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Politics, feminism, Canadian values: wearing a niqab is everything but religious

There’s something about two white men in their 50s and 60s (and a third much better-looking one in his 40s) discussing what is or isn’t “anti-women” that just doesn’t sit right.

Partly because Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s recent comments are more election-year political grandstanding than heartfelt discussion. Partly because whether a woman may wear a niqab at a Canadian citizenship ceremony is really a religious issue being veiled as a women’s one.

In the House of Commons Tuesday, Harper questioned why someone would embrace a practice “that is not transparent, that is not open and frankly is rooted in a culture that is anti-women.”

As a Canadian woman, my thoughts on the subject of what’s anti-Canadian or anti-women should be just as relevant, if not more so, than Harper’s. My point of view is secular however, and his is certainly not Muslim. On a matter of sexism and gender equality, one would expect our religious beliefs to be secondary. On a matter of religious expression, how either of us define what’s “anti-women” – and by consequent what’s “woman” – should not figure as prominently as it does in this loud and mic’d debate. Especially since no political leader, let alone a male one, should get to unilaterally decide what it does or doesn’t mean to be pro- or anti-women.

Harper also questioned why Canadians would embrace a practice that is “contrary to our own values,” a comment that seems to imply that wearing a niqab is somehow un-Canadian.

Personally, I’m not sure when openness and transparency became Canadian values.

A 2010 research assessment on the performance of freedom of information ranked Canada last after New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Australia because it “continually suffered from a combination of low use, low political support and a weak Information Commissioner since its inception.” The most recent “report card” from the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada – which reviews practices from 2008-2009 – found that 13 of the 24 institutions analyzed had “below average or inferior performance” with regard to the timely delivery of information. Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada’s performance was so poor that it could not be rated against the established criteria, and five institutions failed when it came to responding to access requests: National Resources Canada, Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Correctional Service of Canada, Canadian Heritage and Environment Canada. Canada ranks 18th on Reporters Without Borders’ 2014 Press Freedom Index, eight spots down from its ranking in 2012. The Canadian Journalists For Free Expression’s annual review of free expression flunked the federal access to information system, the government’s transparency in Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations and whistleblower protections at the federal and provincial levels for 2013-2014. 

If openness and transparency are Canadian values, they don’t appear to be ones highly valued by the state. 

Inclusivity, diversity, acceptance come to mind when I think of Canada and that great Canadian mosaic. Our country has a history of championing discussion, fairness and peacekeeping both internationally and at home. There are also colourful aspects to our past concerning the treatment of immigrants, minorities and First Nations. That said, the beauty of a mosaic is in the concept of a singular whole that doesn’t sacrifice distinction, and is better for it. Remove the bigger picture and all you have are isolated shards of fragile glass.

It’s one thing to say that no person of any colour or creed may cover their face for the following specified security reasons. But that’s not what we’re talking about: the argument goes that a woman should not wear a niqab to a citizenship ceremony because it’s a symbol of oppression. And that’s an entirely different debate. 

For one, it singles out the niqab. Two, it takes an issue of religious freedom and tries to make it about women’s rights. Three, Harper argues that symbols of oppressive ideology are un-Canadian as he tries to impose a controversial policy of his own. Oppression is, after all, the exercise of authority or power in an unjust manner. And while the ideologies that make up Canadian society may generally be free and inclusive, there is nothing that “free” about being told what to do and expected to do it.

Out of respect for our “Canadian values,” the government should be open and transparent about what this issue is really about. We have engaged in a war to combat “Islamic extremism” taking hold of Iraq and Syria, and at home we’re apparently facing a crisis of radicalization. Government has tabled legislation to make “terrorist propaganda” illegal and increase certain state powers to protect us. We’re also wading back into a debate about whether wearing a niqab as an expression by some of their Muslim faith is appropriate attire for someone who wants to be “Canadian.”

The truth is that many people immigrate here for a variety of reasons. It doesn’t mean they agree with every value we espouse, and it certainly does not mean they like our government. Some may want to escape oppressive rule elsewhere, or seek greater opportunities, or come for the right to vote and to have a voice. Being Canadian for some may mean a new start, or the freedom to practice their religion in peace.

Values aside, wearing a niqab is a religious issue. Forcing a woman to wear a niqab and punishing her if she doesn’t makes it an issue of sexism, or oppression. That the niqab, in Harper and the conservative government’s view, is a symbol of female oppression stems from the rules and politics and violence that surround a woman’s right or responsibility to wear one. At it’s core, it wasn’t created as a symbol to oppress. The fabric isn’t oppressive – it’s how it’s imposed and why.

The government is not talking about banning veils in public, but it is preaching hypocrisy. Because if Harper gets his way, our welcoming words to a woman who may have left a country that demanded she wear a niqab, will be to demand that she not.

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