Politics

Harper Government Told They Must Allow Niqabs at Citizenship Ceremonies

Today in Canadian-Charter-Of-Rights-And-Freedoms-News (obviously the best kind of news), a Federal Court of Appeal has ruled that Zunera Ishaq can take her citizenship oath while wearing the niqab.

Ishaq was at the centre of an inflated ‘moral panic’ that had Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander getting Canadians worked up over women’s rights, religious rights and Canadian culture, conflating the niqab, the hijab, wedding veils and, ahem, hockey masks.

Zunera Ishaq talks to reporters outside the Federal Court of Appeal after her case was heard on whether she can wear a niqab while taking her citizenship oath, in Ottawa on Tuesday, September 15, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

Zunera Ishaq talks to reporters outside the Federal Court of Appeal after her case was heard on whether she can wear a niqab while taking her citizenship oath, in Ottawa on Tuesday, September 15, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

Earlier today, the appeals court upheld the original ruling which stated that citizenship judges must allow the greatest religious freedoms to those taking the oath: ie, the veil stays.  Ishaq, it should be noted, offered to show her face to the judge ahead of the ceremony but declined to unveil in the public ceremony.

But as we are currently midway through an interminable election in which Stephen Harper’s embattled Conservatives are faring poorly, this latest news could potentially be harnessed for political posturing. As I argued for Elle Beaver last February, the case brought by the federal government against Zunera Ishaq had more to do with politics than ideological belief and instrumentalized a woman’s constitutional rights to achieve that goal:

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.

For a ‘dissenting’ view, let’s check in with The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente, ‘that paragon of conservative thinking,’ who wrote: “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.”

If Maggie Wente (who loathes the niqab) can come clean — then so should Canada and admit that the case against the hijab has everything to do with the politics of division — not principles. But why are Western societies, from France to Canada, focussing on the niqab?  And why this sudden preoccupation with women’s rights (seriously: the women who need the federally defunded domestic abuse shelters, sex workers falling prey to Bill C-36, trans women and the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women really want to know.)?  As I previously wrote:

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.

Interestingly, the Federal Court of Appeal judge decided to rule now so that Zunera Ishaq could take her citizenship oath and vote in the upcoming federal election.  Any guesses which party she might be voting for?

Zunera Ishaq, second from right, leaves the Federal Court of Appeal after her case was heard on whether she can wear a niqab while taking her citizenship oath, in Ottawa on Tuesday, September 15, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

Zunera Ishaq, second from right, leaves the Federal Court of Appeal after her case was heard on whether she can wear a niqab while taking her citizenship oath, in Ottawa on Tuesday, September 15, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

And any guesses whether we’ll see additional conflation between radical Islam and the veil from the Harper campaign, especially now as the Conservative Government is dealing with the disaster it has made of managing the Syrian refugee crisis (read: only “good immigrants” allowed – no Muslims, because terrorism, obvi).  Let’s note, however, that there seems to be some backtracking on the part of the federal government’s position, with Canadian Press reporting, “a Justice Department lawyer told court that the government never meant to make it mandatory for women to remove their face coverings for citizenship ceremonies — a position that left both the judge and Ishaq’s lawyers scratching their heads.”

But in the end, this *could* potentially still play into the wedge politics agenda, those non-issues used to whip the electorate into a frenzy.  Let’s remember how that worked out for Pauline “Charter of Values” Marois after her spectacular defeat during the last Quebec provincial election:

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.

Your move indeed, Mr. Harper.

One thought on “Harper Government Told They Must Allow Niqabs at Citizenship Ceremonies

  1. Pingback: Women of #Elxn42: Zunera Ishaq | Elle Beaver

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