Blog 068: Ottawa Hijab Solidarity Day

Veronica Abbass

2016-03-06 – Last modified 2016-03-07

In an article in the Toronto Star entitled Ottawa Should Shutter the Office of Religious Freedom, Bruce Ryder and Luka Ryder-Bunting mention what they call “the hypocrisy of a government that expressed interest in promoting religious freedom abroad while simultaneously undermining it at home, most blatantly in the case of the niqab.” It should be obvious to anyone that regardless of Canadians’ opinion of Stephen Harper and his conservative government, the attempt to prevent women from wearing a niqab during Canadian citizenship ceremonies is one of the best decisions Harper and his government made during their tenure.

According to Stephen Harper, the niqab is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.” The same can be said about the hijab; however, not everyone agrees. On February 25, 2016, an Ottawa based group called the City for All Women Initiative (CAWI) held an “Ottawa Hijab Solidarity Day” in the Councillor’s Lounge at Ottawa City Hall:

A reception where people [were] welcome to stop by anytime, between 4:00 – 6:00pm to learn from Muslim women about their experience of wearing a hijab and where women from other backgrounds can experience wearing one.

Although the organizers claim their goals were “Better Awareness, Greater Understanding, Peaceful World,” they undermined their goals by saying that “Ottawa Hijab Solidarity Day” was a way to “say No to Islamophobia” as if fear of a religion that oppresses and discriminates against women were irrational.

Islamophobia is an odious and emotive word used to silence critics of the hijab, the niqab, and Islam, a religion that, according to some interpretations, forces women to cover their hair or their body, so it is disconcerting discover that Ottawa University’s Human Rights Office promoted Ottawa Hijab Solidarity Day while referring to “Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as in our Human Rights Codes.” The Ottawa U Human Rights Office repeats the propaganda from the CAWI “Why Ottawa Hijab Solidarity Day?” page,

The goal of hijab day is to foster global religious respect and understanding among communities, and stand in solidarity with Muslim women.

as if “religious respect,” rather than freedom of religion, were enshrined in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While “understanding among communities” may be an admirable goal, the phrase “understanding among communities” really means “understanding religious communities” as if religion and the communities that promote religion were capable of being understood: religion is incomprehensible.

While there were numerous articles1 criticizing “Ottawa Hijab Solidarity Day,” two letters were addressed to Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson. Ottawa human rights activist Shabnam Assadollahi wrote Watson to advise him that

Allowing a private group to advertise an “Ottawa Hijab Day” and to hold an associated event at City Hall may do damage to the City’s reputation by appearing to favour one religion over others (possibly even proselytizing on behalf of that religion) and by being seen to promote the wearing (even by non-Muslims) of a controversial item of clothing such as the hijab, which is associated in many countries with an extremist ideology that devalues women and curtails their human rights.

Centre for Inquiry Canada wrote to the Mayor and Council of the City of Ottawa to object to City of Ottawa’s “hosting a celebration of the hijab,” and advising him that

celebrating the hijab, the City of Ottawa is demonstrating a favouring of one religious perspective over other perspectives. … By sponsoring Hijab Day, the City of Ottawa has advanced religious privilege over human rights.

It seems that Assadollahi and CFI Canada have addressed their complaints to the wrong person/organization. As a spokesperson for Watson pointed out

city hall has several spaces available for bookings by the public as long as the event “conforms with relevant policies.”

The guidelines for the “Use of public space at Ottawa City Hall” say “rental of rooms and space can be booked for public use as available.” There is a rental charge and rooms and space “are available only after regular City Hall business hours (5 pm).” It looks like the only favour Ottawa City Hall granted the City for All Women Initiative was to allow its Hijab Day to take place at 4:00 pm rather than 5:00 pm.

Assadollahi and CFI Canada should have addressed their objections to CAWI not to the mayor. City for All Women Initiative’s “Ottawa Hijab Solidarity Day” was severely misguided. Holding an “Ottawa Hijab Solidarity Day” is not the way to make Ottawa a city for all women. It is the CAWI that may have damaged Ottawa’s reputation “by appearing to favour one religion over others” and by advancing “religious privilege over human rights.”

  1. For example,
    Why is Ottawa honouring the hijab? and
    The Folly of Ottawa’s ‘Hijab Day’ and
    What Is Canada Doing Celebrating Hijab Day?
3 comments on “Blog 068: Ottawa Hijab Solidarity Day
  1. It’s worth noting that, beyond just using public space, the event was announced on Mayor Jim Watson’s twitter feed. CAWI then sent a tweet in reply thanking Mayor Watson “for his support”, to which Watson replied in turn “my pleasure”.

    So, while not an official proclamation of “Ottawa Hijab Day”, this certainly constitutes a public endorsement of the event.

  2. Pat Beechey says:

    I wrote to Jim Watson as well, was not happy to see what was going to happen at City Hall.
    Here is part of what I wrote ” I think the group City for All Women Institute in theory is a good idea, women standing together, supporting each other is good. But I feel they are misguided in thinking that the above noted event is a positive step for women. The women who truly choose to wear a headscarf are free to do so, but they should stop using feminism to cover up their complicity in women being treated as the source of sin.”
    I ended with ” They (CAWI) would like for me to put on a headscarf to see what it is like. I would like them to recognize all the hard work Canadian women have done to make it possible for those women who choose to wear a headscarf to do so freely. We, other women, do not need to put on a headscarf to know what it means to be treated badly, we have already been there and done that and are still working today for equality. This is why critical thinking, rational, educated women would support the right of a women to cover her head however she wants, but we will not be hoodwinked into supporting a political agenda that portrays women as a sexual distraction to men, we have more regard for men than that.”

    All to say that I did get a reply from the Mayor, but he certainly has missed the point entirely.

    • David Rand says:

      I strongly agree with your comment–and congratulate you on your letter–except for one point. You write: “critical thinking, rational, educated women would support the right of a women to cover her head however she wants…” It is important to complete that phrase by adding “except of course if the woman is an employee on duty, in which case the employer may legitimately impose some restrictions for reasons of security, religious neutrality, etc.”

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