Sean Dixon

Banning The Veil

Performed on stage by Sean Dixon at Ryeberg Live Toronto 2012.

Sean Dixon

I wanted to start with a humorous video. Of course there isn’t a lot of humour associated with the niqab, but this one I’m about to play turned out to be the easiest to find, by far, on the subject.

Til Obladen, “Liaison Dangereuse Commercial” (2009)

Okay so that wasn’t funny, maybe. Or maybe a little bit funny in the sense of surprising. But maybe it wasn’t that surprising. Maybe you saw it coming. Maybe you’ll see the next one coming too. The next one is definitely more funny than the last one, if a little more difficult to find, and I’m playing it even though I really don’t like the idea of giving hits to the source, which is SunTV.


Ezra Levant, “Jason Kenney On Burka & Citizenship Oath” (The Source, 2011)

Okay. I confess I was really hoping he’d develop his New York license plate argument further. I’m just trying to figure out what he’s saying: Is he saying, that, some Americans came up here to masquerade as Canadian immigrants? To pretend to take the oath of citizenship and pretend to become Canadians? I can’t think of any advantages that would provide to these, alleged, New Yorkers.

It’s funny though: the Kenney video, for some reason that I can’t fully articulate and is perhaps not quite fair, reminded me of this.

Stanley Donen, “The Little Prince” (1974)

Do you see how that wasn’t fair? It wasn’t fair to the niqab-wearer because it ends up equating the niqab wearer with another veiled image, that of an elephant being digested by a boa constrictor, and of course that’s the furthest thing from my intention. I have sympathy for the niqab-wearer. But it wasn’t fair to Kenney either because I really don’t think our immigration minister would ever mistake a burqa-clad woman for a man’s hat. Jason Kenney knows what’s beneath that burqa. According to him — well he says it, in the earlier video — there’s a New Yorker, beneath that burqa, or something. A woman or maybe a man hailing from that great breeding ground for New Yorkers that is New York.

Still, I wasn’t fair to Kenney, maybe, arguably. So I’m going to allow a far more sympathetic party speak on behalf of both Kenney and the poor beleaguered niqab-wearer, not to mention on behalf of all Canadians, whether they wear niqabs or not. Here we have a private citizen giving free psychoanalytic advice.


LuminolBlue, “Ban The Burka and the Niqab, it’s Time to Move On!” (2011)

You may have noticed he does the same thing Kenney did. He starts out with all these surface reasons that sound vaguely sympathetic, and then he can’t help but get to the deeper more compulsive and instinctive prejudice that his opinion is really rooted in. That wearing the niqab is just wrong, in and of itself, prima facie.

But he also brings up the new law in France, the complete ban of the niqab, in public spaces, and he adds that all countries should adopt this law from France. But the funny thing about France is, France has allegedly designed this niqab-ban to protect women, but I’ve seen it provoke these same women whom it’s designed to protect make some weird choices that leave me confused as to the origin of their oppression: like for example I saw one video on youtube in which a woman in a niqab allows us to think that she’s going to take off her niqab, but then, when does remove it she reveals a surgical mask beneath, which she plans to wear with her headscarf in order to get around the law, citing matters of health.

And then there’s this equally surprising response to the sartorial emancipation of muslim women under French law.

vetofilms, “Just The Face: Trailer” (2011)

If I can defend the actions of the French lawmakers and Jason Kenney for a moment, these western leaders are trying to act with our best intentions at heart. They are merely trying to ensure that the backward ways of the Arab world cannot gain a foothold here in our more enlightened west.

For them it’s a scary nightmare, and has been a scary nightmare in the west for maybe 1400 years or so.

They’re just nervous. Our leaders are nervous because the niqab is here and it is obviously a powerful symbol of oppression being flaunted in their faces and public spaces. Obviously. I’m not even stating the opposite of what I mean. It is a symbol of oppression. You need look no further than the Arab world to see evidence of that. Like this video from Abu Dhabi, for example.

Abu Dhabi TV, “Aydah Al Aarawi Al Jahani On Millions Poet” (2009)

Iconoclasm is sometimes defined as the destruction of the meaning of a powerful symbol. So which of the two powerful symbols in the previous video is being destroyed? The oppressive eastern-style veil or the brightly lit trappings of western-style celebrity? Or do we rather have to reexamine the veracity of our symbols?

That was a clip from a 2008 American Idol style program called Millions Poet. It features poetry though, not music, and it has an audience of 70 million viewers throughout the Arab world, who help pick the winner.

The clip we saw featured a Saudi woman named Aydah Al Aarawi Al Jahani, who in my opinion, has an amazing speaking voice, but who did not get as far in her contest as a similarly dressed woman from the 2010 round, who did not speak as well, but whose poetry had a far more resonant and controversial theme, which vaulted her to third place overall that year. Her name was Hisa Hilal, and, like Aydah Al Jahani, she was supported in these crowdsourcing endeavours by her husband. Here’s a clip of the poem that made her famous, with translation.

Click on picture to watch videoTheNationalNewspaper, “Hisa Hilal Reads Her Controversial Poem” (2010)

All this is just to say, no one is suggesting there isn’t oppression in the world, or that there isn’t much work to be done. All I ask of my own government is that we don’t add to it.

Coleman Wilde, “It Doesn’t Matter” (Fosters Beer Commercial, 1980s)

We can’t say for certain, in any individual case, why a woman has chosen to wear what she has chosen to wear. We don’t know whether it represents an oppression or a personal choice. Personally, I don’t like the niqab; it does seem oppressive, it feels impersonal, faceless. I’m glad I don’t have to wear it. And, like, what if she isn’t who she says she is? It occurs to me though, asking this question and watching those Million Poets videos: with the veils that hide their faces and five million dirhams in cash money at stake, how can those judges possibly determine with confidence that these poets are who they say they are? They might not even be Arabs, they might be from New York.

I would suggest that in order to beat fraud and impersonation, the judges might consider calling up our Immigration Minister, Jason Kenney. He’s a very serious man, he’s given a lot of thought to the matter, and he might be able to offer them some tips.

- Sean Dixon

  • Sam Laville

    Mr. Dixon, I enjoyed your refreshingly well-balanced piece. There’s disproportionate outrage on both sides of the question. Laws against the niqab are bound to be ineffective and lead to absurd situations, as we see in the Just the Face clip. On the other hand, the karate champion casually raises her face covering to avoid receiving a ticket. So why does she wear it? I’m confident the reasons she gives do not stand up to scrutiny. Here in London more and more young girls are covering their faces; they say it’s so that they will not be sexually harassed or raped, so that they will be closer to God, and you sense they have no real idea why they’re doing it, except to show that they belong to a certain social and cultural group. Why doesn’t really matter, indeed, as long as you don’t mind hearing adolescent schoolgirls debating whether or not it’s morally right (worse, whether it’s virtuous) for a woman to be seen or heard in the public sphere (on programs like Millions Poet). This is 2012! When you think of the battles that have been waged in the last two hundred years to liberate and protect women and the individual spirit, it does feel irksome to see teenage girls covering their faces out of choice, and deciding that they have no role in the world except as property to a prospective husband. The niqab represents a set of values that clashes with those of Canada and the UK and France, and many modern democracies, and in that sense it will always be a problem. But yes, what can be done about it? In a modern democracy, wear what you want, prey to whomever you wish, honour whatever authorities you choose. And yet there is always a limit. Every individual must make a few concessions to the larger order, to the pre-established culture, for example, showing one’s face during the oath of citizenship. This can hardly be called an indignity or humiliation. On the other hand, your Minister’s tone is worrying, and frankly, he seems like a twat. Who said it, ‘tolerance is another word for indifference.’ Let us be indifferent to each other. Cheers, Sam

Ryeberg Curator Bio

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Sean Dixon is a novelist, playwright, and actor. His novels include "The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn" and "The Girls Who Saw Everything" ("The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal" in the U.S. and the U.K.) — named one of the Best Books of 2007 by Quill & Quire. His plays have been produced in Canada, the U.S., Australia and the U.K., and three have been collected in "AWOL: Three Plays for Theatre SKAM." He occasionally plays banjo with the Toronto glam rock band tomboyfriend. For more Sean Dixon, go here.