This article does NOT represent the position of Atheist Freethinkers, nor that of its Board of Directors.
For the opinion of AFT’s Board of Directors, please see: Face-Coverings Must be Banned in All State Institutions
Response to Blog #062 “Canadian Masquerade”
Christine M. Shellska
These views are my own, and do not reflect the diverse views of Atheist Alliance International, its Board of Directors, and its Associate, Affiliate, and individual members.
Much ado has been made about the case of Zunera Ishaq, who was granted permission to wear the niqab while taking her Canadian citizenship oath, despite dissent expressed by former Prime Minister and leader of the Canadian Conservative party, Stephen Harper.
The issue has been framed around “freedom of expression,” misogyny,” “political correctness,” “multiculturalism,” and of course, as a “distraction” diverting the attention of Canadians from more pressing issues during our recent federal election. In short, the question has been deployed to bring into question Canadian values.
As an atheist, I am, quite frankly, “offended” by all religious head coverings; I cannot help but conceive of them as silly costumes symbolizing irrational deference to imaginary beings. In particular, I share the view that the niqab is inherently misogynist, an instrument of segregation from one’s fellow citizens that underscores the pernicious idea that women are responsible for the sexual behaviour of men. And I daresay that I think those who claim the niqab is “liberating,” or symbolic of “feminism,” are misguided victims of the false consciousness sanctioned by religion.
But as a secularist, I recognize that my “offense” is not sufficient grounds to deny the rights of my fellow citizens to express themselves as they deem fit – assuming that it is indeed a “right” and not an obligation imposed upon those women who don the niqab by their oppressive “guardians” under threat of violence, or worse, murder in the name of “honour.” Moreover, cultural and linguistic isolation can provide an effective barrier to prevent vulnerable individuals from understanding their rights as Canadian residents, and seeking out the resources that ensure those rights are protected. Whether the niqab should be banned, and if so, who to penalize and how, are questions that require careful consideration, for punishing those we intend to protect is surely not among the outcomes Canadians, and humanists, desire.
Rather than reflecting upon whether the niqab undermines the Canadian value of gender equality, or supports the value of tolerance in the context of our multicultural society, I have found it useful instead to consider three pragmatic aspects: identity, authority, and health and safety. Clearly it is unreasonable to penalize those who prefer to cover their faces, regardless of their reasons, many of which are secular: cold, wintery days compel me to swaddle myself in layers of warm garb, including my big-ass, blanket-sized scarf, which I wrap around my head, barely revealing even my eyes. And Halloween is a fun opportunity to trade in one’s identity in favour of all number of beings and creatures of myth. However, if one is suspected of engaging in shenanigans, whether of a religious or secular nature, one should rightfully expect to reveal and confirm their identity when requested by those authorized to demand it. Similarly, during the Halloween season, I noticed several businesses with signage requesting costumed-customers remove their masks prior to entering their establishments, and this too is reasonable, given the potential for crime by perpetrators who could otherwise be identified with security footage. While individuals have the right to express their identity as they see fit, within the confines of reason, some aspects of civic life require us to take into account the safety and well-being of all Canadian residents and citizens as a matter of course, to help ensure the validity of the identification holder. To my mind, these should include revealing and confirming one’s identity by exposing one’s face when acquiring a driver’s license, passing through customs and airport security, being granted citizenship, and voting, to name but a few.
Those who hold civic positions of authority should also be subject to upholding Canadian secular values by first, revealing and confirming their identity, and second, by refraining from wearing obvious religious symbolry that could serve to intimidate and marginalize those over whom they have authority. I would, for example, feel uncomfortable if I entered a court of law, confronted by a judge donning a huge crucifix, or wearing other obvious religious symbolry. Similarly, I would question the credibility of a judge who donned a pirate’s hat or a pasta colander – although I confess I would very much enjoy the spectacle.
Finally, the health and safety of Canadian citizens and residents cannot be compromised for the sake of religion. Any garment prohibiting full vision should obviously not be worn while, for example, driving or engaging in occupations where one’s attention must be paid to the entire visual landscape, such as operating certain heavy machinery. And anecdotally, I have a friend who is a surgical resident. He informed me that the pre-surgery protocol is for medical professionals to be clean-shaven, so that when they don surgical masks there is close contact with the skin to minimize the risk of spreading bacteria that could result in infection for the surgical recipient. However, exceptions are made for those whose religious beliefs exclude shaving, and to me (and my friend), this is unacceptable.
When conceived of as an issue of identification, rather than framed within the discourse of Canadian values, it becomes clear that there are certain contexts where it should be mandatory reveal one’s identity. Those in positions of authority should not be permitted to overtly express their religious beliefs when doing so could potentially intimidate or marginalize those over whom they preside. And religious compromises are unacceptable when the health and safety of Canadian citizens and residents is in question.
So what is the solution? Clearly, the potential to penalize those who might already be victims of gender inequality and misandry runs counter to Canadian values, therefore banning the niqab outright is unacceptable. On my take, there are two avenues that offer hope. On those occasions when I have visited hospitals, I have proudly noted the presence of literature, published in multiple languages, on domestic violence and other social issues, outlining the rights of Canadian citizens and residents, as well as offering resources for those seeking help, some of whom offer translation services. It is imperative that we maintain and expand these social services. Second, I enjoyed the benefit of attending public schools where students residing in areas where cultural and linguistic barriers might have otherwise prohibited their exposure to Canadian culture were bused in. Not only did I learn much about the religious and cultural backgrounds of my peers, they too enjoyed engaging with their peers absent familial supervision during school hours, and learned about their rights and responsibilities as citizens and residents of Canada. Shamefully, the education system here in Alberta has not moved toward a secular, one-school system, so those students whose parents opt for charter and private schools, or home-schooling, might not receive the benefit of understanding their rights and responsibilities, given that the explicit mandate of some of these educational “options” is to religiously indoctrinate their students.
While legislation banning facial coverings is surely appropriate in some contexts, in my opinion, the solution is to offer resources to those who are the targets of oppression and, possibly, violence, and to educate future generations.
Christine M. Shellska