The Niqab

An earlier version of this section of this series was published separately. It has now been rewritten in some parts.

  1. A Case Study of the Niqab

The jihab and the niqab become symbols as metaphors in our own self-transformation and definition.  The niqab is the veil worn by a small minority of Muslim women in this country. The following picture shows Zunera Ishaq with her niqab where the slit is very wide and 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 is made out as if it was about women being “forced” to hide their faces when they wish to become Canadian citizens. 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 requiring them to take off their niqabs in such ceremonies.
  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 and 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. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. The public ceremony is the formal part of the occasion, one that, if you ever attend, is very moving for almost all participants.
  13.  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.
  14. They promised to do this without first hearing from the Supreme Court of Canada whether such legislation would be legal under the Canadian Constitution.
  15. The Conservative Party also signalled that it even plans to introduce legislation banning any federal employee from wearing a niqab when serving the public.
  16. 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.”
  17. 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.
  18. The previous Quebec government tried to pass a Charter on Quebec values, in the tradition of France and in the name of religious secularism – in France, girls at school are banned from wearing a hijab, that is a headscarf. The previous provincial government introduced laws banning the wearing of any ostentatious religious symbols by Quebec officials and others in particular situations.
  19. 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.
  20. One result, as established by polls, is that support for the New Democratic Party in Quebec, from which the party had most of their members of parliament and the vast majority of Quebec seats, fell precipitously at a cost of most of their seats, though there were other factors at work in that decline.

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. He based his objections on two issues – 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 in Canada that is beneath the surface. His principles may be admired and his diagnosis correct, but his ability at political counter-attack may not be.

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 was contradictory for, in the name of supposedly protecting women against the oppression of their husbands, their families and their tradition, the government adopted the position of oppression to tell women what they can wear in certain circumstances even when they knew that Zunera Ishaq had not been pressured by her family to wear the niqab, but, to the contrary, had discouraged her from adopting the practice.
  4. The government has far more important issues to debate at an election that 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; the Harper Government of Canada refused 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 even 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. 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 the personal taste of the proponents of a ban, 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 period.

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 is critical. Next to these principles, your or my distaste is irrelevant. 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.

I am clearly a partialist who belongs to the secular religion of human rights while, at the same time, I deny that this secular religion has any transcendental base or role. I also belong to the secular religion of humanitarianism, or what I have called the HRH secular religion, again without any claim that such a foundation has a universal transcendent status. On this, credit must be given where credit is due, The MRM religious secularists do not claim a transcendent status for their religious convictions. In interviews with them, I found them to be immune to falsification even when presented with contradictory evidence, immune to considerations of contradictions in their position, and stubbornly intent on repeating over and over again the party line. But they were quite proud to insist it was their party line and made no claims to the universal status of their position. In contrast, members of the HRH secular religion were much more open to falsification, much more willing to critique and examine their claims, much more protean in the defence of their positions, but stubbornly insistent that the foundations of their belief were unassailable and universal.

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