A couple days ago I wrote a post about judging other cultures from their rituals, and how this is inevitably bound to appear either ridiculous or pernicious without an understanding of the historical context and meaning of these rituals.

Quebec, like many societies, is mired in trying to define and set limits on cultural accommodation, in the wake of a number of incidents with Muslim women refusing to remove their niqabs (face coverings) in order to procure government services. Last week I saw a news clip of a little old French Canadian lady browbeating a couple of veiled women on the street in my own Pointe-Claire Village. She was yelling at them, “Go home to your own country….this is my country” as she followed them down the street while they were pushing their baby carriages.

One of the Muslim women was interviewed later. It turns out she’s a university graduate from one of our major institutions, fluently bilingual (French-English), and from all appearances, well-spoken and mild-mannered. She explained that, for her, the niqab was not just a religious symbol, but the ritual associated with donning the niqab every day was an essential part of her connection to her culture. In other words, it wasn’t just about the niqab itself, but about the entire ritual and its meaning.

I suddenly remembered all the times I had donned special costumes that connected me to the history and traditions of particular activities I was involved in, from my Aikido hakama (a black skirt that one wears over one’s gi in order to denote rank), to my black Lycra shorts and Italian racing jersey when I rode in a peloton during my bike racing days. And how about all the people who don country-western attire to go square dancing? In fact, uniforms of all types are partly functional and partly cultural, connecting the wearer to the traditions of his sport or activity. The Kyudo archers pictured above would certainly be far more comfortable in blue-jeans and a t-shirt…I know…I’ve done it in the Summer heat in traditional garb, and it’s no picnic.

So it turns out that the problem isn’t so much with the uniform, but with where and when one chooses to wear it. Some cultural and ethnic groups that insist on wearing their “uniforms” in public, often choose to do so in fairly cloistered communities, e.g. Hasidic Jews, the Amish, Mennonites, etc.  But not all. East Indian men and women in traditional garb such as saris are a fairly common sight on Montreal streets, attracting barely a second glance. And we are all used to seeing expressions of cultural pride through parades, museum exhibits, etc. I remember feeling like a complete fool parading down Jean-Talon Boulevard carrying a Greek flag and dressed in some lame Greek revolutionary costume during my Greek elementary-school days. But there was also a huge turnout of non-Greeks interested to see this expression of cultural pride. I think most people in a multicultural society are interested in what these other cultures have to offer.

But we have to also admit that the situation with Muslims is different from other cultures because of 9/11 and the ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Muslim states. If you live long enough, you begin to realize that the “bad guys” change over the years. I remember when “Commies” were all the rage. I’m sure that had you chosen to walk around in a Mao outfit in the ’50’s, you’d have gotten some pretty abrasive feedback. And I’m also sure that the reaction to the niqab would certainly not have been so intense had 9/11 never happened. It would likely have been regarded as yet another example of cultural representation, not much different from Hasidic, Amish, or Hindu garb. But it is, in fact, this cultural identification with 9/11, terrorism, and dead Canadian soldiers, that makes the niqab a focal point of anger today. This despite the fact that Muslim extremists are only a minuscule proportion of the total global Muslim community.

So it turns out that most people have the ability to understand the role of uniforms as both functional and cultural identifications. Ultimately, that’s the problem. It reminds me of a line in The Graduate, where Mr. Robinson asks Ben, “Is it something I’ve done that’s caused this contempt…or is it just what I stand for?”. It is precisely the cultural identification explicit in the niqab and burka that people resent.

But is it unreasonable to restrict cultural garb and behavior when these traditions interfere with public safety, order, or fairness. If a woman wants to wear a burka which heavily restricts peripheral vision while driving, is it unreasonable to say no? If you want to drive a horse and buggy on the highway, is it culturally insensitive to say no? If you want to attend a public language course that requires the teacher to be able to see your mouth when you enunciate, is it unreasonable to say no because you want to wear a niqab? If your religion forbids contact with women outside your faith, is it reasonable to refuse to cooperate with a female police officer when she stops you for a violation?

But the very, very few people who insist on stirring the pot and pushing the boundaries of reason don’t realize the harm they do to themselves and others by forcing societies into extreme protective backlashes. Now France plans to ban all religious symbols from schools and other public institutions in order to reinforce the separation of church and state. No cross, no yarmulke, no hijab. No Christmas pageant. Nuts. There’s no reason for people not to be able to wear their faith on their sleeves. Ultimately, it’s a good thing to be exposed to the range of beliefs and to learn that people of other faiths enrich our thinking and our culture.

But people must also be aware of the cultural significance of their symbols and rituals on others, especially when they represent minorities who have been welcomed as immigrants into a country with different cultural standards.

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