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.

The Literary Veil

He judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling round a helpless thing…
He sees eternity in men and women, he does not see men and women as dreams or dots.

—Walt Whitman

In October, Ontario Justice Norris Weisman ordered that a Muslim woman, the complainant in a sexual assault case, must testify without the veil of her niqab in open court. Aside from the fact that the media is using this story to stoke the very popular ‘reasonable accommodation’ debate that has helped right-wing politicians stir up xenophobia  and anti-Islam sentiment in Quebec and the rest of Canada, it has also laid claims to questions of law and justice. Indeed, the headline of the cited article in the Star is: ‘Order to take off niqab pits law against religion’. Does it? And are law and religion really such polar opposites?

As Kafka knew more than anyone, the law is always before us. We are dropped into it without even realizing it. It precedes us, inhabits us and colonizes us. We wear it like a birthday suit: we don’t even know we’ve got it on.

It was this problem that prompted Kant to posit a symbolic definition of ethics in his Metaphysic of Morals (1785). That is, if we cannot establish an objective, a priori principle on which to found our law, we must live according to examples of moral law, or in Jacques Derrida’s helpful gloss in Acts of Literature (1992), a ‘typology’ rather than a ‘schematic’. So Kant advises us to follow subjective principles of action that progress towards the universal principle. He famously states: ‘Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a Universal Law of Nature‘.

The problem here, Derrida states (as he would), is that damned ‘as if’:

This ‘as if’ enables us to reconcile practical reason with an historical teleology and with the possibility of unlimited progress…it almost introduces narrativity and fiction into the very core of legal thought, at the moment when the latter begins to speak and to question the moral subject.

Or perhaps it is not a problem at all. As much as perhaps Kant himself would like to deny it, law is essentially oral history. Case law is a narrative of humanity’s struggle to define the just and the righteous. Indeed, without narration and fiction, how can we possibly determine the actions of a ‘reasonable man (sic)’ that features in so many court rulings?

In Poetic Justice: the Literary Imagination and Public Life (1995), Martha Nussbaum argues that the ‘literary imagination’ should play an important role in deciding questions of judgement.

the literary judge has good reasons for eschewing skeptical detatchment and for preferring to quasi-scientific models an evaluative humanistic form of practical reasoning; these reasons are deeply rooted in the common-law tradition. She does pursue neutrality, but in a manner…requiring, rather than forbidding, sympathetic knowledge of value-laden human facts.

What is the difference between a ‘literary judge’ and one who is simply sympathetic to mores of social justice? Like the poet or  ‘equable man’ Whitman describes above, the judge armed with a literary imagination ‘sees eternity in men and women’, placing them in their narrative juxtaposed with the stories of others—in their whole history, with a critical but compassionate eye.

So what does this say about the Muslim woman prohibited from wearing her veil as she faces the man she has accused of raping her? It means heeding her explanation for preferring to be veiled:

“It’s a respect issue, one of modesty and one of … in Islam, we call honour,” she replied. “It’s also about the religious reason is to not show your face to men that you are able to marry. … I would feel a lot more comfortable if I didn’t have to, you know, reveal my face.”

It means situating this case and Canada’s hysterical obsession with the veil within our illegal occupation and colonization of Afghanistan and the ongoing war on Islam effected by the West in general. It means understanding that religion, too, is a birthday suit, and coincident with, not opposed to the law. It means listening to progressive Muslim women like Marjane Satrapi who do not wear the hijab nonetheless defend its use by her sisters. It means understanding that a vast majority of rape cases are not reported, and those that are have a sickeningly low conviction rate (5.7% in the United Kingdom). It means that the genesis of the phrase ‘facing your accuser in open court’ should be read democratically rather than literally. It does not mean removing the right of the accused to a fair trial and competent defence, but it does mean acknowledging that the system is failing and that removing the niqab from a rape victim is emphatically the wrong direction.

It means listening to people like Thomas King when he points out, in his brilliant Massey lectures, ‘The Truth about Stories’, that listening is always a better path to understanding.

In Genesis, we begin with a perfect world, but after the Fall, while we gain knowledge, we lose the harmony and safety of the garden and are forced into a chaotic world of harsh landscapes and dangerous shadows.

In our Native story, we begin with water and mud, and, through the good offices of Charm, her twins, and the animals, move by degrees and adjustments from a formless, featureless world to a world that is rich in its diversity, a world that is complex and complete.

Finally, in Genesis, the post-garden world we inherit is decidedly martial in nature, a world at war-God vs. the Devil, humans vs. the elements. Or to put things into corporate parlance, competitive. In our Native story, the world is at peace, and the pivotal concern is not with the ascendancy of good over evil but with the issue of balance.

So here are our choices: a world in which creation is a solitary, individual act or a world in which creation is a shared activity; a world that begins in harmony and slides toward chaos or a world that begins in chaos and moves toward harmony; a world marked by competition or a world determined by co-operation.

And there’s the problem.