Feminist Killjoy: Mocking Niqabs by Mummering at Polls is Not Funny

Photo: Jon Keefe

Photo: Jon Keefe

Call me a feminist killjoy, but the emerging trend of Canadians turning up at polls wearing clown masks and potato sacks on their heads is… distressing. It’s a trend that’s cropped up in Quebec and Newfoundland, with vastly different motives, but arguably with similar, perplexing results.

In Newfoundland, the trend is intended to be supportive of Muslimahs: according to Jon Keefe, it’s a move that is meant to troll the Harper government and other racists.

In part, Keefe’s movement relies on mummering, a Christmas tradition in Newfoundland where people dress up in costumes, covering their faces with old sheets and challenging neighbours to recognize them, traveling between houses to dance and drink. The tradition is so popular that it even has its own December festival, complete with the obligatory parade.

In an interview with Vice Canada, John Keefe said:

“I realized there’s no obligation to show your face in order to vote, thought it’d be a fun thing to do just to get a rise out of the bigots, then had a sort of lightbulb moment when I realized a mummer’s costume would be the perfect fit.”

“There are lots of different cultures within Canada, each with their own values and traditions, but we’ve managed to coexist so far,” Keefe continues. “You shouldn’t have to show your face to a stranger in order to avail of your basic democratic right to vote – it doesn’t make sense. If even just a handful of people do it, other voters will see that it’s allowed, totally permissible, and the election staff gets hands-on experience with processing covered-face voters. Everybody wins!”

Photo: CBC News

Photo: CBC News

Or maybe not everyone wins? I’m not sure how Muslimahs feels about a sacred garment being harnessed to troll the government, but I’d be willing to bet the reaction would be mixed.

On the one hand, mummering at the polls is part of the grand tradition of light-hearted political dissent in Newfoundland and Labrador, “where flipping off the federal Conservatives is basically a national pastime.

So its intentions are pure and gentle at heart. But is that good enough?

Not all of these acts of political dissent were created equal and it’s critical to remember that these instances of trolling aren’t just taking place by the Mummer demographic in Newfoundland, but also in Quebec, where 93% of the population support the niqab ban during citizenship ceremonies. In a move that was evidently more derisive political statement than supportive mummering, one detractor turned up at the polls wearing a potato sack on her head.

There just isn’t sufficient context to justify humour in this scenario, particularly at a moment when so many Canadian Muslimahs are already on edge after one assault in Toronto and another on a pregnant woman in Montreal. There isn’t enough evidence about motivations behind some of these dress-up sessions to suggest that we’re all supposed to have a good, collective chuckle.

And frankly, even with loving and supportive motivations, it just looks like some Canadians might be trolling Muslimahs.

Photo: Rafik Hanna

Photo: Rafik Hanna

And of course, it doesn’t help that mummering and trolling with face coverings casts Muslimahs and the niqab issue firmly – and falsely – in the tiresome role of political “non-issue.”

Because we continue to dismiss the niqab as a marginal electoral issue. While to a certain extent it’s true (read: we can’t focus on the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women because we’re focused on the two women who have wanted to wear the niqab to citizenship ceremonies), it’s also critical to remember that the niqab is fundamentally about a woman’s right to choose and potentially about a woman’s Charter rights.

As columnists Margaret Wente and Chantal Hébert have both argued, the niqab is anything but trivial. Wente writes, “The debate about accommodation and values will last far beyond this election. It will be among the biggest issues of our future.”

Photo: CBC News

Photo: CBC News

So back to the issue at hand: political satire at the polls. I’m unconvinced that turning up to polls dressed as clowns or with hockey masks is actually helpful. To express support and solidarity, consider striking at the source of the problem and writing/calling/tweeting your local candidates and our fearless political leaders to air your grievances and let them know you won’t stand by and watch a woman’s struggle be instrumentalized for political gain. Or better yet, stand behind women like Zunera Ishaq when they make their voices heard.

It isn’t to say that mummering isn’t a spectacularly awesome tradition – it is. But let’s remember context, not just intent.

For now, I think I’ll just be a killjoy and skip trolling Stephen Harper.

What do you think of this trend?  Share your thoughts and comments – let’s talk!

3 thoughts on “Feminist Killjoy: Mocking Niqabs by Mummering at Polls is Not Funny

  1. Hey Isabelle! Great article. Here’s the rant I had that led to the creation of the mummer voting event:

    “If you want to hear some grade A idiocy, ask a stranger what they think about niqabs.
    A few points:

    -If you think the government should have the power to tell women what they can and cannot wear on their faces, you are an idiot.
    -If you think having to remove your hoodie to enter a gas station at 2am is even remotely comparable to a citizenship oath ceremony, you are an idiot.
    -If you think “they” have to do anything beyond following the law in order to fit into “our” culture, you are an idiot.
    -If you think this is an actual issue instead of 100% Harper-manufactured hype designed to bleed the NDP of support in Quebec, you are an idiot.

    Now, if only we could find a way for all these idiots to start wearing niqabs made of tightly-stretched cellophane…”

    Unfortunately, as far as media coverage goes, it seems that us Newfoundlanders are floating in an ocean of extremely upset Canadians — upset that a small group of people wish to exercise their rights in a manner different than the rest of us. My intent was not, as you allege, to harness a sacred garment for my own political purposes, but to demonstrate — using an artifact of my own culture — that the rights we would deny those who wear the niqab are rights that some of us hold dearly enough to make a fuss about.

    I fall short of thanking those who voted masked with impure intentions, but do appreciate in a darkly humorous fashion that they’ve helped set a fantastic precedent for covered-face voting continuing to be allowed in future elections. I’m not able to produce another example of Canadians protesting /against/ their Charter rights, but I’m sure there are others out there, somewhere.

    It will be interesting to see post-election statistics on voter fraud; I’m cautiously optimistic that the “I could have been ANYONE” straw/boogeyman conjured by the less tolerant will fall apart when the data becomes available.

    Your assertion that casting the niqab as a “non-issue” is damaging is correct, and as a meagre defense, I offer that a woman’s right to wear a niqab is enveloped in the broader right for all Canadians, regardless of gender, to cover their bodies in any manner they see fit when interacting with agents of their government. Given the current administration’s endless displays of complete contempt for all manner of women, I felt it fair to say that the niqab was bringing nothing new to the election. My wording was coarse and regrettable.

    I’d like to thank you for taking the time to write this article, and although I risk appearing boorish by quoting myself /again/ (this time from the linked Vice piece), I’d like to think it complements the thanks given previously, and gives everyone who comes across the story pause for thought.

    “It’s easy to be misunderstood when talking about issues that are complex or that people are unfamiliar with, and I think a lot of serious discussion is avoided on many topics, for fear of being cast in a bad light because something you say was misunderstood. I’m sure there are people who’ve read every word I’ve written about mummer voting, and still think the point is to mock people who wear niqabs. Sucks, but I don’t want to sterilize perfectly good satire just so people don’t have to worry or think. I thought about updating the event description to spell everything out in big neon letters, but… read, think, figure it out for yourself, y’know?”

    When I was a decade younger, Margaret Wente referred to my province as a “scenic welfare ghetto” and I’ve never quite gotten over it, so forgive me for not commenting on the content of her article.

    Thanks again for reading, cheers.

    • Jon! Thrilled you took the time to comment! Many, many thanks! What I think this article needed was a few more different perspectives (one from Muslim women, for example), as well as your own — this is a welcome and delightful surprise! I think that what you’re doing is fascinating, and I hope that it can be received in the spirit in which it was intended (unlike those who are doing this to poke fun at Muslimahs!). Thank you for joining us in this debate. And thank you for reading! Very warmly, Isabelle

  2. Have you people completely lost your minds? You would support a cultural expression of a culture that oppresses women and deplore a cultural tradition from Newfoundland?

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