Blind Man with a Pistol

Québec’s Black Veil

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil” (1836), Parson Hooper causes a sensation in the sleepy New England town of Milford by donning a black veil without explanation. Parson Hooper continues to wear this veil throughout his life while his bizarre behaviour convinces his clergy that the veil must hide some sinister, unspeakable sin. On his deathbed, the Puritan citizens of Milford demand that he remove the veil:

“Never!” cried the veiled clergyman. “On earth, never!”

“Dark old man!” exclaimed the affrighted minister, “with what horrible crime upon your soul are you now passing to the judgment?”

Father Hooper’s breath heaved; it rattled in his throat; but, with a mighty effort, grasping forward with his hands, he caught hold of life, and held it back till he should speak. He even raised himself in bed; and there he sat, shivering with the arms of death around him, while the black veil hung down, awful at that last moment, in the gathered terrors of a lifetime. And yet the faint, sad smile, so often there, now seemed to glimmer from its obscurity, and linger on Father Hooper’s lips.

“Why do you tremble at me alone?” cried he, turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. “Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!”

The moral of the story is clear: we are all of us sinners, and the Parson, good disciple as he is, wears the veil so that none of us need to. Yet this act of martyrdom nevertheless provokes darker feelings in his fellow townspeople, as if they knew all along that his act of contrition remained above all an unsaid implication of their complicity, an exposé of their confederacy of sinners.

Somehow, Hawthorne’s construction of the veil in the nineteenth-century American imagination doesn’t enter into our current obsession with a different veil. Naema Ahmed and Québec’s Bill 94 remain in the forefront of our collective minds, as Dana Olwan’s recent article at demonstrates.

Commentators suggest that the bill has received overwhelming and broad support in Quebec and outside it. A much-cited Angus Reid online-poll that surveyed a sample of 1,004 Canadians found that 80 per cent of respondents approved and 16 per cent disapproved of Bill 94. Put differently, four out of five Canadians are today likely to be in favor of this legislation.

Apparently, whatever its genesis, the veil still gets us North American settlers riled up. The niqab presents a problem to Canadians: it is a conspicuous manifestation of the inequality of the sexes, propped up by traditional patriarchy and old-school religion. Many Canadians, particularly those from a Judeo-Christian background, view the veil as an ominous statement of persecution and oppression. Of course, such statements are all around us: cheerleading at football games, magazine stands, T4 slips, Engineering faculties. Which is to say, we are inundated every day in this country that women are not treated as equally as men. Yet for some reason the public response to the niqab—indeed, their “outrage”—is signally disproportionate to the symbolic message of the veil. To wit, that women aren’t equal to men.

As Olwan asks, the troubling thing about this legislation is not what it reveals about Canada and Quebec’s dedication to the principles of liberalism and democracy and so on, but rather, what it conceals:

What are the narratives that enable the writing of the bill and the broad support it is receiving across Canada? What are the consequences of this legislation for Muslim Canadian women who wear the niqab, Muslim Canadians and religious minorities? How do we unpack the announced intentions of Bill 94 from their real and material effects on Muslim women in Canada?

What gives stories like Ahmed’s the extra oomph is not that a university-educated, urbane Muslim woman living in Canada is being oppressed—by whom? by her religion? by her family? by her Egyptian cultural roots?—but that her otherness, her foreignness, draws a line under her received inequality. It is as if legislation like Bill 94 acts as its own veil, directing our attention to the sins of others and away from our own misdeeds. It’s no secret that the West fetishizes the veil, but perhaps this fetish is not simply an over-investment in otherness, but a symbolic compensation for the oppression we enact and instantiate on a daily basis. Like the Puritan townspeople of Hawthorne’s Milford, we know we are not whole, but staring at the niqab allows us to ignore our fissures and shortcomings, illuminating the fault, the plight of the Other—as all of ours fall dark.

Perhaps the West’s recently developed obsession with the veil stems from some sort of cognitive, if unconscious, link with our culpability and complicity in the sufferings of Middle Eastern women, through our imperialist wars, our addiction to petroleum, our appetite for opiates. What we really object to is that the niqab walking around in our comfortable, commodity-strewn Western world, shortens the chain of this link and makes it plain. It is as if the Niqab, like Picasso to the Third Reich when asked if he was “responsible” for painting Guernica, responds to our question thusly: No! You are responsible! This is the result of your politics!

Inequality makes a democracy itch; but it’s accusations of complicity that make us rage. Especially when they are true.

6 Comments so far
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So well said, Catchfire. Olwan’s article is a fine analysis, and you take it a step further with your reminder of the imperialist’s complicity.

On no other topic have I found myself in such hot water with leftist friends online as I have with this one. Between the anti-imperialists who conclude that isolationism is the answer (aren’t we lucky that we can retreat to such privileged hidey-holes?) and the gender warriors who don’t see the problem of insisting that “we” “liberate” all women everywhere yesterday, there is a kinda dangerous no-woman’s land where anyone who raises her head is gonna get sniped at.

I love Hawthorne, although I’ve never read this story. What a treasure. I went to see Nathaniel in Salem some years ago — they have his desk at the Counting House set up just so, and one of his walking sticks propped up in the corner, not quite close enough to touch. I was so moved to be in the presence.

His sense of the American history that flowed and spoke through him, through the guilt of his family history for one thing, is as powerful a reading of the story of this continent as de Tocqueville or any political history written since. It is stolen continents; it is the American dream; it is Protestant guilt and sublimation and transference, all that and more spoken through such simple human stories.

What can you say? They’re not listening still.

Comment by skdadl

Oops — the Customs House, not the Counting House. Where did that come from? ;-)

Comment by skdadl

Linked to Facebook.

Comment by skdadl

Québécois and Québécoises were among the most forceful in demonstrating against the imperialist wars agains people in the Middle East, whether Iraqis or Palestinians. Our demonstrations against the second Gulf War were among the largest in the world, in proportion to our numbers. I attended one demo that was at least 200.000. That is like a tenth of the total population in greater Montréal.

I find your article sins exactly by what it is decrying: it does not take into account the national oppression of Québec, either by the old anglophone establishment or the reactionary Catholic Church hierarchy. Would you write something so Colonel Blimpish about Ireland?

You weren’t speaking of “Canadians” in a generic acultural sense but of Québécois. Who may be shaped by many things, but not puritan protestantism. The Latin-speaking peoples to the south of the US were settlers too, and many also (like New France, New England and Upper Canada) committed unspeakable acts against the Indigenous peoples, but that would not justify ignoring US imperialist depredations against those countries.

Much as I hate the niqab – and many purely Western manifetstations of making women invisible – I certainly don’t support a law against it. But I do think you have to go back and reread the history of Québec, and of the formidable movement for social, cultural and national liberation from the Quiet Revolution onwards, a bit more closely. And with more than a bit more of the humilty you preach.

Comment by Anonymous

Sorry – of course I was the anonymous in the previous comment. Think that was obvious, but just saying.

I am very disappointed in you for that post. I thought you had more sensitivity towards Québécois history, society and social movements. Snif.

Comment by lagatta à montréal

Hi lagatta,

I took part in the Gulf War protests in Montréal in 2003, and they were indeed inspiring–not the least because they had such numbers in -20˚C weather. I also participated in the FTAA protests in Québec City in 2001, and dozens of other anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist protests since, the likes of which I haven’t seen in any other city in Canada. So I agree entirely that in this discussion we should acknowledge Québec’s anti-imperialist history and strong tradition of solidarity and activism.

But I’ve also watched Québec respond to the challenge of cultural and ethnic diversity increasingly along the lines of French secularism and nationalism. It was hard for me not to associate the expulsion and public humiliation of Naema Ahemed with the banlieues of Paris and the rebellious riots of second generation French-Arabs. I’m willing to allow that this association is simplistic, but I believe some manifestation of this relationship is in play in Québec.

I’ve been trying to work through your emphasizing of Québec’s distinct history in this debate and perhaps because of that I left it out instead of grappling with it directly. I will confess to eliding the difference between Canada and Québec in this instance. And of course you are right that even if both nations fetishize the veil, they have invested different cultural values and meanings.

I probably confused the culture I know better–anglophone ROC culture–with whatever semantic material a critique wholly situated in a Québecois context would have seen more clearly. But I think the dynamic must be the same–if not, what? Does Québec alone see its implication and participation in Western exploitation of the Middle East–not only military exploitation, but industrial, environmental, economical and cultural–with clear open eyes? I think not.

I don’t mean to condemn Québec uniquely, or reserve them extra critique, so I want to take your comments seriously. I can live with disappointment, but I’d prefer to take advantage of your superior understanding of Québec’s cultural context and history.

Comment by Blind Man

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