Vancouver academic deplores assaults against Muslim women amid niqab controversy

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      Last October 1, Safira Merriman, a former Winnipegger and a convert to Islam, was elbowed by a man in Toronto mall. She was wearing a niqab, a face veil.

      Two days earlier in another part of the country, a pregnant Muslim woman was attacked by teens. The woman’s assailants tried to pull off her hijab or head veil. It happened in Montreal on September 29.

      The two cases are among the 24 incidents of anti-Muslim actions tracked across the country since the beginning of 2015 by the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM).

      Earlier on April 19, 2015, a Muslim woman was punched on the head at a Vancouver bus stop. According to NCCM’s description of the incident, the offender “stated that the Muslim woman’s scarf made her angry”.

      In 2014, the Ottawa-based organization recorded 22 "hate" incidents against Muslims. This was almost double the 12 cases noted in 2013.

      Recently, the issue around the niqab has figured prominently in the ongoing federal election campaign.

      The Conservative Party’s stand that niqab-wearing Muslims should be barred from taking their oath of Canadian citizenship is said by pundits to have shored up its flagging campaign.

      On the other, opinion writers have claimed that the NDP’s slide in the polls is to a large measure due to party leader Thomas Mulcair’s position that Muslim women shouldn’t be denied citizenship because of their head veils.

      For local academic Itrath Syed, the battle over the niqab isn’t just a matter of campaign rhetoric.

      “There’s been consequence to that,” Syed told the Straight in a phone interview. “The incidence of Muslim women being assaulted has risen.”

      Also, according to the Langara College instructor and PhD candidate at SFU’s school of communications, “there’s a clear rise in the incidence of attacks against Muslims, and so there is that direct consequence to the kind of hate speech and fear-mongering that has become part of this election cycle.”

      Based on SFU’s online description of Syed’s doctoral degree project, she is looking to analyze the issue of “’moral panics’ and Muslim bodies in the West”. The site notes that this follows her masteral work at UBC about the “gendered and racialized construction of the Muslim community”.

      Going back to the niqab debate, Syed said: “The issue has to be about Muslim women and all people in Canada having the autonomy over their own bodies, to dress as they choose, and to be able to respect the idea that if, when Muslim women choose to wear head scares or face veils, that it is their choice and their right to dress as they wish.”