What Canadians can learn from niqab-wearing women

By Natasha Bakht, Special to TVO.org - Published on Sep 23, 2015
Women should not have their rights taken away by a government that doesn't like their outfits, argues Natasha Bakht.

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When Quebec tried to introduce the Charter of Quebec Values Bill in 2013, which would have prevented all people who wore conspicuous religious symbols from working in the public service, the federal government denounced it. But no similar concern was expressed about Bill 60’s provincial predecessor, Bill 94, which targeted only niqab-wearing women and would have required a “naked face” in order to provide or receive a state service.

The federal Conservative government has a history of being keen to target and harass Muslim women who wear niqabs or veils that cover their faces. Last week’s controversy over the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision to allow an Ontario permanent resident to wear a niqab at her citizenship ceremony—and the Conservative government’s plan to take the case to the Supreme Court—is only the most recent.

There’s the 2007 Act to amend the Canada Elections Act (visual identification of voters) that would have prevented niqab-wearing women from voting while wearing their veils. Introduced by the government as Bill C-6, this bill died when Parliament was prorogued, was re-introduced as a private member’s bill in 2011, and hasn’t been revisited since—likely because we have voting by mail in this country and people can show two pieces of non-photo identification in order to vote. The unequal treatment of niqab-wearing women was perhaps too obvious to justify.

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When a niqab-wearing sexual assault complainant in Toronto tried to testify in court while wearing her veil in 2008, the government opposed this too. In the context of sexual assault, women’s clothes are closely scrutinized: they are typically penalized for wearing too little. In this case, this woman was told to strip because she was wearing too much. The defence argued that they needed to see her face in order to gauge her reactions to their questions. In fact, all of the social science evidence indicates that one cannot do better than chance at telling if someone is lying simply by looking at them. 

Prime Minister Harper has stated that such a garment is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women,” yet he appears to never have asked a niqab-wearing woman herself whether she might feel differently. Zunera Ishaq, the Mississauga Muslim woman at the heart of the citizenship controversy, has said: “To me the most important Canadian value is the freedom to be the person of my own choosing. To me, that’s more indicative of what it means to be Canadian than what I wear.” 

This makes sense. Women should not have to justify the clothes that they wear, and they certainly should not have their rights taken away by a government that doesn’t like their outfits.

Dislike or discomfort is not an effective measure for managing relations in a diverse society. Imagine for a moment that we legislated such that men who wear neckties are prohibited from taking the oath of citizenship. The necktie seems like an article of clothing that has little purpose but to make the wearer feel uncomfortable. It certainly reminds me of a noose. And I think it’s fair to say that many men feel pressured to wear neckties in order to appear professional. Would it make sense to take away men’s basic rights out of concern for them?

It is hard to believe that the Conservative government’s concern for Muslim women is genuine when what is clearly behind the repeated attempts at derogating from their rights is distrust. All new Canadians are asked to take the oath of citizenship. We take their word that they have recited the oath. Citizenship judges are not monitoring what each person says (or mumbles). Yet with niqab-wearing women we feel the need to see their mouths moving.

Distrust of niqab-wearing women is promoted by the government in its constant refrain that when one “joins the Canadian family … we reveal our identity through revealing our face.” All new Canadians including niqab-wearing women would already have confirmed their identity before entering any oath-taking ceremony. This is not about identity, but about encouraging intolerance and fear amongst Canadians about a certain group of people.

We’ve been through this sort of thing before. Remember the 1994 controversy over Staff Sgt. Baltej Singh Dhillon, a Sikh man who fought for the right to wear his turban as part of the RCMP uniform? Canadians may not have been used to seeing turbans, and certainly not worn by people in positions of authority. But we got over it. We don’t blink an eye when we see turbaned Sikh men or women walking the streets today. I think we feel proud that we came out on the right side of history.

We could learn some things from niqab-wearing women and their quiet, determined conviction. I imagine it is not easy to wear a full-face veil in a country where the prime minister distorts facts in order to rile up public resentment. But they have persevered in their daily lives, going to work, raising their children, explaining their choices when asked and speaking out, as all Canadians should when faced with discrimination.

We may not choose to live our lives in the same way as our fellow Canadians, but in my Canada we respect difference and eschew intolerance. This government’s attack on women who wear the niqab is appalling. It is contrary to the values that we hold dear, as this government has been twice told by federal courts. Our country has been built on generations welcoming new immigrants, respecting diversity, and accepting that though we may not always agree, we won’t further bigotry.

Natasha Bakht is an associate professor of law at the University of Ottawa, and the editor of the Canadian Journal of Women and the Law.  

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