Idil Issa is a Canadian writer and consultant based in Ottawa.
It is unclear why Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party have latched on to the niqab in the lead-up to the federal election this fall. There are plenty of wedge issues that would allow a conservative PM to muster his base. However, it is the niqab, that alien garment, so unfamiliar to Canadians in their daily life, that has been selected as the wedge of choice.
What is the niqab? A cloth that veils the lower half of the face. Some argue that it originates with pre-Islamic Arabian traditions practiced by rich and privileged classes of women. It is a marker of pious separation, in a manner similar to the cloistering of nuns. The religious rationale is that diminishment of the physical allows one to more deeply plumb the depths of the spiritual; as such, the niqab represents a conservative interpretation of religious dress in Islam. Not many adhere to it, and given its tiny impact, not many bother to be for or against it. Until now.
On March 16, the member of parliament for Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, Conservative Larry Miller, told a call-in radio program: “Frankly, if you’re not willing to show your face in a ceremony that you’re joining the best country in the world, then frankly, if you don’t like that or don’t want to do that, stay the hell where you came from, and I think most Canadians feel the same.” By pandering to base prejudices, politicians like Mr. Miller are paving the way to the polls with discrimination, hatred, and division.
The impact that these casual remarks have on the few women who do wear the niqab is incalculable. Law-abiding and peaceful women, who may be marginalized to begin with, are further victimized by the insensitive decision to make political hay out of their private choices.
Prime Minister Harper fares little better than Mr. Miller. He stated in parliament that the niqab “is not transparent, is not open and, frankly, is rooted in a culture that is anti-women.” When one speaks of transparency and openness in public life, it is usually in reference to intangibles such as access to information and honesty, not to thread count. But perhaps this helps to obscure the Prime Minister’s own abysmal record on openness and transparency.
To those claiming that the niqab is antithetical to liberal democracy, I would beg to differ. The niqab is perhaps awkwardly placed within a republic, in which the people are, supposedly, ruling themselves directly, and must show up to a thought-experiment senate every day to legislate. One notices that France, and former French colonies, seem to have more difficulty with the niqab, and this may have something to do with republicanism and the understanding of the citizen as legislator.
However, in a parliamentary democracy, we elect representatives, and our will is expressed through them, at least formally. A niqab-wearing woman can voice her opinion, she can email her political representative, and she can cast her ballot. She is not hampered in expressing her democratic will any more than a person wearing tattoos, piercings or other unusual items would be.
Furthermore, it seems a little ironic that the institutions that have historically been birthed through a passion to preserve the freedom of conscience of the human being, whether midwifed by the persecuted Puritans in the United States who built a new kind of democracy, or the Protestants of Europe and Britain who dared to practice their religion outside the community of the Catholic Church, are now being used against religious minorities to curb these very same freedoms.
It is precisely the unpopular ways of being, related to the most fundamental aspects of our lives as free agents, which are jealously protected within a liberal democracy. Our ability to choose how we dress, who we love, who we meet with, who or what we worship, is the sine qua non of life in an open society. Any fundamental freedoms which turn on the popularity of a minority group within a majority population are freedoms that have not been fully realized. Reasonable accommodation, in this light, does not refer to what odd religious or cultural or sexual practices the majority is willing to tolerate, but what hardships we are all willing to bear in order to reach for true equality.
It is telling that the Prime Minister has chosen the swearing of the Canadian citizenship oath as the site where he wishes to restrict religious freedoms. From a legal perspective, the widest possible latitude is given to the most intensely felt personal convictions, which are engaged to meaningfully solemnize this oath, whether rooted in the Bible, the Koran, or secular-humanist values. Is this misunderstanding due to ignorance or cynicism? Given Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s track record to date, that’s anyone’s theory.