A tense exchange erupted last night at UBC's Chan Centre for the Performing Arts between two Muslim women over the hijab and niqab.
Writer and women's-rights activist Farzana Hassan had just delivered the annual UBC Laurier Institution multiculturalism lecture. Hassan, former president of the Muslim Canadian Congress, wants Parliament to pass a law denying public services to women in burqas, which are full-length gowns that conceal everything.
She stated in her lecture that this infringement on individual choice can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. Hassan, who lives in Ontario, also maintained that there is no language in the Koran that requires Muslim women to cover themselves head to toe. Rather, she argued that the Islamic holy book calls for "modest" attire, which has been interpreted in an extreme way by members of the Wahabi sect.
During the question-and-answer period, the education director of the B.C. Muslim Association's board of women's affairs objected strenuously to what she had heard.
Najma Mohammed told Hassan that she was "very insulted" by her remarks. Hassan used the word burqa interchangeably in her lecture with niqab, which is a veil that a small number of Canadian Muslim women use to conceal their faces. Hassan also spoke disparagingly about Muslim women being forced to wear a hijab, which covers the head but which doesn't obscure a person's face.
"I am a Muslim woman standing right here in front of you," Mohammed said. "I am wearing my hijab. Nobody is telling me—nobody is oppressing me—to wear this hijab.....I know that you are talking about burqa but you also touched on hijab when you said even that is objectionable to you. Why is it all your opinions, I would like to ask."
Then Mohammed went on to accuse Hassan of "inciting differences" so that she can make money selling books, DVDs, videos, and CDs.
"I am standing right here right now and nobody has told me—not my father, not my husband, or any of my religious leaders—'Here, go ahead and wear a hijab to hide.' Nobody has told me that," Mohammed declared.
Next, Mohammed accused Hassan of not having done her homework about Islam. "So I challenge you to sit with me and discuss this once again,” she added.
At that point, Hassan asked, "Do you have a question?"
To that, Mohammed replied: "I’m not giving you a question. It’s a statement. I don’t think you are worth a question."
Next, Hassan asked Mohammed if she had heard of Aqsa Parvez. Parvez was a 16-year-old Muslim teen who was strangled to death by her father and brother in Mississauga in 2007 after she refused to wear a hijab and chose to don western clothes.
Mohammed sidestepped the question about Parvez and told Hassan that she was merely citing her opinions. "I represent all the Muslim community here," Mohammed claimed.
Hassan responded by saying that any debate on burqas shouldn't be based solely on her opinion. "I’ve said that time and again, we need a debate on this," she added. "We need a public debate on this."
Mohammed replied by accusing Hassan of "doing things against women, against Muslim women". In addition, Mohammed criticized Hassan for choosing a "secular place" to convey her message rather than discussing this within the Muslim community.
The lecture will be broadcast on CBC Radio's Ideas show, likely on June 24. The moderator, CBC Radio host Paul Kennedy, interjected and decided to give Hassan the final word.
That's when Hassan bluntly stated that she will not retract anything she said.
"I very strongly believe there are women who are being forced into wearing the niqab and hijab," she said, to loud applause from some in the crowd. "I know four-year-olds who are being coerced into wearing the hijab because, you know, the philosophy is they need to get into the habit of wearing it so that when they attain puberty—when this becomes mandatory according to them—they will not object to it. So four-year-olds are being made to wear the hijab to school, outside of school, and I’m not lying about this. I’m not exaggerating about this."
Hassan closed her discussion by telling the audience about the murder of Parvez, who died in Mississauga "because she refused to wear the hijab and she wanted to integrate more into Canadian society".
"Her father and brother, in a case of domestic violence, they murdered her. And this 16-year-old lost her life because of it," Hassan said. "So I am not going to go back on what I said. These women are being forced, and no matter what you say, that’s the simple truth about it."
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