Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated in Parliament on Mar. 10 that the practice of covering one’s face with a niqab is contrary to Canadian values and “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.” He was responding to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s accusation that he was unnecessarily antagonizing the Muslim community in Canada.
What is this “anti-women” culture? Is it the culture whose religious teachings instruct you to revere your mothers and protect your daughters? Is it the culture whose holy book decreed a little more than 1,400 years ago that “whatever men earn, they have a share of that and whatever women earn, they have a share in that”? (In Canada, women were declared "persons" under Canadian law in 1929). Is it the culture whose last Prophet repeatedly emphasized in his last sermon “to treat . . . women well and be kind to them for they are your partners and committed helpers”?
Coming from the leader of one of the most multicultural countries in the world, Harper’s remarks are shocking. Call it naivety, but I don’t expect the prime minister to be the main voice propagating Islamophobia.
A number of Harper’s ministers and MPs have engaged in similarly harmful rhetoric. Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander sent out a couple of tweets on Feb. 18 in response to Harper’s vow to argue for a niqab ban during citizenship ceremonies. Responding to a key Trudeau advisor, Alexander wrote, “Defending indefensible – a Lib tradition! Niqab, hejab, burqa, wedding veil -- face coverings have no place in cit oath-taking!”
The minister takes issues with “face coverings,” but includes the “hejab” and burqa in his list. In fact, the hijab covers hair, and the burqa covers the body.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of all this is the support Harper has received from the other MPs. Shame on all the Conservative MPs for rising from their seats and applauding Harper’s claim that the niqab stems from an anti-woman culture. One of Harper’s MPs went so far as to tell a radio interviewer that if Muslim women didn’t like the niqab ban they should “stay the hell where you came from.”
With their disrespect for Muslim women’s right to choose how to dress and to practise their religion freely, Harper and the Conservatives themselves embody an anti-woman culture.
If I were in a position to give advice to Harper and his government I would say this: instead of assigning labels and stereotyping cultures, check your facts, meet your people, and get to know them. Hear the voice behind the niqab, and know that she is just as Canadian as anyone in the House of Commons.