The fight to ban the niqab during Canadian citizenship ceremonies has now reached new lows. With less than a month to go before the election, we’re spending far too much time on an issue affecting a minority within a minority.
Earlier this week, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that forbidding Muslim women from wearing a niqab during ceremonies was unlawful. The judges actually expedited their ruling to allow Zunera Ishaq — the Ontario woman who launched the challenge against the government — to take her oath and be able to vote in the coming election.
One day later, federal Immigration Minister Chris Alexander announced the government would appeal the ruling before the Supreme Court of Canada and asked that the judgement be suspended while awaiting word from the high court, in essence preventing Ishaq from voting on Oct. 19.
This ridiculous back and forth has already cost Canadian taxpayers $257,000, but it’s costing much more by manipulating us into focusing on a non-issue.
When I discuss this topic, I'm often asked something like this: “But you’re an ardent feminist. How can you possibly support a religious practice that seeks to invalidate and erase women?”
I don’t. I support a woman’s right to choose.
I understand the confusion my stance elicits for some. Face coverings do not exist in a cultural vacuum. They are associated with the religious and cultural subjugation of women. Add to that the rampant Islamophobia gripping the post-9/11 Western world, and we have the perfect recipe for knee-jerk reactions and little thoughtful analysis.
There’s no denying some women are coerced into wearing niqabs, because all religions and most cultures are steeped in misogyny, but how is preventing a woman from wearing a niqab any better than forcing a woman to wear one? Both actions are based on policing women’s bodies and behaviours.
As a feminist, I cannot support the government’s politically opportunistic decision to squelch a woman’s right to wear the niqab, in the name of some dubious, misguided, presumptuous, and highly paternalistic attempt to “save” her.
Feminism isn’t about enabling women to make the choices you deem acceptable. It’s about expanding women’s options and allowing women to decide for themselves. Whether you understand or approve of them is irrelevant.
Harper’s government is challenging the niqab by claiming it’s not consistent with Canadian values of openness, social cohesion, and equality. This is dog-whistle politics at its finest, and the laziest way to get people riled up over absolutely nothing. Allowing someone the freedom of religious choice (particularly when it doesn’t infringe on your own) is actually the perfect example of Canadian openness, social cohesion, and equality. It means you respect someone enough to value their choices — as different as they may be from your own.
But it presents a security risk!
No, it doesn’t. Muslim women have made it very clear that they have no issue with removing their niqab for identification purposes. The citizenship ceremony is nothing more than a formality. By the time you’re taking the oath, all the paperwork has been completed and approved, and you’ve already been identified.
But it presents a visible barrier between them and Canadian society.
In a country where we can vote by mail, and where we spend half the year hidden and unrecognizable behind tuques and balaclavas, a few women wearing niqabs is an issue?
Why is she disrespecting the country that’s welcoming her by imposing her religious beliefs?
How is it disrespectful to honour your beliefs, and who is she imposing them on? Freedom of religion is a basic tenet of our freedoms and rights and the law, which is why the courts overruled the government’s ban. Is the price of becoming a Canadian citizen renouncing what you identify with? If so, who’s disrespecting whom?
Forbidding these women to wear a niqab sends a message that we don’t tolerate inequality in this country.
Really? Statistics tell me otherwise. Pay inequity, gender-based violence, everyday sexism, and rape culture are alive and well here.
But these women have been forced into wearing the niqab.
Anyone who has ever heard Zunera Ishaq speak or defend her position
knows she is nothing like the “poor Muslim women” that xenophobes love to present when pretending to defend them. There is nothing meek, subjugated, or powerless about Ishaq. It takes guts to challenge a government and fight for what you believe to be right.
Allowing political parties to take cheap political shots on the backs of other women (I’m looking at you CPC and Bloc) is not what I want my feminism to be about. I want my political choices to be guided by compassion, respect, openness to the world and its differences, and an understanding that people are entitled to their own life decisions.
I want my feminism to represent all women, even the ones making choices I wouldn’t make. Otherwise, what’s emancipation for?