Culture Wars: The Harper Government's ridiculous ban on the Burqa during the citizenship ceremony
Dec 12, 2011

Culture Wars: The Harper Government's ridiculous ban on the Burqa during the citizenship ceremony

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has just announced plan to ban the use of the burqa or niqab for new Canadians during the Oath of Citizenship. I was very disappointed not just with the decision, but with how the decision was made and the various justifications used to defend it.

Let us consider some of Kenney's rhetoric from the CBC interview which can be found here:
  • Let us just acknowledge that calling the niqab a "mask" is incredibly disrespectful, and has no place coming from government officials - particularly those taking it upon themselves to decide whether to ban a practice. The non-derogatory term is either the specific terms, Burqa or Niqab, or the more general 'veil'. 
  • Kenney points out how Muslim woman performing the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca don't wear the Niqab and hence it is a cultural - i.e. not a religious - practice. Note that non Muslims are not allowed in the prayer sites of Mecca, hence why this is the case. Surely if someone finds it to be their practice to wear the veil in certain situations but not others this is no way delegitimizes the times they believe they should wear it nor should it be brought up by the Immigration Minister to justify banning its use in this situation. 
  • Personally, while there is overlap between the ideas of something being cultural and something being religious, as long as Muslims feel - as many do - that it is their Islamic duty to wear the Niqab, or that it reflects their Islamic principles, I am going to say it can be considered religious. However, it isn't for me or Mr. Kenney to make this adjudication, it is up to the people that engage in this practice as to whether they think it is religious or not. The entire idea of suggesting this is just cultural practice (and really, what difference would that make even if it was?) and thus it is okay to ban it is nonsense - a bait and switch at best. 
  • In the interview he even contradicts himself, saying we do respect "traditional garb" in the process - as in something cultural - but then notes that "obviously" the veil is to be exempted. One wonders why he spent the time trying to paint the veil is cultural not religious if in general he supports cultural expression. 
  • Mr. Kenney then brings the familiar issue of identification up, questioning how we could properly identity Muslim women wearing a veil. Surely Mr. Kenney is aware that fingerprinting is a key part of the citizenship process, and one far more secure than that of facial identification during the ceremony which has never been a part of the identification procedure. Even if it was, it is trivial to provide a female immigration officer to identify the woman behind closed doors (Muslim women don't object to lifting the veil in these circumstances) before the ceremony. Some will try to argue that such things are too costly or inconvenient, but Mr, Kenney doesn't even address this and pretends identification is an actual issue. 
  • Mr. Kenney then makes an appeal for Muslims to be part of the Canadian community. Great. However, Canadian culture and communities is one where Muslim women can wear the veil and, contrary to the frequent misconceptions about this, are more than capable of engaging and being a member of the broader community despite this. Why should this be any different upon entry as it is for the rest of their lives in Canada? 
  • A standard tactic when attempting to denigrate something, is to appeal to criticism from that community. Mr. Kenney notes that the hajj story above came from a Muslim MP. Of course, the majority of Muslim women in Canada do not wear the veil and there is large amounts of heterogeneity among the community as to whether they ought to or not. Simply because one Muslim thinks they shouldn't doesn't underscore the case one iota. 

Rhetoric and justification aside, there is also significant problems with the procedure. It sounds like this decision was made over the course of just a couple weeks. There was no public consultation or debate period, we didn't even know this was going to occur. The issue was not raised in Parliament or given opportunity for opposition comment. That is, despite this being a very important issue part of a much larger culture war going on in many countries, there was no adversarial process and it was a closed off, anti-democratic, fiat declaration.

Contrast this with the case in the Supreme Court of Canada pitting a woman's right to religious expression and wearing the veil against an accused's right to "face their accuser' in a criminal court against them. While I hope they rule in favor of the woman, this is another appropriate venue for this tricky questions of rights in the borderline areas to be resolved.

Promoting acceptance:
Unfortunately, I recognize that I have few allies in this fight. The CBC poll on the issue revealed approximately 90% support this ban which indicates pretty strongly why the Harper Government would approve such a thing. Many people are simply uncomfortable and unfamiliar with it, particularly so for Christians. Even among my traditional allies - secularists - they often have no patience for the more egregious elements of any religion and also approve of banning it.

As such, progress needs to be made on our social acceptance before we can effectively create disincentives for our government to make further progress. Firstly, that requires an unwavering, unconditional commitment to the freedom of religious expression, and freedom of expression in general, such that we don't find ourselves, when faced with a situation that is unfamiliar or uncomfortable, so willing to compromise on these core values. Secondly, I think we ought to make ourselves more familiar with Muslim culture so we can see first hand that such things are not a problem and simply are not the great social menace they are made out to be.

The Oath of Citizenship:
Finally, it is worth noting that the Oath of Citizenship itself has religious biases in it. Namely, new Canadians of a large variety of religious convictions are being asked to swear fealty to the head of the Church of England. It is similar to being forced to swear fealty to the Pope, the head of the Roman Catholic church. Should Canada drop its outdated and negatively symbolic monarchy in favor of a republic, then new citizens would not be forced to swear fealty to a person, much less the head of another religion, but to the guiding principles of the republic. The Oath as it stands today:
"I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen"
I believe Canada is a country of acceptance, of diversity, of multiculturalism, of unfettered respect for the freedom of expression, and equality for women and minorities. Having the first experience as Canadian citizens for these minority women being to force them through a public hazing where they must violate their beliefs about the veil and swear fealty to the head of another religion is hardly consistent with this and should not, and must not, be tolerated.

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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Alison said...

First of all it is a mask. Using a euphenism doesn't change what it is. As much as I hate to agree with the odious Kenny about anything, I do agree with this policy. I am old enough to have lived through the birth of the women's movement and have to say that I find a cultural practice which denigrates women to such a degree is abhorent. Yes, women can choose to cover themselves up, but we all know, if we are honest, where that practice came from originally. It came from cultures which treat women as property and where males control every aspect of a woman's life. This is not something which should be acceptable in a modern civilized, any more that female genital mutilation is. Frankly I am fed up with people with whom I would agree on most issues getting all PC about this issue without considering the societal aspects.

bazie said...

Calling it a veil or the Niqab/burqa isn't a euphemism, it is just the term that is standard to use - including by Muslims themselves - and since it is standard it is apolitical. Calling it a mask is deliberately insulting and begging the question, something I think we should avoid if we wish to have reasonable dialogue with Canadian Muslims.

Whatever the history - and western treatment of women historically is far far far from perfect - the reality is that today many women wear the Niqab outside of these traditional narratives of male oppression, and can articulate cogent reasons why they believe they want to wear it. Heck, it is often matriarchal not patriarchal pressures.

The comparison to FGM is interesting, particularly because western culture accepts the widespread use of male circumcision which demonstrates how it is largely cultural biases - not objective measures of harm - that determine policy. That said, it isn't really a fair comparison because while FGM does cause harm, particularly at the higher stages (things like the symbolic pinprick causes less harm than male circumsicion) , wearing the burqa doesn't cause such physical harm. It is often the opposite, where it is harmful to deny someone what they want to do for absolutely no good reason.

As someone who seems to be a feminist, my question to you is this: how is equality for women and the freedom of female expression - core aspects of feminism - possibly realized by overtly banning the way a female wants to dress? In the same way that feminism accepts women who actively accepts more traditional female roles such as a stay at home housewife, so too should it accept such free choices by women here.

Anonymous said...

Not a Conservative but agree with Alison. It doesn't matter what the thing is called that hides the face of a woman...nit picking doesn't get it...It takes years and years for many immigrants to accept the culture they have moved do agree Canada has its own culture? There are beliefs that many immigrants arrive with and try to put them into practice because Canada offers freedom what ever that may mean. However, those beliefs are dated back to ancient times and a place I would not want to have to accept. How about you men wear long garb and cover your face. I wonder how long it would t ake you to discard it?

bazie said...

Certainly Canada has a culture of its own. For example, I believe that it has a culture that is among the most uniquely accepting, diverse, and multicultural ones in the world. For instance, I live in Toronto where one sees people wearing the hijab many times a day just by going on the subway and, admittedly less frequently, the niqab. Further, I believe Canadian culture has an unbridled commitment to freedom of speech, expression, religion, and association. What I don't see is how banning women from their free expression is consistent with these cultural values.

I also think it is worth noting that it IS legal for women to wear the niqab in Canada. Perhaps you and Alison might like to change this law a la France but that is the status quo right now. So banning it just at the citizenship ceremonies just doesn't make an iota of sense since every other aspect of Canadian life and culture has it legal.

As to the idea of males wearing veils, there are many tribes in west Africa that do (and the females don't), certainly any in Canada would be and should be welcome to do the same here. Some men, particularly of Asian descent, will wear surgical masks as a precautionary purpose. Traditional garb varies enormously among different people and different places and people ought to be free to wear all of it.

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