Is the Canadian citizenship ceremony a place where Muslim women should show up with their faces covered to take the oath? Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government thinks not. And it’s a fair bet that a lot of Canadians would agree.
Even in the Muslim community, the niqab and burqa are controversial. Only a tiny fraction of Muslim women go about veiled. The few who do deliberately hold themselves aloof from the wider community and display beliefs that run counter to ideals about equality between men and women. These are jarring signals to be sending at the very moment when one is joining the Canadian family.
As Immigration Minister Jason Kenney sees it, the veil “reflects a certain view about women that we don’t accept in Canada. We want women to be full and equal members of Canadian society and certainly when they’re taking the citizenship oath, that’s the right place to start.” Again, most people would probably agree.
All that said, should Canada be coercing women to fit into the “mainstream,” whatever that may be in our pluralistic society, by withholding citizenship, along with the right to vote, run for public office and hold some jobs? Is the citizenship ceremony the place to demand that newcomers give up deeply held religious or cultural practices that are perfectly legal and don’t hurt anyone else? Is it the place to be telling newcomers to behave and look just like us, or pay the price?
What “matter of deep principle” is Kenney trying to affirm here? And how does it square with Canada’s vaunted image as an open, tolerant, welcoming society?
Indeed, where does the Conservative government get off by denying otherwise qualified people citizenship without benefit of a debate in Parliament and the appropriate legislation? It’s one thing to expect newcomers to speak English or French, to grasp something of our history and to respect our laws. It’s quite another to demand that they pay obeisance to mainstream cultural preferences. Where could this leave any minority?
Ironically, this comes as the Supreme Court is weighing the case of a Muslim woman who wants to wear a niqab in court as she testifies against relatives whom she says sexually assaulted her. The issues are quite different: in a courtroom, a woman’s right to cover her face must be weighed against the accused’s right to a fair trial. But the high court is rightly giving due consideration to cultural accommodation even as the immigration ministry brushes the notion aside in a situation where no one else’s rights are at stake. There’s a gaping disconnect here. **VERY much agree with this.
Unfortunately, the Harper government has never seen a Muslim veil that it didn’t want to ban. Kenney has also said he thinks it “reasonable” that Muslim women be forced to show their faces when they vote, even though hundreds of thousands of people have voted in past elections by mail-in ballot, sight unseen. He’d like to fix a “problem” that exists only in his mind.
The remedy, in the case of citizenship oaths, should not be hard to find. Why not have the few veiled women who want to swear the oath unveil themselves before women judges, in private, or before a male judge if they are willing? (This would also address Kenney’s unpersuasive concern that some judges find it hard to tell whether veiled women are reciting the oath.) We know of no cases in Canada where women have refused to show their faces to obtain passports, driver’s licences and other documents, or to clear security and immigration at ports of entry. Why should administering a citizenship oath be so problematic? **VERY MUCH agree with this as well.
Unless, of course, the government is simply singling out a tiny number of women to curry favour with the majority. But that would be bigotry. Kenney believes in “full and equal” membership in society. A good place to begin would be to resist the impulse to punish those who are different – however much we disagree with their beliefs.