New niqab law puts Canadian values first
As part of a wider circle of reforms in his department, Citizenship and Immigration minister Jason Kenney has announced a regulation requiring Muslim women who observe the custom of wearing the niqab to remove it before taking the oath of citizenship, the final step in becoming fully Canadian. According to the new rule, the judge must see her face as she takes the oath, but she can replace the face cover afterwards.
Women with face cover will receive two warnings before being refused the oath. On her arrival, a department official will explain the new regulation. If the woman does not comply, the judge will inform her that she cannot say the oath with her face covered. If she again refuses, the judge will request that she leave.
Women who do not swear the oath in this scenario will not receive their citizenship papers and will remain classified as permanent residents, a status that withholds the right to vote, run for office or hold certain jobs. Nor does it offer protection from deportation in the event of serious criminal charges. Such women will have the right to retake the oath if they choose to respect the rule.
Minister Kenney is to be applauded for this new regulation, as much for its symbolic value as for its common sense. Taking the oath of citizenship should not be an empty formality. It should be a pledge of loyalty to one’s newly-adopted home, and a declaration, uttered in good faith, that Canada’s democratic values will henceforth be those of the new citizen.
One of Canada’s fundamental values is equality of the sexes. Face cover for women is not commensurate with this value. The custom of face cover for women originated in, and continues to be observed, only amongst tribes or in countries where women are second-class citizens at best, and often chattel, to be treated, or even disposed of, by their male relatives as they see fit.
In praising Mr. Kenney, it is appropriate to salute Quebec, whose Bill 94 was tabled 18 months ago. Bill 94 proscribes face cover for women while giving or getting any government-funded service, including licence bureaus, hospitals, schools, courts, and other institutions that represent the official visage of Quebec. The principle behind Bill 94 is a refusal to endorse the lower status of women that is represented by the veil. As Quebec immigration minister Yolande James forthrightly put it at the time, “if you want to integrate into Quebec society, here are our values. We want to see your face.”
France and Belgium have banned face cover altogether. Most Canadians find that a draconian solution to a vexing social irritant. Bill 94 strikes exactly the right balance between an individual’s right to go about her private business in the costume of her choice, and the individual’s obligation to respect the values of the state when interacting with its proxies.
The new regulation with regard to the oath of citizenship is therefore a welcome first step to integrating women into their new roles as human beings who are fully equal to men, as well as sending an important message to men for whom the idea of equality between the sexes is a novel one. The next step for Mr. Kenney should be to pay Quebec’s Bill 94 the sincerest form of flattery – and imitate it for all of Canada.