(Hopefully) soon-to-be Canadian citizen Zunera Ishaq has recently won a court battle allowing her to wear her niqab (a veil, worn by some Muslim women, that covers most of the face) during her public citizenship ceremony. Prime Minister Stephen Harper called Ishaq’s wish to take the oath with her face covered “offensive”, and his government is currently appealing the federal court’s ruling.
Before I offer my opinions on the matter, some background (which you can also obtain by reading the article linked above):
- Though Ishaq wants to wear her veil during the public swearing-in ceremony (at which a large number of people and photographers are usually present), she says she has no problem uncovering her face with a government representative in private to verify her identity before taking the oath. Therefore, the wearing of a niqab during swearing-in would not be a security concern.
- Since 2011, a law introduced by then-immigration minister Jason Kenney has banned face-covering veils such as niqabs in citizenship ceremonies. This is the law which has been struck down and this is the law that the Harper government is trying to maintain.
- Canadians’ right to religious freedom protects the wearing of religious garments, even in situations where such clothing would normally not be permitted. It is on these grounds that the government’s policy is considered by the courts to be unlawful.
- According to Ishaq, wearing the niqab is her personal choice. She is not being oppressed or pressured by anyone to cover her face.
The issue of extremely modest religious garments like niqabs being worn in a secular country like Canada is one that it has taken me an incredibly long time to form an opinion on. I must admit that there was a time when I was against them–I saw face veils as symbols of misogynistic oppression based on sexual control rather than religious devotion, and I couldn’t understand why any woman who was NOT being coerced or oppressed would voluntarily choose to wear one. Then I realized that I don’t have to understand–it is not for me to decide what is appropriate for another woman to put on (or not) when she leaves her house.I have said before that I believe in a woman’s capacity to decide if and when she would like to be seen as a sexual object (without assuming she is being controlled by some villainous pimp, etc.). This may not seem related to the issue at hand, but my point is this: if I am willing to accept that women would sometimes make themselves sexual objects of their own free will, it would be hypocritical of me NOT to accept that there are also some women who voluntarily choose a course of extreme modesty. [Obviously, there are opportunities for exploitation and oppression at both ends of this spectrum, and that is never okay.]
In the case of Ms. Ishaq, wearing the niqab is not only an expression of her modesty, it is an expression of a deeply-held religious belief, and part of her identity. Whether or not she wears one as she takes the citizenship oath should be of little consequence to the rest of us–once she is a Canadian citizen it seems extremely likely that Ms. Ishaq will continue to be veiled as she goes about her daily life. Her face, even mostly covered, will be the face of a Canadian citizen. It will be her right, as a Canadian citizen, to keep her face covered on the street and at the grocery store and in the post office if that’s what she wants. She has been here since 2008. Hers is a Canadian face now, and we need to understand that. Muslim children are born in Canada all the time, and the Islamic faith is no longer an “import” to this country–it is a part of our Canadian landscape, a landscape that includes many cultures, many religions, and many ways of being spiritual (or not). Why would we, as a country, choose to degrade and humiliate a woman at the very moment she is becoming a Canadian citizen?
Instead of just admitting to an Islamophobic bias (which really seems to be the root of the issue), the Prime Minister is trying to appeal to some kind of sense of decency–the way he’s telling it, of course it’s just “offensive” to cover your face when you take the citizenship oath (even if your identity has been privately verified so there is absolutely no security concern), it is, in Ol’ Steve’s words, “not how we do things here.”
Now, I could point out that muzzling scientists, calling law-abiding Canadian citizens who like the environment “radicals”, cutting services for veterans, turning Question Period into a sad farce, making partisan Senate and judiciary appointments, jumping in on America’s wars, committing election fraud, and being embroiled in scandalous cover-ups has traditionally been “not how we do things here,” but apparently the Prime Minister’s sense of Canadian decency extends only as far as your clothes and whether or not his fearful, aging, conservative Christian voting base is afraid of Muslims.
I must agree with Ol’ Steve that clothes are important, and they do send a message about a person’s respect for the honour they are about to receive. This is why I am sure Prime Minister Harper sought a legal appeal when drunk-driving pop sensation Justin Bieber showed up to receive his Diamond Jubilee Medal wearing baggy denim overalls, a backwards ball cap, and a wrinkly t-shirt. To be given a medal (which most recipients earned through years of volunteerism or public service) on behalf of our head of state, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, by the most powerful man in the country, and not even bother to do up both overall straps is certainly NOT “how we do things here”. If anything is offensive to Canadian values and decorum, that surely is.
But Justin Bieber is a celebrity, a Christian (believe it or not, he has actually thought about a hot-button issue like abortion for long enough to be against it), and a rich white guy. Which means he can wear whatever the hell he wants and the Prime Minister will smile and shake his hand.
I hope Ms. Ishaq will be able to take her citizenship oath soon. I hope she will be allowed to wear whatever she wants (though I assume no matter what she will be nicely and respectfully attired). Given how much she has fought for the religious freedoms enjoyed by all Canadians, I know she will not take the privilege of citizenship for granted. There are many ignorant people out there who will say things like, “If she doesn’t like our rules, she can go home,” and they have not a damn clue what they’re talking about. Ms. Ishaq DOES like our rules, and OUR rules, as enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, say that she can wear what she likes. It is OUR rules she is fighting to preserve. Niqab or no niqab, Zunera Ishaq is already home–in Canada, a woman can wear whatever she wants.