Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Niqabs and the politics of division

CBC's online news headline readsCanadians of all stripes oppose face coverings during citizenship ceremonies: Vote Compass.” The “stripes” being referred to are the supporters of each of the political parties running in the upcoming election.

The question on which 72% of Canadians generally disagree with was this: “Immigrants should be allowed to cover their faces for religious reasons while swearing the oath of citizenship. [Do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, are you neutral, do you somewhat disagree, strongly disagree or do you 'not know']. Not surprisingly, those leaning Conservative on the “https://votecompass.cbc.ca/” voluntary survey disagreed most strongly with the statement while those voting NDP or Green disagreed less strongly.

There's a natural tendency in us to assume that majorities are right. It's not surprising; we vote on decisions all the time and whichever side of a debate gets the most votes gets to call the tune. It's how we elect governments and it's how governments pass laws through parliament.

But that's purely an expediency measure because we don't generally have a wise universal authority to tell us what the right decision would be. We call it democracy. As often as not it's most closely comparable to a pooling of ignorance. The most cynical view of this is the old saw, “the majority is almost always wrong!” 
We fall pray to this assumption that big numbers prove something in the Church as well. That an idea, a conviction, a style of worship, a charismatic leader is drawing crowds is no more proof of righteousness than it is proof of human perfidy. Numbers—in the end—prove nothing.

Humans are easily manipulated unless they have been taught how to evaluate what they're being told on some logical basis. In the case of the Vote Compass question, the respondents are wilfully or accidentally being misled: the Muslim woman who wishes to wear the niqab during the ceremony is not seeking to “cover their [her] faces [face] for religious reasons” as the question implies. Rather she is requesting that she not be required to uncover her face in a public venue. If her cultural/religious background has so attuned her to the wearing of the niqab in public, the not-wearing in such a public place is a traumatic option, like a nun being asked to appear in public in a bikini.
There's an enormous difference between masking yourself and being asked to remove some clothing you consider essential in the circumstances.
One source provides a wrinkle that might make some of us think more objectively about the current debate. “The niqab did not originate with Islam. The niqab, or face-coverings similar to it, were worn by Christian women in the Byzantine Empire and in pre-Islamic Persia. Islam adopted the practice, which was not, contrary to common perceptions, required by the Koran.” 

Rightly or wrongly we share with the other Abrahamic religions a history that includes conservative dress standards, especially for women. More conservative Mennonite denominations still require long dresses and modest shoes plus head coverings for women.
My mother wouldn't enter church with her head uncovered.
If the world-wide trend is toward liberalization in women's dress and the erasure of the distinction between males and females in this regard, it's nevertheless obvious that “progress” in that direction is not consistent across cultures.
It's also obvious to me that there's no room in a multicultural society for forcing cultural change. You can't nationally legislate appropriate dress for cultural/religious minorities; such changes evolve slowly, gently in an atmosphere of tolerance. Attempts to force them only result in unnecessary divisiveness.
True, there are countries in which dictatorial leadership forces conformity, but Canada is surely not one of them. Let's not start in that direction now after so many years of enriching multiculturalism.

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