Red Herring: Jason Kenney and the Niqab

Decided to post this from a couple of months ago:

The decision to ban the niqab during citizenship ceremonies by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney takes effect immediately. It could not have come at a better time for the Conservative Party of Canada.

Stephen Harper’s administration is being criticized for pulling out of Kyoto, for its handling of the housing situation on the Attawapiskat reserve, and for a controversial new border security deal with the U.S. The hasty niqab ban is a calculated move. It is an attempt at changing the course of political discussion at the present moment.

By his own ministry’s admission, Kenney and his staff do not know exactly how many Muslim women actually show up to the ceremonies with face veils. The arrived decision is supposedly predicated upon the complaints from several judges, citizens, and MPs—all of whom remain unnamed.

A lack of seriousness by the women who don the veil is the apparent suspicion that these complaints carry. If the woman is wearing a veil, then how can one be sure that they are reciting the oath of citizenship, as required by law?

This contention, for anyone who has been to a citizenship ceremony, is difficult to take seriously. I am a Chinese Canadian citizen who took his oath over a decade ago. I have been to many other ceremonies since then. Not once have I come across a case where designated personnel of the state strolled the aisles between oath-taking individuals to make sure their lips were moving.

It is not such a stretch to propose then that the concern with proper recitation of the citizenship oath is just a way to bring the niqab issue into public discussion. For many, the veil is a symbol of gender inequality. It is a post-9/11 sign that reminds many people of another time, when women were not given the same opportunities and rights as their male counterparts.

Real as that sentiment may be, wearing the niqab is still not as much of a contravention against constitutional democracy as many may think. Even if women who don the veil due to their own ignorance, core Canadian values still protect the individual against state coercion. Calling the practice “bizarre”, as Minister Kenney did recently, does not neutralize this binding factor.

Playing the “Muslim card” has become an international favourite. Numerous European and Asian countries have either implemented a ban on the niqab or have flirted with the idea. By presenting to Canadian a “remedy” to an ailment that does not exist, Minister Kenney shows that playing on post-9/11 fears and prejudices is still a politically effective ploy.

True, in many families women may very well be forced to wear a veil. However, banning the garment at citizenship ceremonies cannot possibly be seen as a blow to Muslim patriarchy. Sexism, as it exists in all communities, is a much deeper and complicated matter not exclusive to Muslims.

It certainly does not help that Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced several months ago that “Islamicism” remains Canada’s greatest external threat. The coalescing of this foreign concern and the domestic debate around the niqab compliment each other, and is perhaps capable of suspending the average Canadian’s attention away from more pressing matters.

The truth of the matter is, if Minister Kenney wants to ensure that every single set of lips utter the citizenship oath correctly at each ceremony, he can do so by designating specific personnel. It may be a comical “solution”, but focusing exclusively on women who wear the niqab makes no sense.

Canadian citizenship is coveted around the world for good reason. The protection of individual rights, and the incorporation of religious freedoms within our constitutional democracy contribute greatly to Canada’s international reputation. As a Canadian Muslim by choice, I have come across plenty of intelligent and determined women who wear the niqab.

Their steadfast hold on Canadian identity and Islam should remind Minister Kenney that being a Canadian is not about one’s apparel, but one’s character.