05 October 2015

Niqab nonsense—much ado about nothing

I am no fan of the niqab. Hell, I'm no fan of religion. But if a Moslem woman wants to wear a niqab at a citizenship ceremony for religious reasons, I can't think of a single reason why I, or the state on my behalf, should prevent her. As long, that is, as she is prepared to unveil privately to establish her identity.

And that, Zunera Ishaq the young mother who took the government's ban to court and won, was prepared to do. In fact, up until 2011 that's exactly what niqab-wearers were doing. There was no problem. Everything went smoothly. In accordance with the law of the day, the women revealed their faces privately to prove their identity and then were allowed to wear their face covering for the purely symbolic, public oath-taking ceremony. This is what we call in a civilized country a reasonable compromise. We Canadians are very good at it; it's why we are a peaceable kingdom.

And then the federal government decided to make trouble. Rejecting the advice of their own legal advisers, they passed legislation banning the niqab at the citizenship ceremony. Ms. Ishaq challenged the law in court and won. The government appealed and lost. Now it wants to appeal to the Supreme Court. All of this legal mischief will of course be at the taxpayer's expense.

This is not a new struggle for Ms. Ishaq. She chose to wear the niqab as a teenager in her native Pakistan, somewhat to the surprise of her liberal family and to the discomfort of her college teachers. She has never had a problem with revealing her face in private, as for example when she passes through airport security or when she obtained her driver's license. She is simply balking at exposing her face to a roomful of male strangers when there is no practical reason to do so.

One objection to the niqab is the notion that it represents male domination of women. I believe it does, but if a woman freely chooses to wear it, as Zunera Ishaq clearly does, that complaint is irrelevant. Indeed, there is no little hypocrisy in all this. For example, many of those Canadians objecting to wearing of the niqab at citizenship ceremonies are members of the Catholic Church, Canada's largest religion. This institution, ruled entirely by men, dictates that women abstain from abortion and birth control. Men dictating women's intimate sexual practices is hardly less misogynous than requiring women to wear veils.

As for the government, Stephen Harper and his colleagues seem obsessed with Muslim practices. As The Independent commented, the niqab affair "smells like another attempt to mould the word 'security' around the religion of Islam." Do we see the evangelical Christian peeking out from behind the Prime Minister's skirts?

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