Burqas, hijabs, niqabs, oh my!

McGill Daily

I suppose it’s time to address the rather large and noisy elephant floating between the margins of Aristotle’s lackey.

Law 94.

Just last week, the National Assembly passed a law banning the niqab from such critical public spaces as universities, government offices, daycares, and hospitals receiving government funding. The support for the ban has been strong throughout Canada, with an 80% approval rating according to a survey conducted by Angus Reid. Criticisms have been sparse, coming primarily from an unsure Muslim community, various lawyers, scattered academics, and select university papers.

But the general discussion on this matter has just been a mess, with a near complete avoidance in English-speaking Canada of the question of the role of identity. Given the provincial nature of this legislation, however, I will limit my discussion to Quebec.

As mentioned briefly in an article last month by Sheetal Pathak (“Muslim women don’t need saving from themselves,” Commentary, March 18), the Canadian Muslim community is itself divided on this issue. Unlike the hijab, there’s no real consensus on the status of the niqab. A small minority see it as an obligation – or at the very least, the superior form of the modesty principle prescribed by Islam.

While this debate is legitimate, it’s irrelevant to the issue at hand – the discussion on the matter within the Muslim community needs to move beyond the question of necessity. If there are women who believe it is their religious obligation to wear the niqab while living in North America, then that choice must be respected.

That cyclic debate along with broader reductionist debate on “choice,” grossly undermine women’s agency and completely overlook the greater context of Law 94 and the persistence of a discourse ultimately not about gender equality, secularism, integration, or identification, but about identity. And just as identity politics create a limiting framework for political discourse, identity politics can and often do create limiting platforms for legislation and issues regarding minority populations.

Quebec is not France. But like French identity, Quebec identity is built upon a shared linguistic and ethnic heritage as embodied by the historical interactions between church and state, epitomized by the near-total rejection of Catholicism during the Quiet Revolution.

And like France, Quebec has seen a surge in its immigrant population – which challenges a system long sustained by the province’s homogeneity. It is understandable that the majority of Quebeckers – outside Montreal especially – would fear the erosion of an identity with a tumultuous past. Quebeckers are, after all, a minority within Canada so the issue of identity is already fragile.

While this fear is understandable, it is not justified and it certainly should not be the source for any law. With only a few dozen women in the province actually wearing the niqab, how much of a problem does the covering actually cause? France’s proposed ban on the burqa, recently judged unconstitutional by an advisory board, affected only 367 women out of 5 million Muslims. How necessary is a law for an exception – especially at the expense of appearing hostile to a significant and growing minority? What’s more, where exactly is the line drawn? When does “reasonable” accommodation become “unreasonable”? Can any demand be unreasonable if it’s made in the name of identity and ideology? Is it unreasonable if by the minority and reasonable if by the majority?

All of this is not to ignore the obligation upon the Muslim community itself, as with any other ethno-religious group, to sincerely engage with such issues and ask themselves what is a “reasonable accommodation” to ask of the state. But this question and its implications are to be addressed and dealt with by the respective communities themselves as it hinges on their own identity and place in society.

For many, a law that discriminates against an exception may not be really consequential to the “big picture” in a negative or a positive way. It is, however, crucial that we consider the sort of framework this persistent debate and this particular legislation create for future discussions on matters concerning minorities. This discussion is not black and white, nor do I wish to even hint at such a claim. There are, however, some factors which play a stronger role than others and we must pay heed to their influence.

But until we get to future debates, I’ll keep rocking flashy and colourful scarves that my students seem to love for as long as I can.

The Painful Truth

Heartbreak and hair: a woman’s two greatest pains.

For as long as I can remember these two things have been a source of constant mental and physical torment, sharing many characteristics in their inducement of pain. Both involve the tearing away of something deeply rooted within you and both require lifetime maintenance. You always prepare yourself for the pain; you have no other choice. And while you keep yourself in denial for sometimes months on end, you know that the greatest moment of pain is not only inevitable but fast approaching. Nothing, however, can ever really properly prepare you for that quick and brief – yet excruciating – moment during which you once again become a clean slate.

Your eyes tightly shut themselves close, you press your lips until all circulation stops and they become white and quickly chapped, and your throat clenches in order to keep any possibility of sound escaping completely suppressed.

You take a breath but it’s stuttered; your chest falls back down slowly, with brief pauses of hesitation. You breath out, heavily. You swallow as your throat becomes increasingly dry. And you begin the painful task.

It’s quick, it’s sudden, and it’s always unexpected even at the exact moment that you are separating yourself from something which has been a part of you for so long. Sometimes you will allow a cry to escape, or a stinging gasp. Sometimes you will scream and other times you’ll remain silent, with the sobs remaining within your mouth.

And all that remains is a sticky dewey remnant you wash away when it’s all over.

There is some redness, but it, too, eventually wears off with some simple care.

And then, within a few weeks – you feel prickly all over again. Your eyes pop in disbelief  as you ask yourself how it’s possible for the return of this feeling to be so quick? But it’s a cycle you’ve become accustomed to and begin, once again, to prepare yourself for the imminent pain you’ll be experiencing soon enough.

Just use the blade next time. Quick and painless, even if hella bloody.

Wondering about Kashmir

There are many things that have become a part of me during the past 11 years since I last visited Pakistan, the country of my birth and origin. All memories. Every image, every sound remains as crisp as ever.

There was always an odd stillness in the air whenever the electricity would go out. A stillness which would be silenced by everyone in the packed household running around to either take a nap or sit outside in the garden and watch the kids pretend they were the 1999 World Cup Pakistani team.

I always wanted to be Shoaib Akhtar – my first crush as an 11 year old, following Leonardo Dicaprio and my 6th grade Social Studies teacher Mr. Haubrich.

But there is one memory in particular that I have never been able to let go of – Kashmir.

My maternal grandparents home was located in a compound in the region of Gulberg in Lahore. In 1999, Lahore was in it’s heyday. Nawaz Sharif, an unfortunate distant relative, was still in power as Prime Minister and had made his home city as beautiful as possible.

Then again, a lot of things seem more clean and modern when compared to the ever-present-dusty-dirty nostalgia that defines the streets and corners of Karachi.

Next to my grandparent’s home was the chowky-daar compound: where all the compound’s ‘security guards’ stayed. They were all Pathan, friendly and they often had their kids with them who would play around the dusty grounds with whatever toys and balls they could get a hold of.

As my cousins and I also spent a bit of time outside, we’d often hear the other children playing, laughing and screaming. They were just like us, with a thick white cement barrier standing in between.  Even then, however, that didn’t stop their fulfillment of their curiousity about the kids next door. Often times, they would peer over and talk to us – sometimes. They were more often than not extremely shy.

There was one child in particular who caught my eye and my heart: Kashmir.

He was beautiful. Taupe skin, green blazing eyes which I have never encountered since, golden hair and a smile that left you in tears. And his name. Kashmir. As a Kashmiri, his name resounded with me – the beauty of his name was reflected perfectly and without hesitation in him.

He must have been around five years old. He was kind, but witty and sharp – that tongue of his was quick. He shyly smiled at the girls and was quick to get active and run around. He had not time for conversation – he had football to play and siblings to chase.

I only spent around two months in Lahore before returning to Karachi for the remainder of my six month stay. During these two months I never got to know Kashmir beyond the large white barrier that stood against us, but an irrevocable imprint was left.

Today, 11 years later and thousands of miles away, I still often wonder about what happened to Kashmir. I wonder about the sort of young man he might have become. I wonder if he’s even had that chance in a country ridden now with instability, violence and desolation. I wonder about what he’s doing, what he wants in life and where he situates himself in the slowly crumbling society around – especially as a Pathan, an ethnic group which faces much discrimination in Pakistan for being associated with the Taliban.

I wonder if he’s picked up arms.

I wonder if he’s been caught in a crossfire. Or in one of the many bombings which have shaken the region.

It’s silly, really. That a young boy of a mere 5 years old whom I met 11 years ago – and even just barely at that – still remains with me. And so deeply. These days, for some reason, he is more present than ever in my mind. Thoughts of him are not accompanied by happy memories but more so with aching speculation of his present and future.

I hope Kashmir is safe. That he is alive. That he still has that sly innocence about himself and that he, most of all, is happy.

Sexquisite Corpses: The shock-and-awe capitalism of BODIES the Exhibition

McGill Daily

If there is anything sexier than a naked human body, it’s clearly the skinned and chemically-preserved human body. At least according to disturbingly exploitative displays such as BODIES the Exhibition, currently being held at the Eaton Centre. BODIES offers med-school failures the opportunity to explore “the amazing and complex machine we call the human body” using “actual human specimens” (apparently of the Chinese prisoner persuasion), allowing “access to sights and knowledge normally reserved…for medical professionals.”

While I have not had the chance to visit the exhibition itself, I have heard some interesting remarks regarding the morbidly alluring smell that fills the exhibit, the predominant representation of a particular ethnic group, and the general awe inspired by the sheer complexity and muscular synchronization of the human body. While the exhibit certainly seems as though it would be worth a portion of my pay cheque, I find myself hesitating.

There is only one reason why the BODIES exhibit is as popular as it is and has received the sort of attention and acclaim that it has: the use of “actual human specimens.” As a friend recently, and heatedly, mentioned, we have the scientific ability to perfectly recreate the human body from within; we have the ability to even create the required tissue – so why use cadavers, formerly referred to as human beings, as educational models on display to teach the non-medical world?

Because sex sells.

BODIES sexes up science. It adds to the growing sexual commodification and morbidity to which we are becoming increasingly desensitized. We are constantly looking for a selling “schtick” for our products. Shock-and-awe – albeit the name of a military strategy – is perhaps the best way to characterize this so-called “century of the self,” in which to garner attention for and to sell a commodity means constantly pushing the bounds of the shocking. The human body itself has become a huge marketing point, used to get people to purchase products and services in varying ways and to various degrees – thereby promoting the sexualization of capitalism, beyond sex itself.

See also: Lady Gaga.

Now, I’m not trying to promote any sort of moral Puritanism, but there is something sincerely and deeply unsettling about the concept behind BODIES. For a few dollars, you can see once-living human beings skinned, preserved, and arranged in positions highlighting our own bodies’ intricacies. Just as I stand outside the looking glass, if I were once the unfortunate inmate of a Chinese prison, I could very easily be standing on the other side – frozen in formaldehyde.

What is ironic is that the very same field – medical science – which claims deep respect, understanding, and love for the human body has completely dehumanized it and made it into something worth consuming without the added bonus of being referred to as an establishment of “pimps.”

What does this exhibit – and displays like it – say about our priorities and values as a society? What does it say about us as a people when we use a military strategy to sell products, especially those that are a source of entertainment, using the human body and its various functions? We’re approaching a threshold that will force us to ask: what else is left to sell for entertainment value? And I’m unsure if I want to be around when the answer to that question is known.

No apologies for any self-righteousness that may have been displayed in this column.

Film Review: My Name Is Khan

Recent Kfest post.

To be of the South Asian persuasion means there are several cultural observations you must oblige to, ideally without much verbal protest: spicy foods, a severe lack of emphasis on the virtue of the outdoors, engineering/medicine, being felt up and checked out by very investigative mothers of single young men at dinner parties. The most cherished and simultaneously cringed upon of these cultural observations, growing up, was the presence of pirated Bollywood films in the comfort of your family room every Friday and Saturday night. While you would sometimes groan in response to your mother beckoning you to join her in the latest love story starring Salman Khan and Madhuri Dixit, you secretly loved every moment of it. There was something familiar, something calming and something genuinely fun about the often ridiculous, the sometimes sincerely intimate and touching and the always entertaining – in both a negative and positive way – stories you’d be forced to stomach for a little over three hours.

Being a Pakistani Muslim brought with it a different perspective to Indian cinema. The anti-Pakistani storylines, references, and the demonization of Muslims always were and still are noticeable – be the movie about war, about a historical period or just a simple unrequited love story. While India comprises of the third largest Muslim population in the world, the portrayal of Muslims on the big screen has been less than anything pleasant for the most part. Extremism, betrayal to the country, Qawwali song sequences almost tokenizingly laced with images of questionable Sufi mysticism are but a few of the various characteristics given to Muslims in Indian cinema films. This is certainly, however, not to deny the positive Muslim characters and storylines which have also been represented – but these, unfortunately, have been few and far in between.

My Name is Khan is the story of a brilliant young Indian Muslim man, afflicted with Asperger’s syndrome and a commitment to goodness, seeking to reclaim his faith and his love in a post-9/11 America.

Rizvan Khan, played by Shahrukh Khan, is brought to America by virtue of being sponsored for citizenship by his younger brother, a successful businessman. Inspired by the love and encouragement given to him by his mother throughout his life, Khan does not allow his condition – or really anything else – to serve as an impediment to living a fulfilling life. Part of this fulfillment is Mandira, a young Indian woman living and working at a hair salon in San Francisco, played by Kajol. A brief moment of somewhat rare sincerity and kindness expressed by Mandira towards Khan sparks a friendship rooted deeply in love for the latter.

Mandira is a divorcee with a young son, and after initial hesitation and much persistence on the part of Khan, comes to love him and the two marry. The three – Mandira, Khan and their son Sameer – lead a loving life, despite the fact that Mandira is a practicing Hindu, holding both religious and historical significance and conflict for the two Indians. However, given a lesson taught to Khan as a child by his mother, he believes strongly that only truly two types of people exist in this world – those who are good and do good deeds and those who are bad and do bad deeds. This simple piece of advice comes to completely encompass Khan’s outlook on humanity and relations and is at the core of the message of the film. When tragedy strikes the family, Khan sets out to fulfill an almost impossible promise and along the way inspires millions to believe in that a person must be judged by the deeds that s/he does – be they good or bad, big or small.

The film is a refreshing breakaway from mainstream Indian cinema productions. Often times, taboo subjects or socially-conscious films are reserved for the more independent, low-budget filmmakers or production companies (the only other example from the top of my head is the recent film New York which also explores discrimination against Muslims in a post-9/11 America). Very rarely does a mainstream director and producer the calibre of Karan Johar create a film that challenges misconceptions and traditions. Thus, MNIK comes as a rather major shock to those well-acquainted with Indian cinema. It is not the subject of the film which proves to be surprising but rather the content. Aside from the few groan-inducing Bollywood-esque instances here and there throughout the film, it is remarkably well done. The film tackles several taboo and socially conscious subjects – autism, interreligious marriage, Hindu-Muslim relations, terrorism, journalistic selectivism, torture, homegrown extremism, the hijab and Islamophobia – surprisingly without much tokenization.

Each issue is carefully discussed beyond a superfluous level but done so in a manner which isn’t necessarily on the nose. Instead, all the issues are laced together and tied back to the core message of the film which is a zygote of the holy union of the Golden Rule and karma. The portrayal of Islam and Muslim life in the states strikes a chord in particular, especially for those who are Muslim. There is an earnest and sincere depiction of and silent discussion on the everyday life and struggle of the American Muslim in his/her interspersed life of faith and of public. Perhaps one of the most touching scenes in the film shows Khan sitting, in a diner, across a Muslim couple he has met during his travels, casually chatting. All of sudden, he breaks conversation and begins to grab his things. The couple asks him why he is rushing as there is still time before they are called back onto the bus. Khan mentions how it is time to pray, to which the husband replies that while it certainly may be time to pray, it is important to take into consideration the people and place around which one finds himself. Khan responds by simply stating that prayer is not dependent on others or on place – only on belief. He goes on to pray in public, drawing much attention and confusion from his fellow passengers, who have begun returning to the bus. Instances such as these, as well as another memorable scene in a mosque where there is a discussion on the meaning of the story of Abraham and his attempted sacrifice of Ishmael and stereotype-breaking characters such as Khan’s hijab-clad sister-in-law, provide an unprecedented perspective in Indian cinema – or almost anywhere else.

Of course, the release of this film hasn’t been without controversy and backlash. Hindu nationalist group, Shiv Sena, responded to the film with angry threats and vandalism in the province of Maharashtra. Despite this, however, movie-goers flooded the cinemas and the film has become a blockbuster internationally and at home:

Moviegoers across the country made sure they dropped all plans to watch the new Shahrukh Khan flick – My Name is Khan, which is directed by Karan Johar grossed an astounding Rs 250 million on the opening day alone, breaking all kinds of box office records. The worldwide gross of $5.5 million is among the highest ever recorded for a Bollywood film.

The film is only expected to rake in more [money] over the next two months as it expands to more international markets. Next week Bollywood fans in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Oman and Lebanon get to watch the movie. In the US, ‘My Name is Khan’ distributed by Fox Searchlight and by 20th Century Fox International in other countries across the globe. The film grossed $9,727 in New Zealand and made 50 percent more money than any other Bollywood film in the Middle East. In the UK, MNIK scored $193,000 in just paid previews, which is another opening day record. However the film opened at the 11th spot all time stats in Australia.

MNIK isn’t The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It isn’t Rainman. It isn’t I am Sam. It isn’t Crash. It’s not going to change your outlook on life or open your eyes to unrecognized discrimination or inspire you to be a better person. But it will evoke emotion and thought given the almost universality in its approach and message. And if there is anything that this film should be recognized and be seen for it is the positive road towards which it takes Indian cinema, a film industry with vast reach and influence over millions within and beyond the borders of the religious and ethnic conflict ridden Sub-continent. In country like India, where Hindu-Muslim tensions still run wild as indicated by the 2002 Gujarat pogrom and the attacks in Mumbai last year, MNIK humanizes an overwhelming and integral minority. If we can find this sort of attempt in Indian cinema, renowned within the region for its usual negative tokenizing, marginalizing and propagandistic portrayal of Islam and Muslims (as well as Pakistanis), as well as even instances in Pakistani cinema with films such as 2007’s controversial Khuda Ke Liye (which addresses issues of extremism), perhaps it is not completely idealistic to hold on to some hope.

Just a little.

[The film is playing in various cinemas around North America and while it is primarily in Hindi, it is available with subtitles. For more information please visit the official site]