I spent a lot of the Divine Liturgy this last Sunday looking at a woman’s face. The woman was St. Elizabeth the New Martyr, (at left) and I was looking at her face because one of the faithful had brought her icon to church for me to bless, and after the customary blessing it remained on the altar for the duration of the Liturgy. As I stared into those luminous eyes, set into a face swathed with the usual monastic apostolnik, I thought how she would look if she were not a Christian nun but a Muslim woman, and instead of the apostolnik wore a niqab, the veil that completely covers the face, leaving only a slit for the eyes to peer through. My first thought was that it would completely negate the point of the icon, which allows one to come face to face with the saints and to look steadfastly into a holy countenance. Indeed, if all the Christian female saints took their cue from Islam, all might be clothed in the niqab, and we might never see them in any sense worth discussing. A row of such saints would present us with the pointless spectacle of a row of faceless women, interchangeable and anonymous apart from the labelling names on their icons. The row would not say, “Here are St. Elizabeth, St. Macrina, St. Anna, St. Thekla”, but rather, “Here are a bunch of holy women”. That is, their personhood and their individual holy traits would be completely submerged and eclipsed by their gender.
The icon therefore represents the great divide between Christianity and Islam. Every icon is an icon of someone’s face, and in authentic icons that face is turned toward us for a holy encounter, not turned away or even turned slightly in profile. Islam (at least in some of its forms) separates women from society at large by insisting that they be veiled and their faces hidden when appearing in public. Some women consider such a veiling to be empowering. It is certainly divisive, for it divides the person doing the beholding from the person being beheld, and even more importantly, divides men from women. A woman in a niqab ceases to be a name or an individual woman, one with a different face than others. She comes simply Woman, a female, one whose face may not be seen. Her gender becomes the most important thing about her.
This is not unrelated to contemporary issues, at least in Canada. The true north strong and free is currently debating a government rule which says that a woman must have her face bared when being sworn in as a new citizen in Canada. Some Muslim women, accustomed to wearing the niqab when in public, have contested the rule, and the higher courts are poised to agree with them and strike down this rule as unconstitutional. Politicians are (what else?) playing politics with the whole issue, using it to stake their various claims to being more pro-women, pro-Muslim, and pro-tolerance than their rivals, painting those who object to the wearing of the niqab when being sworn in as a bunch of intolerant neanderthals. At least some of the debate revolves around the question of identity (wondering if someone else might take their place at the swearing in ceremony), and so some have suggested that as long as the woman removes the niqab at some point to be identified, everything will be okay. I suggest in turn that this misses the real issue, which is not identity, but the cultural norms set for the next generation regarding personhood and gender. My concern is not that we might swear in Fatima when we meant to swear in Aleyah. My concern is that if the cultural value expressed by wearing the niqab takes root in Canadian society something important will be lost—namely, the greater importance of individuality and personhood over gender. In Canada as in the West generally, we believe that one’s individual name, traits, and personhood are more important than one’s gender, and that men and women may relate to one another safely on open and equal footing. This openness and equality of encounter is expressed by the open face. It is just this equality and openness which is threatened by the insistence on wearing the niqab.
In cultures which insist on the niqab, we find a conviction (sometimes stated, but usually assumed), that women are primarily sexual, and so to allow their faces to be seen would be too tempting for the men. In these societies women wear the niqab because they feel that without it they would appear immodest and indecent. Someone from outside such a culture might well ask why St. Elizabeth the New Martyr, clothed head to toe and her face swathed in an apostolnik, could be considered immodestly attired simply because we can see her face.
There is much more at stake in this current Canadian debate than the rights of Muslim women to express their religion by wearing the niqab in public, for ultimately it is not about their rights, but about the understanding of gender, modesty, sexuality, and equality in society at large in the years to come. If you doubt this, look at the icon of St. Elizabeth the New Martyr, or indeed at any icon. And if you really think that St. Elizabeth is immodestly attired in her icon, try saying that to her face.