Citizenship & the niqab

Two contributors discuss the wearing of the niqab at citizenship ceremonies

Credit: 
Illustration by Michaella Fortune

Citizenship ceremonies require open identity

Vanessa Walsh, ArtSci ’16

The debate surrounding the niqab goes beyond whether it belongs in Canadian citizenship ceremonies.

Arguing women should be prohibited from wearing what they choose to wear, no matter the situation, is an affront to liberty in general.

But for the purposes of becoming a Canadian citizen, women who wish to undergo the citizenship ceremony shouldn’t be allowed to wear their niqab for the short amount of time it takes to say their Citizenship Oath.

The act of entering a country should be open, honest, frank and heartfelt — qualities I can’t relate to the niqab.

The garment covers all possibility of emotion. As Omer Aziz from Yale University wrote in a Globe and Mail piece this month, “the informalities of open conversation disappear, body language is eliminated, the natural empathy we humans feel when looking at our fellow human’s face is extinguished.”

Aziz perfectly summarized how the niqab counters the openness and sincerity the Canadian citizenship ceremony should be founded on. To become a citizen, people should be willing to open themselves to us, as we’ve opened ourselves to them by granting them citizenship. On the other hand, Zunera Ishaq is a woman who has said she plans to wear her niqab to her citizenship ceremony.

Ishaq wrote in the Toronto Star this month that wearing the niqab is a symbol of empowerment because she doesn’t “have to worry about [her] physical appearance and can concentrate on [her] inner self.”

This is a commendable stance and — what’s more — it’s her own choice. Personal liberty is an important value and I respect one’s liberty to do what they wish in their private life, so long as they aren’t hurting others.

While wearing a niqab during the citizenship ceremony certainly doesn’t physically harm others, the ceremony isn’t a private affair. It represents someone’s introduction into Canadian public life, to be part of a collective group and to become a member of a large community.

Various political leaders have also given their opinions on the niqab, whether it belongs in the public citizenship ceremony or even in Canada.

Justin Trudeau said in a speech he gave in Toronto this month that not allowing a woman to wear a niqab would violate their freedom of religion and expression.

Trudeau speaks of “liberty,” but the niqab is a garment that even its supporters — like Zunera Ishaq — have acknowledged some are forced to wear.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s words ring more accurate — that it’s contradictory to be veiled during a citizenship ceremony.

In February, Harper said he believes — along with “most” Canadians — that to hide one’s identity at the moment they’re joining the Canadian “family” is offensive.

Canada thrives off of diversity, tolerance and acceptance. This country is a cultural mosaic, after all.

But when people choose to become a citizen of a country — and not just a resident — they must uphold a certain level of appreciation for that opportunity. To me, this can’t really be conveyed through wearing a niqab.

I don’t wear a niqab, therefore, I can’t really judge a woman’s decision to wear one in their daily life.

But in honour of the process of becoming a Canadian citizen, I believe removing something that completely covers — during a ceremony that requires openness — isn’t too arduous of a task to ask. Vanessa Walsh is a third-year French studies major.

Women can wear what they choose

Brynn Harlock, ArtSci ’15

After the Supreme Court struck down a ban on wearing the niqab during citizenship ceremonies last month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper immediately pledged to bring the law back.

This vow is the latest in a series of Conservative decisions intended to capitalize on public anxieties about terror and security. Harper is engaging in Islamophobia and fear mongering by exploiting fears about terrorists and seeking to limit the choices of some Muslim women.

His campaign against the niqab lends credence to a discourse in which Muslims are pushed to the outskirts of Canadian society — and viewed as something to be feared.

In response to questions about how security forces will identify radicals, Harper said in February that it wouldn’t matter if a person was “in a mosque or somewhere else.”

This statement implies that mosques are sites where terrorists congregate. Harper’s rhetoric displays a problematic “us versus them” mentality, where “Canadians” and “Muslims” are monolithic groups that are inherently different and mutually exclusive.

On March 10, Harper asserted that the niqab is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women,” while Canada is about equality and openness.

The insinuation, of course, is that “we” as Canadians are civilized and progressive, while “they” — characterized as Muslims — are backwards and barbaric. “We” allow women to live full lives, while “they” want women to cover up and shut up.

Harper’s “pro-woman” position comes as a surprise from a party that consistently fails to act on behalf of women.

A 2014 RCMP report found that at least 1,180 Indigenous women went missing or were murdered between 1980 and 2012. Still, Stephen Harper retorted in December that an inquest or investigation “isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest.” As of last July, 336 women had joined a class-action lawsuit against the RCMP on the grounds of sexual harassment. One in 13 Canadian service women have been sexually assaulted in “connection with their service”, according to the RCMP.

As Harper’s Conservatives continue to ignore these issues, we must think critically about how genuine their supposed concern for the state of women really is.

Harper’s crusade against the niqab feels especially opportunistic, given that many similar instances of religious dressing go unchallenged.

His Conservatives are filled with righteous indignation at the veiling of Muslim women, yet — as many have pointed out — nothing was said in 2009 when Laureen Harper covered her head for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI.

Harper’s right about one thing. This is a women’s rights issue — namely, the right of a woman to wear what she wants, when she wants.

Across the country, niqab-wearing women and other veiling Muslims are asserting the decision to cover their faces is theirs alone.

We won’t liberate women by controlling them. Instead, we’ll eliminate sexism by developing a culture in which we listen to women, respect women and believe women when they say wearing a niqab is their choice.

We must allow women to take their citizenship vows in the way that makes them feel most comfortable and ensure the government of their new country isn’t complicit in discrimination.

We must honour the freedom promised in Canada’s citizenship vows — even if someone decides their freedom looks like a niqab.

Brynn Harlock is a fourth-year religious studies major.

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