Much ado about niqab

Harper pandering to conservative base at Muslim women’s expense
Photo: Steve

“This is not the way we do things here,” Stephen Harper recently told reporters, when asked to explain why the government was appealing the Federal Court of Canada ruling to allow Muslim women to wear a niqab during a citizenship swearing-in ceremony.

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The ban, which was introduced in 2011 by the immigration minister at the time, Jason Kenney, was recently ruled “unlawful” by the court because it violates the country’s own immigration law, which gives citizenship judges case-by-case power to accommodate religious needs.

In the eye of the storm is Zunera Ishaq, a young niqab-wearing Mississauga woman, who last year decided to postpone attending her citizenship ceremony and fight the government’s ban. Ishaq thinks the prime minister’s comments and his government’s decision to fight the ruling are a full-on discriminatory attack on Muslim women.

But Federal Courts and hurt feelings be damned. As an election looms in the distance, Harper has seized the opportunity to feed on Canadians’ increased fear of extremism and use it to his advantage. Ultimately, this is political pandering at its finest, because the decision to impose the ban (and then to fight a ruling opposing it) is very much like the Quebec Charter legislation proposal — a discriminatory solution to a non-existent problem invented for political gain.

According to Statistics Canada, Muslims comprise a mere 3 to 4 per cent of the Canadian population. Women who choose to wear the niqab constitute a negligible minority within that minority, and yet a fervent debate is occurring about the threat posed to Canada’s democratic institutions by an imaginary onslaught of niqab-wearing women.

It would behoove us to participate in this debate calmly and rationally and not through the lens of our own Western prejudices and preconceived notions. First off, those claiming that this is an issue of security and proper identification are wrong. Niqab-wearing women remove their niqabs in private to reveal their identity for the ceremony — just like they do for airport security checks.

And the swearing-in ceremony, let’s not forget, is purely symbolic. Canadian officials already know who’s in that room (all requirements and exams have been passed and everyone has been adequately identified). No one is walking in off the street to start reciting the Canadian anthem and claim a citizenship they did not qualify for.

Thus there is absolutely no legal or security basis to require people to remove their niqab. For the government to demand this is an unreasonable infringement on personal and religious freedom. The pretence of safeguarding and honouring women’s equality is not only politically manipulative, it’s highly hypocritical coming from the Harper government.

This same government shut down 12 of the 16 Status of Women offices across Canada, slashed funding to women’s groups, and refuses to call a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. But when it’s time for a cheap shot aimed at a miniscule minority of the population so they can play to their conservative base, all of a sudden the Harper government cares about safeguarding women’s equality? How conveniently feminist.

As an atheist and a women’s rights advocate, I do not personally endorse the niqab. While I find many religious tenets offensive and questionable, I can’t and won’t support a ban on the niqab during a swearing-in ceremony simply because I don’t like it. Something making me feel uncomfortable is not an adequate justification.

Isn’t preventing a woman from wearing the niqab just as backwards and repressive as forcing her to wear one? Personal choices should not be contingent on what I (or any other Canadian) find offensive or disturbing.

Despite what anyone thinks of the niqab, there is nothing to indicate that the few Muslim women who choose to wear them — much like the 29-year-old former high school teacher and mother of three who is challenging the government’s decision in court — aren’t choosing to do so freely. It is highly presumptuous and arrogant of us to act as if we are swooping in to “save” them, simply because their decision isn’t one we would make and offends our Western sensibilities.

Zunera Ishaq isn’t only challenging the government’s political pandering and attempts to score cheap political points on her back. She’s also challenging notions of those who wear the niqab as docile, beaten-down, and scared women living in the shadows of the men in their lives. Educated, strong-willed, and fully integrated into Canadian society, she is taking a firm principled stand for what she believes in and who she is. The niqab is part of her identity.

Becoming a Canadian citizen should not require giving up essential parts of who you are and what defines you culturally and religiously. No unreasonable impositions should be made when there are no legal or security risks, simply to appease people’s ignorance and discomfort. A truly liberal society not only tolerates, but understands and respects, diversity.

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