Harper’s Niqab Politics

In this Apr. 2, 2009, file photo, Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses media at the London Summit in London, England. (Courtesy of Richard Lewis/newsteam.co.uk)

In this Apr. 2, 2009, file photo, Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses media at the London Summit in London, England. (Courtesy of Richard Lewis/newsteam.co.uk)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper may want you to believe that he is helping Muslim women when he defends the niqab ban. But he’s not. It is a stance that further alienates Muslim women and all other minorities. His vow to appeal the ruling the federal court made earlier this month that would give Zunera Ishaq the right to attend her citizenship ceremony wearing her religious face covering feeds the damaging and longstanding us versus them mentality. This ban prevents anyone from taking the citizenship oath with their face covered. Compelling women to strip off parts of their clothing – parts of their identity- before they take an oath and join Canadian society pushes this group further into the margins.

People are drawn to Canada because of stories of its tolerance and acceptance, but the reality is not this idyllic society. This is, like many other parts of the world, a place where political goals supersede individual rights, a place where stereotypes about people and where they come from are repeated and enforced as facts. Ishaq, along with other Muslim women like her, is portrayed as an oppressed, silent woman who is incapable of defending herself. This argument is based on a weak premise that assumes that liberation and oppression are simple ideas that can be associated with the amount of clothing an individual is wearing.

“Leaders should be working to inspire young Muslims and all young people to make Canada the kind of country where everyone is welcome to live and contribute no matter where they are from, what they look like or believe in,” Amina Jamal says.

It is clear that this is not a matter of security because Ishaq has agreed to take her niqab off in front of a female officer. It is not a matter of equality because she chooses to wear the face covering. It is simply a matter of garnering support from conservatives before the election.

Harper’s statement in which he said “it is offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family,” was the catalyst that launched this as a political issue. The Conservative party website started posting slogans of “Not the way we do things” and “women are full and equal members of society.” Ryerson sociology professor Amina Jamal, who teaches a course called citizenship and nationalism and another course called women in Islam believes that this is a time when the government needs to assure Muslims they belong to the “Canadian family” rather than deepening superficial fears.

Sociology professor Amina Jamal believes that this is the time to assure Muslims that they belong to the "Canadian family" rather than deepening superficial fears. (Courtesy of Ryerson University)

Sociology professor Amina Jamal believes that this is the time to assure Muslims that they belong to the “Canadian family” rather than deepening superficial fears. (Courtesy of Ryerson University)

“Leaders should be working to inspire young Muslims and all young people to make Canada the kind of country where everyone is welcome to live and contribute no matter where they are from, what they look like or believe in,” she says.

Harper’s stance on this issue and the enthusiasm with which the Conservative party has supported his view is not surprising. This is a sequel to the Parti Québécois’s Charter of Values and the anti-terrorism bill currently under discussion. What Harper and his supporters don’t understand is that they are denying these women the right to be complex individuals that are Canadians, Muslims and many other things. He is making the same mistake as the Quebec government that took the liberation of Muslim women into their own hands without recognizing that controlling the fundamental act of how they dress is not helping anyone. The government needs to understand the simple fact that emancipating a person does not mean forcing them to inherit your beliefs; it is allowing them to practise the rights and freedoms they are entitled to.

With every such proposed and supported piece of legislation, we question the loyalty of people who have chosen Canada as a home. People who have in Harper’s words willingly become a part of “the Canadian family.” We allow them into a country where they believe they will be treated fairly, where they will have access to rights and freedoms and then we pull the carpet from under them. We add to the ignorant and harmful dialogue that increases suspicion and violence against this minority group. We lie to them and to ourselves about the kind of country we are, the kind of home we are.

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