The Runner Debate: The Niqab

Demanding niqab removal threatens charter rights

Harper’s suggestion is fundamentally flawed

by Alyssa Laube

The Tories seem to love repressing Canadians’ freedom of religion and expression. This year, they supported Quebec’s Bill-62, which aimed to ban “face-covering religious garments for public servants.” Now, their gaze has fallen on niqab-wearing women swearing in as Canadian citizens.Back in March, Harper made a bold statement against niqabs, accusing them of being the product of “a culture that is anti-women.” Unsurprisingly, the Prime Minister failed to see the obvious irony in his dictation of appropriate female dress code, and ordered a poll of 3,000 Canadians to get their opinion on the subject. A resounding 82 per cent sided with Harper, supporting the notion that the article should be banned during citizenship ceremonies for reasons of identification. However, Harper’s suggestion is fundamentally flawed: there is no lawful reason why those swearing into citizenship must be publicly identifiable in court. Despite this, and previous failures to ban religious garments, the Tories continue to stubbornly and disrespectfully demand public niqab removal during the ceremony.

The niqab, which covers the entire face aside from the eyes, is worn by some muslim women out of “religious obligation and as an expression of their identity,” according to Sheikha El-Kathiri, who wears the niqab, in an interview with CBC.

“It’s just a spiritual choice. It exemplifies the fact that I am an honoured muslim woman … who has her own opinions, her own voice, her own personality, her own character, and everything else that’s wonderful about me,” she explained. “My beauty is a wonderful part of me as well but I don’t feel that I have to display it to the world. And just because I’m covering myself doesn’t mean I’m doing it to make [a man’s] job easier.”

Well, there goes Harper’s woman-hating culture argument. As a democratic nation living under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it’s clearly contradictory to reject such harmless religious and personal practices. Many participants that voted in favour of the ban did so to encourage new immigrants to assimilate, seeing as “removing their niqab or burka was the normal thing to do in Canada.” In other words, we welcome immigrants, but only if they act and dress like “religiously neutral” Westerners. It’s an odd stance to take as a nation that prides itself on being diverse and multicultural (and one that was founded by colonizers forcing those who were already living here to assimilate, rather than the other way around), but it’s one that the Tories are sticking to.

If identification is truly the issue at hand, it’s important to note that most women who wear the niqab are “flexible about uncovering their faces in specific circumstances.” In a perfect world, those circumstances would be in a private setting with another woman. These are not unreasonable requirements; the identification can be completed, and the woman need not feel ashamed or uncomfortable by being exposed in a public space. In any case, identification isn’t even a key component of swearing into citizenship. The only mandatory act is to sign the papers in court. Even further, the (weak) argument that the niqab muffles the voice of the speaker could be settled by giving her a microphone to speak into. Overall, the opposition to the garment makes less and less sense the more you research the topic. So why is it still being encouraged?

It certainly feels like this is a discriminatory issue, as all practical solutions directed towards its supporters have been brushed off as irrelevant. Simply put, it’s bigotry and misdirection veiled as a concern for public security. It does seem convenient that a law denying Islamic women of their rights has been proposed at a time when North American Islamophobia is remarkably high due to global terrorist activity. Is the ban supposed to repel Islamic women from becoming citizens? Is it purely a means of forced assimilation, or is it based on the inapplicable platform of Canadian tradition and pride? It’s expected that xenophobes will take a disliking to cultural diversity in their community, but when that prejudice becomes entangled in law, human rights are threatened. Perhaps Harper and the Tories should follow Trudeau’s advice to “get [their] priorities straight” and work on fixing Canada’s real problems.

Rosaura Ojeda / The Runner

Nobody wants another “Separate but equal”

Niqab accommodations lead to segregation

by Kyle Prince

The Conservatives, and according to a Privy Council Office poll, approximately 72 per cent of British Columbians, are saying that any face covering should be removed during the Canadian citizenship ceremonies. The specific incident is focused around the niqab, a nearly full face covering that leaves only the eyes visible. Don’t worry that identification is necessary at these ceremonies, what with becoming an official citizen and all, people should be allowed to cover as much of themselves as they like right? That sounds reasonable enough, until you look beneath the surface.

According to the religious rules behind the niqab, a woman must not be seen by a man. So the problem here would be the removal of the covering in a room full of people, both female and male. The supposed compromise that the Conservatives rightly refused was to take these women into a separate room where only women were allowed and have them remove the niqab there for their own “separate but equal” ceremony. It’s a little different because they would be doing this on their own, but then where do Canadian values come in? When do we unify people through a ceremony and welcome them into our country as free citizens? It shouldn’t be in some room separated from the actual ceremony.

While there isn’t a separation of church and state written into our constitution, it’s commonly accepted that religious beliefs do not trump Canadian laws. Anything that covers the face must be removed for driver’s licence photos, and any other government-issued identification. It isn’t unreasonable to ask that people show their faces when they become citizens, one of the few places there’s a reason and need to easily identify people. On top of that, when entering Canada it is important to make it clear that there should not be a taboo around showing your face to anyone. People are obviously allowed to hold their own beliefs, but given our decidedly liberal country and protests to allow for much more than a face to be shown in public, it should not come a shock for people to think of faces being uncovered during an important ceremony.

Usually when someone quotes Harper it’s when he says something outrageous or funny, but this time I think he said it best: “When you join the Canadian family in a public citizenship ceremony, it is essential that that is a time when you reveal yourselves to Canadians.” Allowing a gender-segregated ceremony goes against any sense of inclusion people may feel, and more importantly the split would force them to stay segregated as they enter the country. No matter how it’s done, asking roughly half of the people present to leave isn’t a good sign.

There are many religious beliefs that are ignored in our day-to-day lives, and just to follow a hypothetical line here, let’s see which ones people have argued for in the past couple years. Faith healing in America, allowing children to die of easily curable illnesses because the parents believe they can fix it through prayer. We wouldn’t allow the parents to do that here. Doctors who aren’t in favour of abortions are required to refer patients to other practices–we don’t allow them to force a patient’s hand in those situations. There are other examples, but these are people’s beliefs. We cannot hold these beliefs, however dearly held, over laws and values. We are a free country and for a government to help impose religious laws is definitely a step in the wrong direction.

In the end it’s a government ceremony where people are being welcomed into the country. A niqab or any other face covering obscures identity, which happens to be a very important aspect of making somebody a Canadian citizen. We need to be able to identify who is there, and who is saying the oath.

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