A group of Inuit women in Canada are calling out Stephen Harper by posting pictures of themselves wearing makeshift niqabs. The women hope the improvised veils will prompt the Conservative leader to pay more attention to Indigenous issues, particularly surrounding murdered and missing women.
"Indigenous women are fighting for the right to be safe and in control of our own bodies, and instead of launching an inquiry to uncover the systemic racism that caused an epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, Harper attacks our Muslim sisters for what they choose to wear," reads the #DoIMatterNow manifesto. "PM Harper, it's my body, my clothing, and MY decision. You will not distract me from issues that actually matter to me as a Canadian. In solidarity with our Muslim sisters."
Karen Kabloona, one of the women behind the movement, credits her aunt Lena Amaruq Aittauq with the idea. "She's an Inuk woman in Baker Lake, Nunavut and she was tired of all the national attention being paid to [the niqab] while a lot of the issues that we face here are not getting national attention," Kabloona explains. When Aittauq posted a picture of her face concealed beneath a wooly scarf, the women crafted the #DoIMatterNow hashtag and began to spread the word.
The image has since received over 5,000 likes and even more shares, attention Kabloona and her friends say has been mostly positive.
"Just about everybody that sees it is liking it and sharing it," says #DoIMatterNow activist Alethea Arnaquq-Baril. "And importantly, having a dialogue about it," adds fellow participant Janet Brewster.
The initiative has also inspired Muslim women to join in.
Montreal resident Jannat El Firdaws told VICE the audacity of the #DoIMatterNow movement spoke to her.
"Sometimes you have to shock to draw attention," she says. "And we have to bring in another point of view. We're talking about niqabs but not murdered and missing Indigenous women? Yet the woman in a niqab is just asking to be left alone."
El Firdaws says that while she doesn't wear the niqab, she respects women who do. "I myself only started wearing the hijab a year ago," she says. "I got closer to my religion because it was something I knew, and this brought me comfort," she says of her decision. The young healthcare worker says she feels the niqab is a matter of personal choice. "For me, it's being used as a scapegoat, and I find it unfortunate that [politicians] would use this to get votes."
"There's a lot of frustrated people relieved to see this issue being named, relieved to see somebody pointing out how ironic it is that Muslim women are being attacked and the prime minister is trying to control what women can wear," says Arnaquq-Baril. "Meanwhile, we're just trying to keep our women alive."
The other week, Stephen Harper told VICE's Matty Matheson that he would not commit to a national inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women because "most of these murders, sad as they are, are in fact solved."
For Brewster, this answer is insufficient. "We are currently living with high rates of murder, high rates of disappearances, and multiple for some families," she says. "My aunt was murdered in 2004 and I have a cousin who's been missing since 2010. Our trauma isn't in the past, our worry isn't in the past, the time is now."
So far, Kabloona says much of the election has been dominated by a slew of distracting non-issues. "But people are still genuinely interested in the big picture issue, like [the fact that] Aboriginal women still go missing and are murdered. What we really want from our leaders is acknowledgement that things need to change."
"I think one of the things that leads us is that our current prime minister is actively degrading women," says Brewster. "He has chosen this niqab issue to marginalize and really degrade the human rights of a specific group of women, which opens them up to violence and we've seen that happening."
Read on VICE News: Canada's Prime Minister Considers More Expansive Niqab Ban
There have been many reports of Muslim women facing violence or harassment, El Firdaws points out. "I have a friend who wears the niqab and now she never leaves home because she's afraid," she says. "If we don't speak out against this, it's only going to get worse."
Brewster says these attacks have struck a nerve with First Nations people. "We can relate to that because Indigenous women in this country have been violated and degraded to the point where it's easier to view us as less than human," she says. "This action we've taken is really to say that we don't appreciate criminality in our leadership, which is basically what Harper is doing, he's violating human rights."
"We empathize with [Muslim] women and we feel that the focus really should be shifted, Brewster says. "What are we doing, what do we know about what's going on in our communities and why Indigenous women are going missing and dying at such alarming rates."
El Firdaws says the unexpected sisterhood is heartwarming. "I've rarely seen this type of support, and it's gratifying to see it come from another group of women." she says. "We have to help other women move forward, because it's not religion that's dividing us. It's the government."