Niqab – Federal Government not going far enough

On Sept 15 the Federal Court of Appeal dismissed the federal government’s appeal of an earlier Federal Court ruling declaring the ban on face coverings during citizenship ceremonies unlawful. In response, the Conservatives have declared they will take the matter to the Supreme Court, meanwhile vowing to re-introduce the niqab ban within 100 days of re-election.  

Such a promise is bound to be perceived as a cynical election ploy, but that would be an unfair interpretation. The Conservatives have been consistent in their resistance to the niqab in this context since well before any election was in the offing. Then-Immigration minister Jason Kenney introduced the policy directive in 2011. The determination to make the citizenship ceremony a moment for open and trusting connection between new Canadians and their fellow citizens is principled and correct. As a “one-off,” it is hardly a great deal to ask, and by the standards of other jurisdictions, where far more stringent niqab rulings are in effect or contemplated, the issue is rather small beer.

Millimetre for millimeter, the niqab is the most contentious single piece of cloth in the world. In France, a niqab ban was introduced in 2010, making it illegal for anyone to cover their face in a public place, or to wear hoods or helmets when not worn on a motor vehicle. The law was tested at the European Court of Human rights, which upheld the ban, accepting the French government’s argument that the point of the law was to encourage people to “vivre ensemble,” that is, to “live together.”

The living-together principle is likewise driving Quebec’s Bill 62, which is a reprise of an older Liberal government’s Bill 94 (it died on the order paper). Bill 62 will not permit the face to be covered in the public sector, as a covered face is incompatible with an open society. Additionally, face cover is not infrequently adopted by political activists as a symbol of their adherence to a triumphalist form of Islam. Both France and Quebec want to discourage that tendency, and rightly so.

I can attest to the political use of the niqab. In 2007 I attended a Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) fundraiser. The keynote speaker was controversial journalist Yvonne Ridley, a British convert to an aggressive form of Islam who is an open advocate for terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah. Just before her arrival, there had been a flurry of commentary around the right of women to vote wearing a niqab. (Ironically, Muslim Turkey, Muslim Jordan and Muslim Iran don’t allow face cover in voting booths. But Canadians often think that when it comes to multiculturalism, we must be, as the saying goes, more Catholic than the Pope).

Anyway, the self-dramatizing Yvonne Ridley was kitted out in an extravagant face-to-floor costume straight out of the Arabian Nights – far more elaborate and colourful than a simple chador – topped by a turban-like hijab. But her face was uncovered, as it always is. And yet, responding to the stories around the voting-booth controversy, she called out to the women in the audience, “Put on a niqab!” which drew a hearty round of applause. You would have to be pretty dense not to understand that she meant women to use the niqab as a political gesture in support of an aggressively anti-integrationist attitude.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau naturally played to his own progressive base in casting the Conservatives as hard-hearted villains. During a campaign stop in Calgary he said of the Conservatives’ decision: “It is continuing with the politics of division and even fear and that’s not worthy of a country as diverse and extraordinary as Canada”.

Diversity is a good thing in general, but not all forms of diversity are good in particular, and sometimes fear is justified. The niqab is not a religious symbol, as we know from the proclamations of countless Islamic authorities. It is a regional custom. But even if it were a religious symbol, we are no more bound to honour full cover if it conflicts with national principles than we would be bound to honour stark nakedness if a religious group felt that was a ritual obligation (actually the Freedomites once claimed doctrinal justification for public nudity, but we weren’t buying it).

Face cover may be considered, in the kind of parlance I would not normally use, a “microaggression” to the concept of female equality. No spin on earth can make face cover of women innocent of sexism and dominionism. It is painful for other women to see and even threatening in its own way to know that there are many men in this country who at the very best think it is appropriate for women they love to cover their faces (implying, as it does, that all Canadian men lust after them), and at the worst look forward to the day when all women walk around covered.

This kind of thinking should be anathema to all Canadians. The federal government is not going far enough. It should take its cue from Quebec’s Bill 62 and ban face cover in the public sector, so that all newcomers to Canada get the message: face cover is un-Canadian. Leave it behind in the old country – or don’t leave the old country at all.

Prince Arthur Herald

Photo Credit: Twitter, @Canoe