MONTREAL – Questions surrounding the wearing of the niqab should be dealt with by the courts and not by politicians, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said Tuesday.
Mulcair said he is not against women wearing the full Islamic veil at oath-taking ceremonies or employees displaying it in the federal civil service.
Conflicts over religious clothing are the domain of judges and its not up to politicians to interpret the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he said.
“Freedom of religion is guaranteed under the charter,” he said. “It’s up to the courts to set parameters and to decide limits.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said the government will appeal a recent Federal Court ruling allowing people to take citizenship oaths with their faces covered.
Harper said Canadians are overwhelmingly against people wearing the niqab at citizenship ceremonies.
One of Mulcair’s MPs from Quebec, Alexandre Boulerice, said last week he was uncomfortable with federal bureaucrats wearing niqabs in the workplace.
Mulcair said Tuesday that Boulerice was only expressing a personal opinion and not representing the party’s position.
Niqab debate necessary — but the hysteria surrounding it needs to go
We need to proceed with caution on the niqab debate
By Andrew MacDougall, for CBC News Posted: Mar 20, 2015 5:00 AM ET Last Updated: Mar 20, 2015 5:00 AM ET
One of the joys of vacationing after leaving politics is that I don’t have to bring my work phone along, and if I do, I don’t have to check it like an obsessive monkey while I’m away.
And so when I fired up the Twitter machine on the shaky airport Wi-Fi to tune back into the world at the end of my recent holiday in Egypt, I wasn’t sure what I was going to find.
It turns out I didn’t miss much. Well, other than the prime minister talking some frank language about the culture that produced the niqab being “anti-women,” Justin Trudeau in return implying the prime minister is a racist while making dubious comparisons to shameful episodes in Canadian history, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney firing some crooked bullets of his own, and the commentariat spilling volumes of digital ink describing it all.
Isn’t it lovely when we have a nice adult debate about sensitive and challenging issues?
- Analysis: Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau wade into culture war over the veil
- Niqab-citizenship ceremony ruling will be appealed, PM says
As I was getting caught up on the drama, I was sitting close to a woman who was lifting her niqab to eat some lunch, while her husband sat next to her in shorts and a T-shirt. It was the first time I had seen a veiled woman in the 10 days I spent in Egypt, although I don’t imagine the niqab crowd go to Sharm El-Sheikh to get their sun among the skimpily dressed hordes of Russians, English and Italians. But I digress.
The prime minister’s point, it seems to me, is a valid one. If you were to compare the rate of veiling with the protection and promotion of women’s rights, you’re likely to find an inverse relationship. The woman eating her lunch next to me was waiting for a flight to Saudi Arabia, nobody’s champion for female emancipation. Well, no woman’s champion.
Trudeau’s comment about anti-Muslim fear-mongering is also valid, although crying hysterically that Muslims are a target isn’t particularly helpful, especially when it’s not the case. Ah, but the niqab hubbub is just a government proxy for a more insidious anti-Muslim agenda, they’ll say.
PM cited culture — not religion
It should go without saying that the prime minister’s comments don’t necessarily mean that all Muslims are anti-women, or that Islam, as it’s practised in Canada, will lead to a Saudi-style outcome. The prime minister mentioned “culture,” and not “religion,” for a reason, as the practice of covering the face isn’t mandated by the Qur’an.
It’s a cultural choice that some make. Indeed, the young woman behind the court challenge has provided an elegant defence of her choice in the Toronto Star.
- Listen: 3 Muslim women talk about the face covering
- Larry Miller, Conservative MP, recants inflammatory niqab-ban comment
But for others it’s a choice that’s foisted upon them, and so we ought to be worried about where on that particular continuum we are, and whether we’re at risk of moral relativism settling in to the detriment of women in our country. All sides should calm down and avoid hysteria so we can talk about it a little bit.
Returning to Egypt, it was fascinating to speak with young Egyptians in Cairo who had been caught up in the past four years of revolutionary turmoil. They were thankful for two things, above all else: that stability had returned to the country, and that the Muslim Brotherhood weren’t going to set women back. For these young Egyptians, the Brotherhood meant an end to dreams of equality. It wasn’t a matter of cultural choice to wear a niqab, it represented servitude.
The niqab makes a lot of Canadians uncomfortable, for a lot of reasons. There are many Larry Millers out there. But then again, why would we feel comfortable? We’ve never had a habit of obscuring our physical appearance in public.
There might be good reasons for it, and it would be good to hear from more people who wear the niqab, like Zunera Ishaq, so that we might figure out if she’s the exception, or the rule. Then again, those who have the niqab forced upon them will probably not be at liberty to discuss it. We might only ever hear from those who have a choice.
But try to hear we must. Other countries have had a similar debate, with some countries like France going as far as to ban the niqab. The government of Canada is proposing no such thing. The government, the polls show, has support for its stance on the niqab and citizenship.
There are two (difficult) questions for Canada to answer: What cultural practices, if any, are antithetical to our values as a country; and when do these cultural practices impede the government’s ability to do its job and what should be done about it?
Without doubt, the cultural accommodation debate is a tinderbox. We must proceed with caution. But if all sides insist on running around with matches we won’t get to debate, we’ll just go up in flames.
Andrew MacDougall is a former director of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He is now the senior executive consultant at MSLGROUP London. Follow him @agmacdougall.