An organization in Ottawa called the City for All Women Initiative (CAWI) is asking Canadian women in the nation’s capital to offer support for the hijab, the head covering worn by many Muslim women. On Feb. 25, the group is holding an event as part of Ottawa Hijab Solidarity Day, and is asking non–Muslim women to wear the hijab at Ottawa’s city hall in a show of solidarity with their Muslim sisters.
As a non-Muslim woman who was forced to wear a hijab, this event brings back terrible memories for me. I was born and raised in Shiraz, Iran, and after the rise of the Islamic government, I was forced to wear a hijab. I was neither a supporter of the new regime nor a Muslim, and I bitterly resented having to hide my hair and comply with the new restrictive policies. But disobeying the rules was not an option for me. All women had to adhere to the same policy, without debate, and disobedience was met with severe consequences, such as arrest and the fear of being assaulted by acid-tossing vigilantes.
Although not all Muslim women wear the hijab, those who do wear it because they believe it is a religious obligation. I have yet to meet a non-Muslim woman who wears the hijab as a form of cultural expression in Canada. However, I have met many devout followers of Islam who say that the hijab is not a required tenet of their faith.
Canada is a diverse, multicultural society, where many religious and cultural groups live together peacefully with mutual respect for each other’s customs. Indeed, when Quebec’s provincial government first proposed its controversial Charter of Values, I spoke out against the clause that limited the right of individuals, in specified circumstances, to wear symbols of their religion. Even so, I cannot abide the idea that non-Muslim Canadian women should demonstrate support for our Muslim sisters by wearing a hijab. The hijab is a reflection of religious beliefs – it is not a fashion statement.
Jews do not have a “Wear a Kippah Day” to support Jewish men. Sikhs never demanded a “Turban Day” to support Sikh males. So why have a “Hijab Day”?
Any Canadian woman can wear the hijab if she sees fit, just as any Sikh male can wear a turban. Canada is a free country, and Canadians have the right to live according to their own dictates, religious beliefs and social customs. Our laws have clearly established this. In this context, I cannot understand why we should gather and demonstrate our solidarity for a garment that is guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I have many Muslim friends and I am eager to know their customs but they never asked me to cover myself in solidarity for them.
New immigrants and refugees come to Canada for many reasons. Many find themselves caught between the traditions and culture of their homeland, and liberal Canadian attitudes. There is no question that coming to a new country can be difficult. I know. I have stood on both sides of the immigration line myself.
As Canadians, it is crucial that we remain faithful to the rights that are entrenched within our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. All forms of religious expressions are equal and none require special treatment. I am grateful that in Canada we have the freedom to express ourselves as we please, in contrast to the countries that make it mandatory for woman to wear religious symbols, regardless of their belief.
My personal history with the hijab makes it impossible for me to accept covering my hair. I will forever identify the hijab with the repressive tradition of the Iranian Islamic government, which used its dominance of religion to control its people. I encourage Muslim women all over the world to promote their culture and identity – and I will gladly eat at their table, sing a song of celebration, and rejoice at their success. Nonetheless, to suggest we endorse their religious beliefs by wearing a hijab is unreasonable in this country, which has so clearly promoted the rights of minority members to lives as they please.
I welcome my hijab-wearing Muslim sisters. But I refuse to wear the hijab as a prerequisite for their solidarity. And for the same reason, I would never dare ask them to remove their hijab in solidarity with non-Muslim Canadian women. In the end, my values are no more important than theirs. And after all, isn’t that the Canadian way?
Sima Goel has been a practising chiropractor in Montreal since 1994. She is the author of Fleeing The Hijab, A Jewish Woman’s Escape From Iran.