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    Cultural Identity (what defines us?)

    Woman’s Right to Choice

    Debbie Ouellet  |  03.Dec.09

    The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation because in the degradation of woman the very fountains of life are poisoned at their source.  ~ Lucretia Mott

    An article in the Toronto Star on October 25th told of a young Toronto Muslim woman, Maryam Rana, who chooses to wear a niqab—a black veil used to cover the face and hair when traveling in public places. Her choice, and that of many immigrant Canadian women like her, has sparked much debate in the human rights and feminist circles about the oppression of women. They argue that the wearing of these coverings is symbolic of the rights denied to women who are forced to cover themselves and bow to male-dominated laws in many parts of the world today.

    What these groups fail to recognize is that the wearing of the niqab by Rana represents a pinnacle expression of the exact opposite—freedom for women—a hard-won right earned over the past century in North America. Human rights; freedom of expression; woman’s liberation, whatever label you’d like to apply to it, does not mean freeing an oppressed woman from one restriction only to replace it with another.

    Freedom equals choice. Choice is a deeply personal thing, rooted in a woman’s cultural background, spiritual beliefs and practical needs. And true freedom is the ability to make that choice whether or not it fits into the stereotypical view of what a woman should be in any given cultural unit.

    The very fact that a woman like Rana may freely choose to cover her head and face as a reflection of her religious beliefs (wear a bikini on the beach, become CEO of a corporation or stay at home to raise a family) is a testimony to how far the rights of women have come since the suffrage movements of the early 1900’s.

    I got the genesis of the idea for this article after receiving an email that was circulating the globe. It told the story of a group of thirty-three women who had gathered in front of a government building, carrying signs that asked for the right to vote in elections. The women were summarily arrested and thrown into prison on the charge of “obstructing sidewalk traffic”. While in prison, forty guards wielding clubs (with the blessing of the prison’s warden) chained and beat them repeatedly.

    You might think that this was a story out of Afghanistan or Somalia, or any of the numerous refugee camps which are now home to over fourteen million people worldwide. Lord knows, the news is saturated with similar stories. But these particular women were picketing outside the White House. It was November 15, 1917. History has chronicled the suffering and indignity that women like Lucy Burns, Alice Paul, Doris Lewis and Alice Coser endured in their struggles to obtain rights for women—not unlike those being suffered in Afghanistan and Somalia today.

    In Canada, much of the battle for woman’s rights took place through the power of words and the long and arduous British legal system. In 1917, one year before women earned the right to vote in Canada, five Alberta women: Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinny and Irene Parlby (later known as the “Famous Five”) started a twelve-year battle called “The Persons Case”. They fought the British North America Act of 1867 (which created the Dominion of Canada) that used the term “persons” when referring to a group and “he” when referring to one person. The courts had recently ruled that a woman, for the purposes of the BNA Act, could not be considered a “person”. The Famous Five challenged that a woman was indeed a person and should be allowed to hold a position in government. On October 18, 1929, with the support of then Prime Minister Mackenzie King, “The Persons Case” was won and women were allowed to hold seats in the Canadian Senate.

    The rights of women in North America have come a long way since then. But it has been an uphill battle spanning the full past century. My own formidable adolescent years were in the 1960s, in the era of feminism, when women were burning their bras and tattooing the word “liberation” across the minds of young girls everywhere.  Today you’ll still find Canadian women on either swing of the pendulum, arguing over rights, obligations, and gender stereotypes.  The problem, as I see it, is that both groups, left or right, are guilty of practicing what they profess to abhor: stereotyping.  A woman doesn’t belong in a box.  You can’t label or group her.  She is unique—even in the choices she makes.  I became truly “liberated” when I realized this. 

    I retell these stories not only to acknowledge the sacrifices of the women who have gone before me, who have suffered so that I might know my own personal freedoms. I have a daughter who will, in a few years’ time, be embarking on her own journey of choices.  I thank God that she is privileged to live in a country where her rights to these choices is guaranteed. I can only imagine what it must be like to be a mother living in Afghanistan, Somalia or an overcrowded refugee camp—to envision the hopes and fears of raising a daughter in these harrowing times.

    I retell these stories as an offering of hope and a message to our sisters around the world who are denied their right to choice. Freedoms will come to you as they have to other women all over the world. They will be hard-won freedoms with terrible sacrifices attached to them. But they will come—perhaps not for you, but for your daughters, and their daughters. When the freedoms you have prayed, wept and bled for do come to be, may history never forget the debt of courage and sacrifice you have paid to assure that your daughters may choose the life and route to freedom that all deserve.

    Born to Bleed
    By Debbie Ouellet

    Woman was born to bleed—
    a cyclical supplication
    to birth. Life. Death.
    The kin-keeper of ritual,
    she’ll kneel in prayer,
    unbending to the gravity
    of choice denied.

    Mother of memory,
    matron of belief,
    she has broken bread
    and bones
    in the name of mothers,
    daughters, sisters.

    Cut her at the throat
    or wrist—
    she bleeds her history,
    the world cupped safe
    in her hands.

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