Activists and opponents accuse government of division politics
On Oct. 5, Zunera Ishaq, the woman who defended her right to wear the niqab during her citizenship oath in court, became a Canadian citizen. She stood fully veiled as she recited her oath and received her citizenship certificate.
Even though the ordeal is over for Ishaq, the debate on the niqab continues to rage across Canada. Stephen Harper and the Conservative party claim that taking off the niqab when you gain Canadian citizenship is at the core of Canadian values. The Liberals and the NDP disagree, with Justin Trudeau accusing the Conservatives of playing “very reckless and dangerous games” of division.
A taxpayer-funded poll ordered by Harper earlier this year concluded that 82 per cent of Canadians were in support of the niqab ban during citizenship ceremonies, with that support leaping to 93 per cent in Quebec. (NDP support in the province began to slide following the introduction of the niqab debate.)
Are students as divided as the rest of the country? That’s a difficult question to answer, according to Richard Bisaillon, a political science professor at Concordia University.
“My own experience is that this youth demographic doesn’t care as much about these issues, is much more open-minded on them,” said Bisaillon. “Do those poll results reflect their position or their interpretation on the importance of the niqab? I would like to think not … But I don’t have the numbers to run age-by-attitude and see if it’s different for that particular demographic.”
Nikos Pidiktakis, a political science student at Concordia University, understands why the issue is so complex, especially in Quebec.
“It plays to the whole issue of ‘reasonable accommodation’ that we had here in Quebec,” Pidiktakis said. “On the one hand, the case can be made that the symbolism of her wearing it during the citizenship ceremony may send the wrong message that she has not integrated enough … At the same time, we should not use the coercive power of government to mandate “acceptable” dress codes for the whole of society.”
Others don’t see the value in the conversation at all.
“I think it’s, in part, good that they’re talking about it, because it helps me find out who I’m definitely not voting for—those who use terms like ‘old stock Canadians’ maybe,” said Karina Trubiano, a third-year political science student at Concordia. “At the same time, I feel like it’s a little outrageous that there needs to be a discussion on this non-issue. Freedom equals choice. People should be able to wear what they want … Who the fuck are we to take that away?”
Rana Salah, Canadian Muslim and member of the feminist collective Dragonroot Media, believes the niqab debate shows a lack of understanding of the Muslim faith.
“Much of the biased arguments presented to me by people against the niqab include the concept that all niqabis are either forced to dress that way or are incapable of knowing what’s best for them, and thus we have to ‘save’ them,” said Salah. “By supporting the ban against the niqab, it silences the women who wear them by making assumptions about their lives and … demonstrates a deafness to listen to their reasons for why they wear it.”
As for the allegation that the niqab is being used as a “wedge issue?” It’s not uncommon, according to Bisaillon.
“Anything that’s going to catch the public’s attention during this period of time will be used by one party or the other as a hot-button issue,” said Bisaillon.
However, Salah fears the impact focusing on the niqab could have.
“It doesn’t make sense [for] a way of dress worn by an incredibly low number of women in this country should be the center of public attention,” said Salah. “[It’s horrible to] obsess over it instead of actual issues that affect women in this country such as violence, the gender pay gap or the lack of inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women.”
Salah added that you don’t need to like the niqab to oppose the ban.
“I think it’s important for people to realize that supporting one’s right to dress a certain way doesn’t mean you agree with them,” Salah said. “Just because you don’t like the way someone dresses doesn’t mean a law should be passed to regulate them.”