What Muslim female dress as a wedge issue means for Canada

By TVO Current Affairs - Published on October 8, 2015
four women in niqabs sipping coffee
Four writers give their thoughts on the political and social fallout from one of this election’s most divisive campaign issues.

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Over the past few weeks, the fallout from a single Supreme Court Case ruling that a Mississauga, Ont. woman has the right to wear a niqab during her citizenship oath ceremony has become one of the central debates in the last leg of this federal election campaign.

Much has been discussed about the place of the niqab in public life and spaces, both in the media and in leaders debates. But what does it mean to make a religious and ethnically divisive and complex conversation such as this a campaign wedge issue in the first place? Whose voices are heard, who is affected, and how might this change campaign and voter attitudes in the future?

In light of The Agenda’s recent episode, “The Us and Them Election,” we asked four people—writers, advocates and political scholars—for their thoughts. 

Niqab debate obscures ugly truths about violence against women at home

By Fariha Roísín

Zunera Ishaq’s court ruling on wearing a niqab to her citizenship ceremony, and the Conservative backlash to that ruling, does not happen in a vacuum. In recent years Canadian society, reflective of the larger Western culture and psyche, has oftentimes come to the defence of cheesy liberalism—i.e., what Ms. Ishaq is claiming for herself: “This has nothing to do with identity,” she said in a statement after the Supreme Court ruling, “and everything to do with my right—and the right of all Canadians—to think, believe and dress without government interference.”

This is, of course, a right all citizens in Canada demand. However, it’s a right specific to some, not all.

Canada, like a lot of the Western world, is brimming with Islamaphobia. That’s not a theory; that’s a fact. The events following Ms. Ishaq’s ruling—the manipulative foreplay by the Conservative party, the #barbaricculturalpractices tip line that re-invoked the settler-colonialist mentality of the party—panders to white liberalism. The concept that Islam perpetuates “gender-based violence” is an embarrassing ploy, not to mention the culturally specific, heavy-handedly racist use of the word “barbaric.” Rather than tackling the large-scale effects of ingrained misogyny rampant in Canadian civil society, this rhetoric instead concludes that violence against women is purely a foreign phenomenon.

“A sincere lack of interest in Islam, or Muslims—or our way of life—impedes the ability to move forward, on both sides.”

It is abhorrently myopic and shows a dishonesty for real social change. It ignores the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women, denies abortion funding to rape victims, and dismisses the fact that, on average, every six days a woman in Canada is killed by her partner. It overlooks that 66 per cent of women who have been subjected to sexual violence are under 24 years old; 11 per cent under eleven. It obscures that each year, over 40,000 arrests result from domestic violence—that’s about 12 per cent of all violent crime in Canada. This is a larger societal illness that hinges on a white, hegemonic patriarchal deception that the oppression of women occurs anywhere but here.

In order for us to move forward as a society, we have to acknowledge a devastating bigotry that so callously upends other people’s cultures purely for reasons of their otherness. A sincere lack of interest in Islam, or Muslims—or our way of life—impedes the ability to move forward, on both sides. Stifling sincere objectives by disempowering people of colour, or by exaggerating our truths in order to politically dupe is a sad reality for Canadian governance. We can do better. We should do better.

Fariha Roísín is a writer living on Earth. Her writing has appeared in Vice, The Huffington Post and Al Jazeera. She is the co-host of pop culture podcast "Two Brown Girls."

What polling data tells about the niqab and public opinion

By Daniel Rubensen

The niqab has suddenly become the talk of this election campaign. If nothing else, it has led to vigorous discussions about the meaning of citizenship ceremonies, the role of religious expression and, for some, issues of national security. The purpose of this piece, however, is not to delve into those important debates. Instead, I want to report on public opinion about the issue, and to shed some light on why it’s become an issue at all.

Together with Peter Loewen (University of Toronto) and Royce Koop (University of Manitoba), I am conducting one of the largest studies of public opinion in a Canadian election. The Local Parliament Project surveys 700 to 800 Canadians every day during the campaign, asking questions about a range of issues, including opinion on the niqab. This week, we asked participants if they agree or disagree that women wearing niqab should be forced to remove it during a citizenship oath.

“Electoral campaigns have historically not tended to be characterized by appeals to religion.”

Almost three-quarters of Canadians (72 per cent) think that deeply religious women should have to uncover their faces during the citizenship ceremony. To be sure, differences exist between party supporters, but our research indicates a majority of supporters of every party support a ban on the niqab during citizenship oaths. 

As per the Local Parliament Project, support for a ban on the niqab during citizenship oaths, by 2011 vote choice breaks down like this: Liberal: 61.5 per cent, Conservative: 85.3 per cent,  NDP: 72.4 per cent, Bloc Québécois: 85.7 per cent and Green:  59.4 per cent.

Electoral campaigns have historically not tended to be characterized by appeals to religion. This is not to say that religion has never played a role in electoral outcomes—see, for example, the extensive work on Catholic support for the Liberal Party—but the occurrences are rare. Does the recent rise of the niqab issue signal a change in this?

The answer, in part, is probably yes in that the Conservative Party is trying to appeal to a certain opinion on this issue and is trying to make moves in Québec. At the same time, it’s also somewhat of a non-issue: as Andrew Coyne pointed out last week, the policy affects an infinitesimally small number of people. 

So why, then, make this an issue at all? As our numbers show, opinion on the issue is fairly even across the political spectrum. The Conservatives will likely not lose large numbers of votes on it, and will surely gain some in key areas. As important as the issue itself, is what its introduction means more generally for the discussion during the campaign. Talking about the niqab means the other parties are not able to effectively talk about their own agendas. It is a strategic move by the Conservatives. 

Daniel Rubenson is an associate professor in the Department of Politics at Ryerson University and co-investigator in the Local Parliament Project.

The real threat to Canadian values isn’t the niqab, but fear

By Amira Elghawaby

It’s every kid’s worst nightmare. You’re on the playground, minding your own business, and someone suddenly yells at you: “Look at that kid! What’s wrong with that kid?”

Suddenly, everyone in the playground is staring at you.

That’s how Canadian Muslim women are feeling these days. All of a sudden, everyone’s looking at us, with a mix of fear, anger and misunderstanding. Some are even turning to acts of hate.

In the past two weeks alone, a pregnant woman was attacked by teenagers in Montreal who tried to rip off her headscarf. A mother wearing a face veil was struck at a Toronto mall. A young woman with a disability was verbally harassed at an Ottawa mall. University students were yelled at on a downtown Toronto campus.

Those are some of the cases we know about; there are likely more the public will never learn of. In two of the cases mentioned, the women were told by police that the incident was low-priority, and were discouraged from even reporting what happened.

“All of a sudden, everyone’s looking at us, with a mix of fear, anger and misunderstanding. Some are even turning to acts of hate.”

We are currently witnessing a disturbing attempt by political leaders to use identity politics to divide Canadians from one another and amplify a wedge issue that has little bearing on our day-to-day lives. This negative rhetoric is creating a climate in which some Canadian Muslim women say they feel threatened, alienated, or both. With Canadians preparing to choose their next government, suddenly a woman’s choice has become a symbol of all that is either right or wrong with this country.

Women of all backgrounds in Canada have been taking the citizenship oath for decades. Perhaps a few of them wore a face veil. Did anyone ever hear about it? Did it ever bother anyone? Likely not—and why would it? Everyone is expected to prove their identity before taking their oath, and women in niqab fulfill this and all other necessary requirements. The moment in which immigrants are “joining the Canadian family” is when they should be free to express their most sincere selves, as one former citizenship official put it on a recent call-in show. More importantly, the law permits the practice and Canada’s Charter protects it.

Yet with new musings about banning the face veil from the public service—a policy which would likely affect no one—keeping the issue alive remains a calculated and cynical ploy to distract from broader issues. Will this manufactured hysteria fade after the election? Perhaps, but some Canadians no longer feel as safe, or as welcome, as they once did.

 Amira Elghawaby is a journalist and the Communications Director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM).

The niqab debate as “politainment”

By Alex Marland

The Conservative Party’s position that Muslim women who wear the niqab should show their face in a Canadian citizenship ceremony is largely a red herring. It is little more than a wedge issue designed to distract and differentiate from their opponents, who believe that religious freedom ought to prevail. So why is it newsworthy?

The phenomenal market pressure for media outlets to offer “politainment”—that is, the treatment of politics as entertainment to attract attention—is partly responsible. Serious policy discussion cannot compete with the latest viral YouTube video or BuzzFeed lists when media organizations are locked in a competitive battle for eyeballs and ratings. More and more, newsrooms are in the entertainment business, delivering news with provocative images and dramatic story arcs containing heroes and villains. The niqab policy does not deserve more attention than bigger-picture social and economic issues.

“But unlike most policy issues, [the niqab] generates opinion and passion among even those who pay little attention to politics.”

But unlike most policy issues, it generates opinion and passion among even those who pay little attention to politics. Moreover, the topic appears to be having an impact on party standings in public opinion polls, particularly in Quebec. In the politainment era, the media is drawn to the horserace of public opinion figures, and the strategy of political games. They treat election campaigns like sport, with winners and losers proclaimed on even the most minor of matters.

In this environment, the niqab issue cannot be ignored. A candidate’s off-message remark is pounced on by opponents and the media. Or, a party’s policy announcement is then juxtaposed against another party.

Political parties keep leaders in a stage-managed cauldron of control to ensure that they stay on script, so that their key messages punch through the clutter. Even the most minor of gaffes can lead to ridicule. (Consider the Conservative party’s use of stock photos from other countries earlier in this campaign.)

During a 78-day campaign, should we really expect the media to offer us the same images of party leaders giving the same boilerplate speeches in front of a partisan crowd, day after day? Whatever you think of the issue, or the behaviour of political elites, if the niqab debate ultimately gets more Canadians to pay attention to the federal election, to talk about it—and to vote—maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.

Alex Marland is an associate professor of political science at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He is the author of Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control, forthcoming from UBC Press in early 2016.

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