Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Last Monday, Jason Kenney announced that women who cover their faces with the niqab must show their faces at citizenship ceremonies.
"To segregate one group of Canadians or allow them to hide their faces, to hide their identity from us precisely when they are joining our community is contrary to Canada's proud commitment to openness and to social cohesion. It's important to note that this is an expectation," he said.
Social cohesion via exclusion? His message is contradictory, especially considering women don't show their faces during most of the processes when transitioning from a permanent resident to a citizen.
Kenney also justified his position by referring to a Toronto Sun story that claimed 81 per cent of Canadians supported the regulation. I couldn't help but wonder if any women that wear niqabs were included in those polled, or if that even matters to Kenney. Shouldn't those that a policy affects be consulted on their thoughts rather than a broad cross-section of society? Aren't minority rights about the actual minority?
That got me thinking about what the niqabis that I know think about it. So instead of speculating, I decided to ask. Raffat Zafer is the mother of one of my dear friends. She lives in Toronto and began wearing the niqab three years ago. On Kenney's recent decision, she doesn't mince words: "It's discrimination."
Zafer recognizes there are instances where it is vital to show her face. "For identification it's fine to show your face, and you should," she said. She notes that niqabi women show their faces at the airport for security purposes and generally take no issue with this. She simply doesn't see the relationship between showing your face and the authenticity of taking the oath.
Instead of excluding these women if they don't adhere to this process, why don't we look for other options? Niqabis are happy to show their faces to other women. Isn't there some room for accommodation here?
Kenney preemptively addressed this by stating, "If Canada is to be true to our history and to our highest ideals, we cannot tolerate two classes of citizens. We cannot have two classes of citizenship ceremonies."
The irony in this is that he is creating these classes by banning a part of a woman's identity to ceremonially don the Canadian identity. If women refuse to participate in citizenship ceremonies as a result, what are the implications?
The reality is, there are few practical reasons to become a citizen once you are a permanent resident. One of the major reasons is voting. If Kenney's true intent is to show the equal participation of women and men in the public sphere, he may in fact be pushing these women further and further out.
"It's already quite hard to wear the niqab," Zafer said. She is stared at endlessly in public and once in awhile experiences overt expressions of Islamophobia. She recounts one of these experiences while out shopping, and having a woman intentionally push her shopping cart into her. Zafer feels the announcement of this decision will make wearing the niqab more difficult.
Zafer is already a citizen, but this new regulation still gets under her skin. "It bothers me because after 9/11 Islam has been restricted. No one says anything the Sikh men who wear turbans. To those of us that wear the niqab and hijab, people are constantly telling us were are oppressed. Why isn't anyone telling nuns who wear long black robes and cover their hair that they are oppressed?"
Framing it as a gender equality issue isn't accurate either. It is simply insulting to assume, as opponents often do, that most niqabi women are forced by men to veil their faces. Assuming women who wear the niqab don't have agency is oppressive. Both proponents and opponents of the policy have made this mistake.
Niqab is a choice. Zafer made this choice at the age of 51.
"In my heart I started to feel like I should be wearing it. It is in my religion and in my heart," explains Zafer. She was no longer married and living with her daughter when she decided to start wearing the niqab. There was no coloured man lurking in the corner with threats.
Targeting a particular population simply cannot create social cohesion. Kenney is drawing people into a debate being Canadian when in reality it's a political game, and the casualties are a small number of women that can't swing the vote.
We've seen the worst of Canada come out as a result of this debate. A brief scan of comment boards on the National Post or Globe and Mail is quite revealing. This regulation appears to be a move to appease core Conservative supporters rather than for the true betterment of Canadian society - that is, in the pursuit of true social cohesion. Or maybe I am reading into this too much and Kenney just needs a dictionary for Christmas.
Sadiya Ansari is a Pakistani-born, Canadian-raised UBC journalism student who loves politics--near and far. You can follow her @SadiyaAnsari.
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