In an hour or two, I'll be voting in Canada for the first time. Oddly enough, this morning I got into the metro during the morning rush hour, and who should be standing next to me but a young woman in a niqab. Unlike headscarves, face veils are really not very common in Montreal, and when I see a woman in a niqab I usually feel disturbed, and sometimes angry, especially if she seems to be following subserviently after a man. Personally, I wish no woman felt she needed to wear one, and particularly wish no woman would ever be pressured into veiling her own face, but I was appalled by Stephen Harpur's recent remarks about this - as if I needed one more reason not to vote for him.
Some non-Muslim women here have been wearing face veils as a protest against Harper, but from the details of the veil and other aspects of her dress, and the way she was acting, I was sure this young woman was genuine. I watched her looking furtively around herself, worrying perhaps that someone would say something negative, and my heart went out to her. We were both holding onto the same central pole in the subway car, and I decided to try to make eye contact. When she looked at me, I smiled as warmly as I could. Her eyes crinkled and lit up in a smile. We both exited the metro at McGill and I walked near her up the stairs; my main emotion was simply to be protective in that crowded place. We didn't speak; perhaps I should have tried. She went through the turnstile, turned in the opposite direction, and was lost in the crowd.
One of the reasons I part ways with most politicians is that they take positions that are all theory and no compassion, and when they single out an individual, it is often to use them for their own gain. It's far more telling to ask how we would act in an ordinary daily life situation with those who are different from us, or seem to question or even threaten our own values. Because human being tend to isolate themselves into groups of like "otherness," we often don't have the opportunity to find out. In the case of extreme religious conservatism, there are often rules that prohibit contact. But when faced with an actual real person in a real situation, I think most (certainly not all) people will find they are moved by human emotion and compassion, and will act accordingly. When observing my own emotions today, I saw this shift from theory to reality take place, and I was grateful for the encounter which showed me a deeper part of myself.
I had another encounter like this on the flight back from Berlin to Montreal this summer, when I was seated next to an ultra-orthodox Jewish couple traveling with a large family group from Israel to Montreal. I was on the aisle and the wife, much younger than me, was next to me. Neither one of them spoke to me during the whole long flight and they seemed nervous and determined to keep to themselves. We ate our separate meals, and when it was necessary for them to get up and use the restroom, I was careful to move into the aisle so the man would not have to touch me or even speak to me. Before landing, we were all given customs declarations to fill out. I did mine, but soon realized that my neighbors, heads bent together, speaking in worried voices, were having a hard time understanding the form. Finally I turned to the woman, smiled, and asked quietly if she needed some help. She gave me a relieved look, and we managed to exchange enough information in English that they were able to finish the task; she also told me that they were all going to Montreal for a family wedding. It was clear that she was nervous about the trip, and had perhaps never left Israel before. We didn't speak much more, although I would have liked to, but to my surprise, when it was time to get our heavy carry-on bags down from the overhead compartment, the husband gestured to me, asking if I needed help with my bag, which I gratefully accepted.
We all need to reach out of our self-protective little worlds and find the common ground, because it almost always exists. In my experience, it doesn't matter what the "difference" is - race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, age. It was good to discover that my bonds with these women as women and fellow travelers were stronger than any political or feminist views on either of our sides. How much better it would be to start from there.
The Icelandic posts will continue, but the Canadian election is important and may represent a big change, so I wanted to devote a little space to it. Harper is extremely unpopular in much of Quebec and British Columbia, but it looks like the rest of the nation -- even the more conservative provinces -- may join us in denying him a majority this time around. Then it's a question of whether the Liberals and NDP can form a government together if there is no majority. Let's hope so.