Friday, October 02, 2015

More Niqab and the politics of division

Michelangelo's Pieta

It makes me feel sad and disappointed.

After the recent leaders' debate in which the wearing or not wearing of the niqab during citizenship ceremonies was strenuously argued between Trudeau and Harper particularly, the fortunes of the Conservative Party of Canada have seen a sudden bump-up in their favour in the polls. And why wouldn't they? Polls asking whether or not a person should be allowed to cover his/her face during the swearing-in indicate that some 74% of Canadians favour what amounts to denying a niqab-wearing person citizenship unless she removes her face covering.

Although lower courts have already ruled that such a requirement is not possible without denying rights to the person under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Harper is plowing ahead, saying the government will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada. One assumes that the Conservative base and many others would agree that that should be done, some to such a degree that they're contemplating changing their voting intentions.

It's being presented as a question of identification and, most recently, as a matter of loyalty to one's adoptive country. In reality, it's neither. Persons identify themselves before the swearing-in ceremony to the satisfaction of officials and clothing styles have never predicted loyalty, otherwise Sikhs, Hindus and even conservative Mennonites would all be suspect as regards their unique dress.

It makes me wonder if the majority of Canadians have made their decision about this question without knowledge of two important bodies of information: 1) what does the Charter of Rights and Freedoms actually say about cultural and religious tolerance? and 2) what is the history of the niqab and why is it important to some women to wear it in public?

Regarding the guarantee of rights and freedoms in Section 2 of the Charter, click here to read the summary. You'll note that the Charter very clearly names freedoms of belief, thought and the right to live according to one's conscience. More importantly, the Charter allows governments to limit these rights only in the case of identifiable harm to others, as in the case of restricting freedom of speech when it is pornographic or hate-inducing.

The Supreme Court will undoubtedly reject the Harper appeal on this subject. Unless restricting niqab wearing during the citizenship ceremony can be shown to do harm, it has to fail. 

On the second item—the place of the niqab itself—it's noteworthy that it actually predates Islam (see here). There's considerable debate about whether or not the niqab is a religious or cultural holdover, but women covering their faces in public for various reasons was happening long before the prophet Mohammad. (See, for instance, Genesis 38:14 and Genesis 24:65) The Quran is not clear about the wearing of face covering, but the following verse is sometimes cited as a Muslim directive: "O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters, and the believing women, to draw their cloaks (veils) over their bodies. That will be better that they should be known (as respectable women) so as not to be annoyed. And Allah is Ever Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.”

That it is not a Canadian-Muslim requirement is obvious: women of my acquaintance go bare-headed or wear a hijab which is basically a scarf that covers their hair. They tell me that the wearing of even that covering is optional. In sculptures and paintings of the Pieta (Mother Mary and Jesus), Mary is virtually always wearing a hijab.

As has the Christian religion, Islam has fractured and permanently divided itself many times and into many factions. Obviously the tendency to see Christians as “all the same” must be a reality for them, as seeing Islam as a monolith is for us. Only two women have asked not to remove the niqab during the citizenship ceremony; thousands of Muslim women have been through that ceremony. Their individual cultural/religious backgrounds must dictate whether or not covering is comfortable, or vital, or irrelevant.

If so many Canadians are supportive of a ban (Quebec is the most anti-niqab province) that it could swing an election, what does that say about us? Is the Conservative Party of Canada banking on the apparent ignorance of a segment of voters to retain power? Harper is an educated Canadian; he obviously knows that what he's proposing won't be allowed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms we proudly enacted in “the other Trudeau” years.

There is grave danger in the nourishing of cross-cultural phobias and prejudices. In this case, a spurious, emotional non-issue has been placed on our plates by the Conservative Party of Canada in hopes that our prejudices can be massaged into votes.

All the opposition parties have denounced this effort as they should. I hope we remember this when we go into the voting booth. Even if 90% of Canadians should conclude that persons should be denied citizenship unless their face is uncovered during the swearing-in ceremony, that still would not make it right. In political parlance, that would be called the “tyranny of the majority.”

In Canada, that would not make it lawful either.

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