to work toward improving the quality of life of his fellow-citizens. He has not asked for special rights and privileges. He has not made his religion a platform; indeed, it was scarcely mentioned during his campaign, by him or by others. He has made no bones about the fact that it will be hard and that compromises and even sacrifices will have to be made to attain socioeconomic stability for Calgary. And he was elected in the city that has the reputation of being red-necked, culturally insensitive, buffoonish even.

On the other side of the country we have a woman who wishes for justice Canadian-style, while retaining the trappings of sharia law. It's worth noting the appalling fact that her own father was against bringing the proceedings when she was 16 years old and five years after the alleged assaults had ceased and this poor young woman had finally mustered the courage to tell a teacher about them. It would be interesting to discover if the father's motivation to keep silent was to protect his daughter from the "shame" of the situation. Under normal circumstances, it's contemptible that a father wouldn't defend his daughter, wouldn't want true justice to be served. Maybe he wasn't willing to subject his beloved girl to the "justice" that would be meted out in a sharia court by the men who today keep her behind her veil as an overt symbol of modesty and as a covert method of control, and who historically have blamed the victim for "inciting" these incidents as the natural consequence of their immodesty?

The judge states that one reason for allowing her to wear her niqab is that it would be difficult for this woman to face the defendants, especially since one is a close relative. But children who have been assaulted have to face their perpetrators in court if the victims have reached 18 years of age at time of trial - even if it's a parent the child has to face. Priests who have abused people in their trust have the right to see their accusers' faces.

You can be sure that if Corporal Marie-France Comeau and Jessica Lloyd were alive today, they would be forced to face Russell Williams in court.

In the tradition of this country's legal system, victims face their accused, forcing the latter to acknowledge that it is a person they have injured.

This woman, hiding behind her veil, has no personhood that the accused will be forced to acknowledge. The pain that would flit unbidden across her face  - and that the jury would be privy to if her face was visible - as she dredges up the memories of what she says happened to her as a child will go unseen.

By covering up, she becomes anonymous. By covering up, she locks herself even more tightly in the prison of her "religious freedoms", to quote Justice Doherty at para. 98 of his reasons. And at para. 80 he states, with apparent absence of irony, "Permitting her to wear her niqab while testifying would recognize her as an individual ... Adjusting the process to ameliorate the hardships faced by a complainant like N.S. promotes gender equality."
And as I see it, there are two strikes against the niqab right in these words: it absolutely takes away the wearer's individuality (for heaven's sake, people have argued that even school uniforms accomplish this very thing - and those wearers are not covered from head to toe!); and it flagrantly undermines gender equality. How many Muslim men are covered except for glimpses of their eyes? How can it promote gender equality to cover up one gender only?
Another point against wearing the niqab in court comes from the woman's own explanation for wanting to wear it:
" ...the religious reason is to not show your face to men that you are able to marry. It's to conceal the beauty of a woman and, you know, we are in a courtroom full of men and one of the accused is not a direct family member. The other accused is a direct family member and I, you know, I would feel a lot more comfortable if I didn't have to, you know, reveal my face [my emphasis]."
Taking the words literally, this woman is already married. So technically, she is not able to marry ANY man in the courtroom - unlike Muslim men, who are permitted to marry several women, Muslim women can have only one husband. But that is the letter of the sharia law I am pointing out, not the spirit of the law ...
The other statement is very, very revealing: She would simply "feel a lot more comfortable" if she didn't have to reveal her face even to her "direct family member" - something that is actually permitted in her culture (in deference to Islam, I cannot call it her religion, as nowhere in the Qu'ran does it dictate that a woman's face must be hidden). Most people would "feel a lot more comfortable" not having to be seen by the person they are accusing. This woman's alleged assaults occurred between the ages of 6 and 11. Undoubtedly the men have seen her in the subsequent 20 years - they live in the same community; her husband and the men worship at the same place; and, even more telling, she started wearing the niqab only five years ago.

It will be interesting to watch what transpires now. What cannot be denied is that this 32-year-old woman has suffered for years and needs justice to be served. And so does her accused, who are technically innocent until proven guilty, but who already will be bearing the stigma attached to those who are sexual abusers, especially of children.

Tonight I see so clearly how we cannot have it both ways. Sharia law would say that this woman should be controlled in some way, mainly because she's a woman. Her own father would have had her just let it disappear. She sees in the Canadian court system her chance for freedom to restore to her what rights and perhaps innocence she has lost. But she still can't quite make the jump, still can't quite relinquish the veil to obtain true freedom.
Splitting the sky

And tonight I have a new, deep, not-to-be-taken-for-granted-again appreciation for the veil that was torn one horrible afternoon, torn from top to bottom, torn right in a house of worship, proclaiming freedom for all people regardless of gender who want to come and worship God and trust in Him. The veil was torn to symbolize this freedom.

I also take hope in this tremendous promise from 2 Corinthians chapter 3 and verse 18 (ESV): "But we all, with unveiled face beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit."

Moon behind a veil


  1. What happens if a Muslim woman is sitting in a courtroom as the accused? Will the prosecutions case fail because witnesses cannot identify the accused, who did not feel comfortable revealing her face in court.

  2. Day #20: Heaven [and all it hides]

  3. Really good point, Andy. This could turn out to be a Pandora's box for our judicial system.

  4. Good perhaps, but I am going to get such a slap from BTAF for apostrophe failure.


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