The Niqab and the Canadian Election

The Niqab and the Canadian Election

by

Howard Adelman

Forgive me for jumping out of my series on the Iran nuclear issue. But the issue of the niqab on which the results of the Canadian election may turn, is too important, precisely because it is so unimportant. For non-Canadian readers let me provide the context.

The niqab is the veil worn by a very small minority of Muslim women in Canada. Zunera Ishaq became the unsought for central player when the Stephen Harper refused to admit her into Canadian citizenship unless she removed her veil or niqab in the public ceremonial swearing of allegiance. Zunera’s niqab has a very wide slit; the forehead and upper cheekbones can be seen. Many of us have seen Saudi women at airports where the slit is extremely narrow and some where even the eyes are covered by a netting as in wearing a burka.

The political issue arose over whether, when a person applies to become a Canadian citizen, they will be permitted to wear the veil in the public part of the ceremony. Of course, this is not how the issue was raised as part of electoral politics. The situation was made out as if it is about women being “forced” to hide their faces when they wish to become Canadian citizens and whether a person who hid her identity in public could swear an oath of allegiance. Or, at least, this is how our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and his partners in the Conservative Party in Canada framed the issue.

The following are the facts:

  1. Two women in Canada since 2011 have refused to take off their niqabs in the public ceremony, not in private, as a condition of becoming citizens.
  2. There is no law in Canada prohibiting the wearing of a niqab at the public ceremony where the citizenship oath is taken.
  3. The government of Canada issued regulations banning the wearing of face veils when taking the oath of citizenship in the public ceremony.
  4. Zunera Ishaq, clearly no wilting rose, took the Government of Canada to court over the issue.
  5. She won her court case and, just recently, in the Federal Court of Appeal, won again.
  6. The courts have ruled that the Canada Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects Zunera Ishaq from being forced to remove her veil during the public part of the ceremony and that she should be given the right to wear the veil in the public ceremony, become a citizen and be allowed to vote in the forthcoming election on 19 October.
  7. The latest ruling by the Federal Court of Appeal was on 18 September.
  8. The Government of Canada even lost the subsequent court case asking for a stay in allowing Zunera Ishaq her rights.
  9. Last Friday she exercised her rights, became a citizen and can vote in the elections on 19 October or in the advance poll.
  10. This is but one of a long series of cases where the current Government of Canada has sought through regulations to get around the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; the government has been thwarted at every turn by the Canadian courts.
  11. Note that, before participating in the public ceremony where the oath is taken, any applicant for citizenship must go through a number of steps to prove the applicant’s identity.
  12. Those steps include, in the name of the principle of political accommodation, that Zunera Ishaq remove her veil in private before a female official to establish her identity.
  13. The public ceremony is part of the ceremonial part of the occasion, one that if you ever attend is very moving for almost all participants.
  14.  The Conservatives, as part of the election campaign, promised to “rectify” the matter by introducing legislation within 100 days of taking office that will require those applying for citizenship to take off face coverings during the formal ceremony confirming citizenship.
  15. They promise to do this without first hearing from the Supreme Court of Canada whether such legislation would be legal under the Canadian Constitution and even though the party, if it wins the largest plurality of seats, will only be a minority government.
  16. The Conservative Party has also signalled that it even plans to introduce legislation banning any federal employee from wearing a niqab when serving the public.
  17. Further, Catherine Loubier, a spokeswoman for the Conservative Party, stated that the niqab issue was part of the Conservative “agenda” as a well-established principle of the party, and that the party has simply benefited from a “coincidence.”
  18. It appears that this may even be part of a future plan to allow a Conservative minority government to be defeated on such an issue and call an election to get a majority vote for the Conservative Party.
  19. The real issue is that Stephen Harper is the one really wearing a metaphorical niqab behind which he has been hiding to distract Canadians from really examining closely his mismanagement of the economy, his destruction of the “civil” dimension of the Canadian civil service and the myriad of other issues on which he has a deplorable record.
  20. In Canada, and in Quebec particularly the issue of wearing religiously identifying garments, particularly by civil servants serving the public, has become a contentious issue.
  21. In France, girls at school are banned from wearing a hijab, that is a headscarf, let alone a niqab. The Quebec Marois government which introduced the Charter on Quebec values and laws against the wearing of “ostentatious” religious symbols or garments introduced laws banning the wearing of any ostentatious religious symbols by Quebec officials and others in particular situations; this was in the French tradition of religious secularism, laicité.
  22. The opposition parties came out strongly against the Government position based, not on whether they liked or disliked women wearing the niqab, but on the basis of human rights and upholding Canadian law and the constitution.
  23. One possible result, as established by polls, is that support for the New Democratic Party in Quebec, where the party has most of their members of parliament and the vast majority of Quebec seats, has fallen precipitously; polls initially indicated that much of that shift favoured the Conservatives given the politics of fear and blanketing the airwaves with pictures of ominous happenings as a woman dawns a veil. More recent polls suggest a more significant shift to the Liberals. Since Justin Trudeau holds the same position on the niqab issue – namely that it is being used as a distraction and wearing it anywhere is a human right as interpreted by Canadian courts,
  24. The biggest irony of all is that a very feisty Zunera Ishaq donned the veil, not in the name of tradition, but in the name of her rights as a private person, in the name of the secular religion of Canada and against the advice and even pleas of family members.

One cannot but admire how Tom Mulcair as leader of the New Democratic Party has handled the issue as a matter of principle in spite of the political backlash against his and his party’s views. However, while praising his principles, one can also be disappointed in the way he handled the spin on the issue. He based his objections on two foundations – first on the rights of these Muslim women and the rule of law in Canada. Second, he attacked Harper for using such a politically miniscule issue to arouse ethnic and religious fears in Canada and a degree of hostility to Muslims that is beneath the surface. His principles may be admired, but his ability at political counter-attack, at counter-spin, may not be. In any case, he may have lost support in Quebec for a myriad of other reasons.

Naheed Nenshi, the Muslim mayor of Calgary and perhaps the most popular politician in Canada, offered a very spirited attack on the Conservative position. He did so, not because he is a member of any other political party to the best of my knowledge. He was just absolutely appalled by the position of Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney, Harper’s leading cabinet minister. Nenshi made the following points;

  1. He personally does not like the niqab and wishes people would not wear it.
  2. The wearing of the niqab may not be, for the women who wear it, a symbol of oppression and of masculine misogyny.
  3. The government’s position is contradictory for, in the name of supposedly protecting women against the oppression of their husbands, their families and their tradition, the government would adopt the position of oppression to tell women what they can wear in certain circumstances.
  4. The government has far more important issues to debate in an election than what two women in the last four years have chosen to wear at a public ceremony in which the oath of citizenship is sworn together with a larger group of applicants.
  5. Those issues include the disappearance of large numbers of aboriginal women, an issue on which the Government of Canada refuses to set up a Commission of Inquiry.

In spite of Nenshi’s intervention, and that of many others, including very articulate Muslim women who would never wear a niqab, polls initially indicated that a majority of Canadians, not just in Quebec, supported the Conservative Party position. Léger Marketing found 82 per cent were in support of the policy nationally, and 93 per cent in favour in Quebec.

I am not a political spin doctor. But I would have advised a slightly different approach than that of either Tom Mulcair or Naheed Neshi or Justin Trudeau for that matter. First, as Nenshi did, I would have indicated that I do not particularly like women wearing a niqab  – but because I enjoy seeing the beauty in a woman’s face. Secondly, even though tattooing has grown in popularity, I have a very much stronger distaste for people who adorn themselves with tattoos and have been an oppressive father who banned my children, while supported by me, from ever getting a tattoo. Nevertheless, I would never think of passing a law or regulation banning this form of ostentatious personal identification by a civil servant, a student or an individual seeking to become a citizen.

But a tattoo does not hide a person’s identity. In fact, it establishes it more clearly – ask the number of criminals who have been caught because they were identified by the specific tattoo they wore. True enough, but the criterion espoused by Harper was his personal distaste for the behaviour of women wearing a niqab, since objective evidence and fact establish unequivocally that it is not an identity issue. I once had a woman who wore a niqab to my class and never had any difficulty whatsoever in identifying her, in fact even less difficulty than identifying most of my students – I was very bad at that very important skill.

The basic point is that my personal distaste, whatever it is and however much anyone agrees or disagrees with it, should not be the basis for making Canadian law or regulations. Further, it is not only I who say so. The Courts of Canada have ruled on this issue over and over again. My position on tattoos may be very appealing, especially to a number of older people who are appalled at the increasing propensity of young people to wear tattoos. But when it comes to public space and civil discourse, it is none of my business.

Mulcair and Nenshi attacked Stephen Harper for introducing such a trivial issue in an election because it was being used as a wedge issue for those who feared the influx of Muslims into Canada. That may be the case, but a vast majority of Canadians support Harper’s position and I do not believe they are anti-Muslim. They are against the practice of women wearing niqabs. The political issue, as opposed to constitutional one, is to focus the debate, not on their personal taste, but on principles, the laws of Canada and the rights of women. But one can best, I believe, shift the focus of debate only once establishing an identity with those Canadians who are opposed to women wearing a niqab.

The courts can decide what is lawful and not lawful with respect to dictates of the government re requirements of dress or tattoos. My personal distaste is irrelevant. Rights are. Respect for differences is critical. What is most relevant is Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party’s effort on tramping on what I believe are prime Canadian values – tolerance, respect, not just acceptance, of others – and recognition that I should never make my personal tastes, whether for vanilla ice cream, diet colas or niqabs, a basis for making public policy.

Why did Harper adopt this position? He certainly used it to sew fear and division, but the incident really fell into his lap. It had long been Conservative public policy. Therefore, it is doubtful whether the debate over the wearing of niqabs at public rituals when swearing an Oath to the Queen was intended as a wedge issue, though it was certainly played up for that use.

The explanation however lies deeper. Stephen Harper is a classical small “l” liberal when it comes to the separation of religion from the public political sphere and from civil society. His prime enemy is not socialism or the nanny state, though these are lined up for extinction. His main enemy is the secular liberal religion of human rights. He is a traditional Conservative or classical liberal who believe that religious affiliation, beliefs and commitments belong to the private sphere. Harper is not a member of the secular religion of rights or humanitarianism. He deeply and sincerely believes in Machiavellianism as the guide to practice in the public sphere. Faith is a private matter. The public believes, especially Quebecers, that religion must be excluded from public life. Harper adds to that belief a conviction that the public realm is the sphere governed by power, not by faith, by manipulation rather than tolerance and inclusion. Harper practices the politics of exclusion and works hard to divide the public polity to gain enough support, even if it is minority support, to defeat those who have faith in the liberal secular religion of rights.

The public sphere and especially political elections offer the arena where these secular religious wars are fought. Hopefully, Harper will lose this battle.

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