ActiveHistory.ca is on a two-week hiatus, but we’ll be back with new content in September. During the hiatus, we’re featuring some of our most popular and favourite posts from the past year. Thanks as always to our writers and readers.
The following post was originally featured on October 16, 2015.
Last week two high profile Canadian Muslim women, writer Sheema Khan and Zunera Ishaq (the woman at the centre of the niqab controversy) publically questioned the safety of Muslims here. Khan lived here in the aftermath of 9/11; she says it’s worse now. These admissions amount to a tragic statement about the use of the niqab as an election issue. Yet as Canadian women’s historians, we have heard it before. Intolerant Canadians, from political elites to ordinary citizens, have long attempted to impose their notions of what it means to be a Canadian on the bodies of immigrant women. Today’s veiled Muslim woman joins a long line of immigrant women whom this country has feared or pitied, but always stereotyped, for at least a century.
Consider those Doukhobor women harnessed to a plough, breaking the tough Prairie. Their photos, faces almost hidden by their babushkas, have graced Canadian history textbooks for decades. The widely shared image – reproduced as a postcard inviting everyone to get a look – struck many Canadians as the personification of a backward European peasant culture that treated its women like downtrodden beasts of burden. These women posed a striking contrast to the prevailing middle-class ideal of the Victorian woman – that morally superior angel in the home. Consider too the distinctive dress of the women who completed the portrait of Immigration Minister Clifford Sifton’s ideal Eastern European peasant “in a sheepskin coat” with “a stout wife and a half-dozen children” grudgingly welcomed to Canada. Someone needed to do the backbreaking labour to settle what was portrayed as an empty Prairie, the original First Nations inhabitants having been shoved aside to a number of reserves. Even Icelandic pioneer women, easily assimilated, one might expect, into the Nordic race, were castigated for their typical headdress: a dark knitted skullcap with tassel. Such women may now be considered Old Stock Canadians, but not so long ago, their Anglo neighbours viewed them as second-class. According to historian Sarah Carter, Anglo women’s organization in Alberta thought Ukrainian girls so deficient in the standards of proper womanhood that they too should be sent to residential schools.
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