To Niqab or not to Niqab?

March 31, 2015 at 12:20 pm

By Terry Watada

I don’t understand Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s recent vitriol against Muslim women who want to practice their religion.  I mean, has someone attacked him for his Christianity?  In any case, he condemned the niqab or face veil as a symbol of “a culture that is anti-women”.  He was, at the time, defending himself against Liberal charges that he and his party were engaged in divisive politics.  Still, attacking the Muslim tradition of covering the face in public is a little like hitting a kitten with a hammer.

It can be argued that his stand began in 2011.  Then-Immigration Minister Jason Kenny (in a seemingly reactionary declaration) banned anyone from taking the citizenship oath with her face covered.  The issue came to a head when Zunera Ishaq was due to take the oath back in 2013.  After immigrating to Canada in 2008, she followed all the rules on the path to citizenship.  She fulfilled the residency requirements, had a sponsor and wrote the test, which she passed with no problem.  But there was a problem: she wore a niqab.  It would conceal her identity as she pledged allegiance to the Queen and the country.  She was forced to choose between Canada and her faith.

True the niqab has been and still is the subject of much debate in the Muslim world.  Ishaq’s particular sect believes the veil is necessary.  Religious or cultural requirement, I’m not sure; still, she felt it her right to refuse to unveil in public.  The oath-taking too is largely ceremonial and not an absolute necessity in public.  Other Muslim Canadian women agreed to unveil privately for identification purposes prior to writing the test.  Who else then but the already identified candidate who passed the test would speak the oath?

Ishaq refused to make the choice between faith and country; she protested and took her case to a Federal court which last February agreed, the government violated its own immigration laws in banning religious face-coverings from citizenship ceremonies.  Mr. Harper and his government seemed to have forgotten the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  Immigrants’ religious practices, for the most part, are protected in Canada.

Other countries and provinces do not.  France banned hijabs (a scarf covering the head) in 2004; it soon followed suit by banning burquas (a full body covering).  By law, Quebec requires women to remove their niqab when working for or accessing services of the government.

Mr. Harper stated resolutely that the government will appeal the ruling.  He said, “I believe, and I think most Canadians believe, that it is offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment when they are committing to join the Canadian family.”

Really?  Does he really care how a new citizen is dressed?  Or is there something else behind all the rhetoric and grandstanding?

Couple this issue with all the fear-mongering the Conservatives have generated lately.  Harper pointed to a jihadist “war on Canada” after exploiting the attack on Parliament Hill resulting in the tragic death of a Canadian soldier.  Then there is Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney invoking the Holocaust when he talked about terrorism in Canada.  “The Holocaust did not begin in the gas chamber; it began with words.”  He was advocating for new bans on the “promotion of terrorism” in print, in speeches and on-line.  Never mind that Canada’s hate laws are pretty stringent as they stand today.  What’s underneath all of this?  Could all the rabble-rousing be in service of passing the new the Anti-Terrorism Bill, C51?  Surely it will be law given the Conservative majority, but I suppose Mr. Harper wants to sell it to the citizenry.  The PM needs a scapegoat; every war needs justification.  And he is planning to bomb Syria now …

So attacking women who wear the niqab is not merely talk, it is political gamesmanship.  And herein lies the danger.  Back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, anti-Semitic commentary led to policies restricting Jews from Canada.  Fear-mongering also led to the internment of Italians, Ukrainians and of course Japanese Canadians.  Rightly so, the NAJC responded to the proposed bill with the following (in part):

The National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) joins with other concerned Canadians in calling for the Government of Canada to withdraw the Anti-Terrorism Act Bill C-51.  We believe that Bill C-51 threatens Canadian civil liberties and freedoms.  The NAJC is confident that the current existing laws and powers are adequate in safeguarding our security against acts of terrorism …

We view with alarm the dismissive rhetoric used by the Canadian Government in response to the many voices of concern that have been raised.  Such tactics are reminiscent of the hysteria created by the government of British Columbia to pressure the Canadian Government of Mackenzie King to impose the War Measures Act in World War II.  A similar scenario occurred when the Act was used in 1970 during the “crisis” in Quebec.

            I agree with the NAJC’s questioning of the Conservative party.  What happened to the party’s “solemn commitment and undertaking to Canadians of every origin that such violations will never again in this country be countenanced or repeated”?  Covered with its own symbolic niqab, I suppose.