Veil of tears
A judge has ordered a Toronto woman to testify without her niqab at a sexual assault trial – raising the thorny issue of whether Muslim women should be allowed to appear as witnesses wearing a veil that covers everything but the eyes.
The issue is a collision of two rights, pitting religious freedom against the right of a defendant to face an accuser in open court.
The case could be precedent setting because it doesn't appear there is any Canadian case law addressing the question of Muslim women in the courtroom. In Canada, home to about 580,000 Muslims, the case will be closely watched, amid fears about Muslim women coming forward in criminal cases.
In October, Ontario Court Justice Norris Weisman reached his "admittedly difficult decision" to force the complainant to testify with her face bared after finding her "religious belief is not that strong ... and that it is, as she says, a matter of comfort," he wrote in his ruling.
Needless to say, this Star story by my pal Betsy Powell is huge today. Comments have exploded.
A relative of the woman said it's distressing the judge has exceeded his "jurisdiction and ventured into the interpretation of religious laws concerning the veil, not to mention the fact that ... (she) has observed the veil for many years in accordance with her" beliefs.
"This is primarily an issue of protection the court offers to victims of sexual assault – especially those from minority communities, who experience the added stigma of bringing these deeply personal issues into open court."
Alia Hogben, executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, said, in court "the laws of the country should be acceptable," and although it is important that "sensitivity be shown ... showing the face is acceptable."
Sorry but, not only is this religious fundamentalism at its most extreme, it's patriarchy at its worst.
UPDATE: I posted this on my Facebook page and elicited some very PC responses from friends.
This is what I replied:
UPPERMOST IN MY MIND DATE: Thanks to many fellow femme bloggers who have attempted to open my eyes more fully to this situation, I lost sight of the fact that this woman is a victim, and is in danger of being victimized twice over.
What's more, I have seized upon the whole ''otherness'' aspect, much to my shame, which I always try to avoid. (But I still detest the mix of religion and patriarchy in all its forms.) It is not right for the media to focus on the veil and not the alleged crime -- although knowing the media as I do, this would not be ''a story'' is it were (forgive me for my phrasing here) just a run-of-the-mill sexual assault or rape. These rarely get coverage.
That said, I still find it very twisted that the veil, which is ostensibly there to prevent men from acting on their lust (as if rape is an act of lust and not power), should potentially work to allow the defendant to get away with a crime.
And so, a patriarchal construct supposedly designed to protect women, ends up hurting them.
Women just win for losing.
One more thing: I have learned quite a bit more about this case since this morning when I first posted. Unfortunately, it is under publication ban and so I can't say much more except that I have to wonder whether, in this case, the judge the right decision.
Still grappling with it ...