Last week, Prime Minister Stephen “Ethnic Costume” Harper stirred the political pot when he announced the government’s intentions to challenge the decision of a federal court which asserted that Zunera Ishaq had the right to take her citizenship oath as a new Canadian while wearing the niqab, the Islamic veil which covers the hair and face, leaving only the eyes visible.
The unholy trinity of Canada’s citizenship and immigration politics, led by Harper and enforced by his cronies Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander and Minister of National Defence and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney, took a page from Pauline “Charter of Values” Marois, inventing themselves a politically salient target: the veiled Muslimah of the immigrant variety (read: a living, breathing deux ex machina for radical Islam).
It all started when the mouthy Zunera Ishaq challenged Minister Jason Kenney’s arbitrary rule, which stated that a person’s face taking the citizenship oath must be shown. Federal Justice Keith Boswell struck down the ban, writing that it is a violation of the government’s own regulations that require citizenship judges to “allow the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization” of the oath.
And because the Harper Government has never met an instance of political opportunism it didn’t like, particularly when said opportunity can stoke the fires of his political base (read: Conservative, white, male and privileged Canadians who benefit from the status quo) and provoke a divisive moral panic, Harper took to the microphone to breathlessly call out the ruling.
Because hey, that’s “not how we do things here,” ammiright Stephen Harper?
“I believe, and I think most Canadians believe, that it is offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family.”
Well, I believe, and I think most Canadians believe, that it is offensive to suppress religious rights enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms at the very moment where a new Canadian is committing to join the Canadian family. (™)
The story escalated when Chris Alexander, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, was dispatched to enforce the edict, confusing the niqab, which covers the face leaving only the eyes visible, with the hijab, which essentially only covers the hair and neck. For a man who was Canada’s first resident ambassador to Afghanistan, that country of myriad Islamic scarves, and who presides over the riding of Ajax-Pickering with its own sizeable Muslim population, it’s a problem.
When pressed on whether or not he was talking about the hijab, or the niqab, Alexander took the opportunity to be clever, telling journalists that “people could not wear anything, “not a hockey mask, not a wedding veil, nor any other veil” that hides their face.”
Cute. Just precious. HI-larious, even. Because much like the hijab, the hockey mask is a garment steeped in centuries of cultural and religious practice. *rolls eyes*
But I digress.
Can we really trust the judgment of Alexander, a man who doesn’t seem to know the difference between a hijab, a niqab and a hockey mask? Can we trust the judgment of a man with a deeply flawed understanding of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to say nothing of the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling on what constitutes religious practice (i.e.: if you believe it, then it’s religious practice)? Can we trust this man to make an intelligible decision on our fundamental freedoms?
Or, is it possible that this conflation between the niqab and the hijab wasn’t accidental, but a calculated means to yoke the significance of the hijab, a fairly common and often fashion-forward sight across the country, to that of the niqab, an garment so often associated with religious austerity and which strikes fear in the hearts of some, a garment that is nevertheless a rarity and numbering only in the hundreds across the country?
It is precisely this rising tide of Islamophobia, embodied in the fear of the niqab, that Harper is counting on exploiting, with the end goal of sealing the deal on 15 seats in Quebec, that bastion of cultural intolerance whom we saw at its finest during the vitriolic Charter of Values debates. As the Canadian Council of Muslim Women writes in its introduction of its study on the niqab in Canada, “the niqab has often been problematized as a symbol of Islamic extremism, women’s oppression and lastly the failure of Muslims to integrate.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Ishaq’s lawyer, Lorne Waldman, who told CBC, “It’s all part of an Islamophobia that’s being created, I think the niqab is just another symbol. Some people find it a difficult symbol, so [Harper’s] appealing to that. It’s just really a part of this broader strategy of talking about jihadi terrorism and using the fear of jihadi terrorism to try and convince the public that they’re the party that can best defend Canada.”
Consider the skillful and willfully political juxtaposition of frailty and force in the way in which women wearing the niqab have been portrayed, as described by Natasha Bakht, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, “The government seems to be sending mixed messages — depicting niqab-wearing women as victims who are forced to wear a veil and as aggressors who can’t be trusted to say the oath of citizenship.”
And even The Globe and Mail‘s Margaret Wente, that paragon of conservative thinking, writes, “This is about politics, not principles. In the public mind, the war on the niqab is a proxy for the war on radical Islam. And waging war on radical Islam has been a solid winner.”
Politics, not principles.
But beyond fueling and harnessing moral panic over the niqab, the case against Zunera Ishaq is also part of a troubling pattern that is emerging in which women’s fundamental Charter rights are being snuffed out. Whether it’s immigrant Muslimahs seeking to exercise their right to religious freedom, sex workers fighting to preserve their right to life and bodily integrity by taking on Bill C-36, or women made to wait by political interference and bureaucratic inaction at Health Canada over access to a well-researched, established abortion pill, women’s rights are under threat. You know, (in)convenient women whose fundamental rights give Harper’s Conservatives the vapours. Easy targets whose unpalatable rights make them convenient targets whose cause can be subverted and instrumentalized to serve a political agenda.
Let’s be clear: Stephen Harper doesn’t give a fuck about women’s rights. He isn’t even courting the prized female vote. Harper is consolidating his political power in this, an election year, on our backs. We need to close ranks, engage in politics, and VOTE. Tell Harper he has no business in the bedrooms of the nation, nor in its closets, nor in a sex worker’s boudoir. Because today, the Harper Government has come for the rights of Muslimahs and sex workers. Tomorrow, they might come for the fundamental rights you hold dear.
But if it’s the business of politics Stephen Harper is pursuing, he might be wise to take another page from Pauline Marois: divide society, let the economy tank, foster a climate of exclusion and hate, get voted out by the Liberals.
Your move, Stephen.
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