These days I spend a lot of time thinking about the body. In particular I am interested in the body as it relates to other bodies, such as the relationship between a caregiver and a care-recipient. What fascinates me is this idea that the body may be a whole lot more complicated than what medicine and our old friend, Rene Descartes, might suggest.
For the most part we think of our bodies as what is contained by our skin. Which is why, it would seem, Quebec’s ban on religious symbols for public sector employees allows religious tattoos, or dreadlocks, but not a hijab. Religious symbols such as hair or tattoos, it is argued, are part of the body and therefore acceptable. Interestingly, Quebec also offers a convenient loophole for the Christian practice of wearing a cross or crucifix under the clothing. But if your religious symbol happens to be clothing, well then, you’ve got a problem.
But what if we extended our understanding of the body? Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, back in the 40s, argued that a white cane isn’t simply an object for someone with a visual impairment. Rather, the white cane becomes a sensory appendage. In other words, the white cane becomes part of the body. Similarly disability activists remind us that their wheelchairs aren’t simply wheels, but are an essential, even intimate, part of their body. You don’t touch someone’s wheelchair without their permission. My son’s wheelchair, his feeding tube and pump – all these objects are more than just things, they are essential parts of his body and core to his identity as a young man who lives with disabilities.
I have been reading the work of postmodern feminists who argue that the body is a whole lot more complicated than modern medicine, or our everyday thinking, would have us believe. These writers argue that the body is a complex arrangement that not only includes what is contained within our skin, but expands to include people, animals and objects beyond our skin. Seeing eye dogs, caregivers, feeding pumps, cochlear implants, and even glasses, all become essential extensions of our bodies. Seeing eye dogs and their human partner engage in a wordless dance as they navigate the world. Caregivers can often “read” the bodies of those they have provided long-term care for. These extensions of our body beyond our body not only allow for people to navigate their daily lives, they are essential for our collective human flourishing.
Which brings me back to the Quebec ban. While common Christian practices have a convenient loophole, the religious practice of wearing a head covering – yarmulke, hijab, turban – is banned. But what if these garments are not simply clothing? What if these garments, like a wheelchair or the cane of someone with a visual impairment, are essential extensions of the human body necessary for human flourishing? What if my sister’s hijab is not a garment but part of her body? Ultimately I will defer to the wisdom of my Muslim sisters to answer this question. But I think it bears asking. What if we think of religious symbols, not as clothing, but as essential parts of the human body? In this case the Quebec ban becomes much more concerning. Because then the Quebec ban is not placing regulations on apparel, but rather is blatantly discriminating against very particular bodies.