observations and opinion
for undecided voters, the niqab debate offers a good way to narrow down who to vote for
In the past weeks, the niqab – that curious face covering favoured by women from certain parts of the world – has become a divisive and perhaps decisive issue for Canadian voters. As you doubtless know, the Conservative government has declared that the veil must be lifted during citizenship ceremonies. The courts have ruled otherwise and the debate will inevitably end up at the Supreme Court, where Harper’s worst ideas go to die.
Moot though it all may be, the Conservatives are delighted to rip the niqab off women (figuratively speaking) and wave it like a flag, rousing the bullish nativist sentiment stirring not only among Quebeckers, but everywhere else. It’s helping the Conservatives.
A very smart guy asked me why the niqab might be acceptable for the citizenship ceremony, but not for testimony in court. My answer was this: because seeing someone’s face is important to assessing their testimony. Fact is, we don’t need to see someone’s lovely chin to to know she means it when she swears an oath to Canada. She can mean it, or not, face covered, or not.
No, the citizenship ceremony simply “feels” like a place someone shouldn’t be covered up, because the covering itself “feels” so deeply un-Canadian. And I’m not putting “feels” in quotes because I mean to diminish the sentiment: it’s valid. The shrouding of women is widely interpreted as treating them as second-class citizens, property, even sub-human. Exactly the wrong symbolism for the citizenship ceremony.
Most Canadians are affronted by the niqab. Indeed, I presume that the women wearing it do so because they feel intimidated – by men, by tradition – into being hidden. The niqab covers them up because they are so damned sexually tantalizing and all that tempting facial flesh must be concealed from everyone save the man who owns her. It’s appalling. When I see one, I shudder, the way I would getting a glimpse of a battered wife’s black eye.
I don’t want to see the niqab. I don’t like what it represents. I don’t like to think what it does to a woman inside it. But if I’m serious about that, how does denying a woman her citizenship correct that? If a woman is truly imprisoned in this garb, under the domineering command of some male, does anyone think she will lift that veil in a room full of strangers if she can avoid it? Might her husband decide his wife or daughter doesn’t need to become a citizen? Why not – he makes her wear a bag over her head.
Denying a woman her citizenship because she wears the niqab makes as much sense as arresting a woman whose husband gives her a black eye. We don’t like what we see, we don’t like what it suggests or tells us about her life – so we punish the victim. It is worse than stupid, it is stupidly mean. And it is ugly. And it is un-Canadian.
But there is another way to look at the niqab, some say: it is a woman’s choice. I’m sceptical about that but let’s say a woman truly feels she has a choice and decides to wear the veil. In that case, her outfit does not represent oppression, but rather its opposite: an exercise of liberty. And if that’s what a woman means to do by wearing the niqab at her citizenship ceremony, what could be more Canadian than that?
I have read that 85% of my fellow citizens agree with the sentiment that the niqab should not be worn when a woman takes the oath to Canada. My respectful message to them is this: you’re wrong. Whether she is forced to wear it or wears it by choice, no woman’s rights are improved or respected by denying her the citizenship she has otherwise earned. It’s wrong.
If you care about the women trapped in these clothes, do something to help them. Let them take the citizenship they have earned and use it. Denying her citizenship does only one thing: it lets you feel that strange tingle people experience being tribal and bigoted, with a politically correct reason for feeling it.
Some people will decide how to vote because they like that feeling and, finding a party happy to exploit it, will vote Conservative. There are some good reasons to vote Conservative, but this is not one of them. In fact, this a very good reason not to vote Conservative. After all, does a party which thinks so little of your intelligence and decency, really deserve your vote?
Unless they’re right about you, of course.