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Why you don’t get to have an opinion about the niqab

What Canadian values are so threatened by the niqab, and why do any of us care? It’s a national debate that is stealing the election, and unlike almost every other topic, it’s one everyone from every corner of society seems to have a very strong opinion about.

For those who have missed it, this started with whether women should be allowed to clothe themselves head to toe during a citizenship ceremony. Women who are a minority several times over, and who have presumably undertaken the arduous process of becoming a Canadian citizen to enjoy the freedoms the majority of us enjoy. But of course, it’s not about that anymore.

No, it’s become about the rest of us, and how we have to defend our Canadian values, which are apparently so fragile that they’re threatened by a handful of women who opt to clothe themselves in a certain way. The irony is that none of us, not a single one of us, can actually do this without being a really big hypocrite. Don’t use your freedom of expression to explain why others shouldn’t be entitled to that same right. And don’t try to defend our Canadian values – enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms – by kicking and screaming and tearing apart those good, decent, important rights to make them conditional, weak and valueless.

This is not a post about the niqab. This is a post about why every single argument against it is xenophobic, hypocritical or so completely illogical that it shouldn’t deserve any of the air time it’s probably getting.

For example, it doesn’t matter that the choice to wear a niqab is cultural rather than religious: both are protected by our freedoms of expression and religion. It’s also no one’s place to strip a woman of her rights on the assumption that she can’t make decisions for herself. Especially if you’re sort of WASP-ish, or happen to be male, or are really anyone who isn’t one of the handful of women who choose to wear a niqab. You really shouldn’t even get to talk about it, but for better or worse, even that is a right we all enjoy.

That the niqab thwarts our chance at having an open society is another ludicrous argument. The muzzling of scientists, or cuts to public broadcast funding, or attempts to misuse, abuse and ignore freedom and access of information laws have done more to destroy the concept that we actually live in an open society than anything else. 

That the niqab is simply indecent is also a good one. As Barbara Kay so richly put it, “it is corrosive to the social reciprocity on which neighbourhoods depend for spontaneous camaraderie.” I’m not sure where you live, but I don’t live in some made-for-TV 1950s neighbourhood where I’m friends with the postman and my neighbours bring me cookies. What fosters what little spontaneous camaraderie I feel in my community, is general decency toward all neighbours regardless of their race, faith, gender or sexual orientation. What’s been made unfortunately clear by some of the racist and uneducated commentary on this national topic, however, is that we have a very strong capacity to be indecent to others, and that is corrosive to social reciprocity.

To bridge the decency and wearing-a-niqab-is-anti-feminist arguments, those hot-pink velour sweatpants with “juicy” written on the ass are significantly more denigrating, objectifying and indecent toward women than black, flowing pieces of fabric. They also make me seriously question the wearer’s self-respect and upbringing, but unfortunately, regardless of how little taste some people have, they are entitled to express their low self-esteem and superficial views as they please.

Some people actually define that as feminism, that it’s all about a woman being able to express herself and her sexuality however she chooses. Despite my strong feelings about wearing sweatpants in public, that’s an argument I can get behind, because guess what, it’s one that includes a woman’s choice to not conform to western, paternalistic standards of how women should or shouldn’t dress in the 21st century.

We don’t assume all women can cook, or that anyone older than 80 is racist, or that anyone who looks slightly Asian is good at math. (If you do, it may be time to evaluate a few things.) Just because someone wears a niqab does not mean they believe in Sharia law or stoning. In fact, just because someone is Muslim doesn’t mean they believe in those either. There’s this creeping fear that accepting another religion and culture into ours will weaken the Canadian mosaic. It’s fed by fears of Islamization and ISIS and terrorism, which in turn are fuelled by ignorance, a poorly critical 24-hour news cycle and propaganda.

A government choosing to strip a select few wannabe citizens, who, again, presumably want to be Canadian precisely because of our values, is a threat to each and every one of us. It’s a mindless and xenophobic decision that serves no purpose except to show us that our government can and will fight our freedoms. Unfortunately, we missed that point. We’ve bought into the debate about whether it’s Canadian to hide your face. We’re listening to racist wingnuts espouse bigoted values. As a nation, we’re thinking more critically about this than our country’s decision to bomb Syria (which was a decision, by the way, to fight a group that in some of the most horrifying ways imaginable is systematically trying to strip women, men, children and minorities of their rights).

Let’s think about that one, as we go about our days, saying what we want, dressing how we like and enjoying all of the freedoms being in this country offers those our elected government apparently chooses to offer them to.

 

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