Blog 061: The Niqab Issue is Not a Distraction

David Rand


Ever since the recent decision by the Federal Appeals Court rejecting the appeal of a previous decision lifting the ban on face-coverings while taking the oath at citizenship ceremonies, the niqab has become a hot topic in the news. And since we are in the middle of an election campaign, those political leaders who so foolishly declared their agreement with that decision now say the issue is just a distraction. According to Thomas Mulcair of the NDP, talk about the niqab is a “weapon of mass distraction” (NDP Leader Mulcair stands firm on allowing veils at citizenship ceremonies). Justin Trudeau of the Liberals and Elizabeth May of the Green Party have similar positions.

And yet, everyone knows that the Islamist veil—especially its more extreme variants such as the niqab and the burka—is a symbol of the subjugation of women.

You remember Victor Hugo’s famous novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame? In a medieval Paris suffocating under the stranglehold of Catholicism, the life of young Esmeralda comes to a cruel end on the gallows. For what crime was she executed? She was guilty of having enflamed the sexual passions of a certain priest who, unable to bear such sinful urges, projected the responsibility for them onto their target.

This same phallocentric and backward mentality is the background which inspires the Islamist veil. The veil is a symbol of female purity and broadcasts the message that it is women who are responsible for the sexuality, no matter how unbridled, of men. It is a manifestation of rape culture. Wearing the Islamist veil indicates that other women, especially Muslim women, who do NOT wear the veil are impure, and impure women, if sexually assaulted or raped, probably deserve what they get. Furthermore, the veil is a virtual wall separating women from men, depriving the woman who wears it of her identity and her autonomy, proclaiming her to be merely the property of some man (father, husband, brother, etc.).

The niqab, like the burka, is a sort of flag of the international movement of islamofascism. It is of course a Muslim symbol, but promoted by the most fundamentalist, radical and extremist of Muslims. To trivialize the niqab, to consider it commonplace, mere clothing as Mulcair, Trudeau … and Islamist fundamentalists would have us do, is tantamount to categorizing all Muslim women as belonging to this extremist movement. According to secular activist Daniel Baril:

To accept wearing the niqab in such circumstances indicates that we accept it worn anywhere and everywhere, by any and all women, including public servants, policewomen, judges, doctors, childcare workers, grocery cashiers, etc. To accept such situations means that we are ready to throw the dignity of women and the principle of gender equality out the window. To accept the niqab means renouncing those republican values which have made our democracies the least objectionable of political systems and the best guarantors of human rights. To accept the niqab means that we renounce even the idea of human rights in favour of a new fundamental right which would be the right to dress in any manner, anywhere and at any time.

Oui, le niqab est un enjeu électoral (Yes, the niqab is an election issue) (Translation: D.R.)

One might be tempted to congratulate the Harper government for its decision to appeal the judgement one more time, for its refusal to accept the niqab in citizenship ceremonies. Unfortunately, there is very little chance that the appeal will succeed, because the government’s action is limited to a simple ministerial directive, whereas much more is required. As lawyer Pierre Cloutier explains, the court simply declared, quite rightly, that the ministerial policy forcing the citizenship candidate to remove here veil during the ceremony is contrary to the Citizenship Act and its associated regulations (L’affaire Zunera ISHAQ).

Indeed, point 17.1.b of the Citizenship Regulations stipulates that the judge must:

administer the oath of citizenship with dignity and solemnity, allowing the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization or the solemn affirmation thereof;

Citizenship Regulations, SOR/93-246, Citizenship Act

Thus in order to ban the niqab, at least this part of the Regulations would have to be repealed—and probably modifications would have to be made to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms so that it would no longer give priority to religion over other considerations—, something which the Harper government did not do and probably never would do, given that its electoral base includes a good number of evangelical Christians who can be expected to support the maintenance of any and all religious privileges in this country’s legislation. Nevertheless, the opportunism of the Conservatives in no way excuses the irrationality of the New-Democrats, Liberals and Greens.

There are those would ban the niqab and the burka everywhere in public, an option which might seem somewhat extreme but which I find eminently respectable. But I am demanding far less: merely a ban on them during official ceremonies such as those of new citizens. The court’s decision to allow the veil, very much in conformity with Canadian law, is the proof that Canadian multiculturalism—often synonymous with cultural relativism—has failed. This has nothing to do with numbers: if there were only a single case of the niqab in a century, that would be one case too many. Neither can this issue be dismissed as a mere question of security: verifying the identity of the woman wearing the niqab before the ceremony in no way justifies the presence of this badge of the oppression of women.

Canadian citizenship is already degraded by the fact that the new citizen must swear allegiance to the “queen” of Canada. How ridiculous! Canada’s head of state is a monarch, an inherited position whose legitimacy originates in the concept of divine right and, to boot, the monarch of a foreign country! Must the institution of citizenship be further sullied by allowing the presence of the niqab—a symbol of the denial of human rights—during the swearing-in?

Recall that in 2013 an Ontario court ruled that the part of the citizenship oath where the person must pledge allegiance to the queen, although constituting forced speech and infringing on the right to free expression—for example, if the person has republican convictions—is nevertheless a reasonable and justifiable limitation (Mandatory citizenship oath to the Queen ruled constitutional). And yet a ban, for the short duration of a ceremony, on this symbol of the subservience of half the population is rejected. What we have here is a double standard, with religious convictions granted privileged status over other types of conviction.

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