Like many of us, I have thought a great deal about the issue of the niqab in public life. The recent banning of this garment in public in France set many people thinking and talking about the question and Minister Kenney's recent banning of the niqab in citizenship ceremonies has generated a certain amount of debate. After thinking about it a lot I have come to certain conclusions about the arguments that people have made.
I believe that the arguments that people like Jason Kenney have made are essentially shallow and empty. Appealing to questions of 'security' and the public nature of the citizenship ceremony is simply absurd. First of all, I became a citizen some twenty-five years ago and there were only a couple of people there. I am sure that there was no restricted access to the event, but that didn't mean it was a "public" event in the sense that that term is commonly used. Furthermore, an event can be "public" and restricted at the same time. We have all seem marches protesting violence against women in which men, understandably, do not take part. I have no problem with such events. One might argue that such exclusions are divisive, but in such matters I bow to those for whom it is most important and the organizers. A swearing-in ceremony that didn't include men would not be ideal, but I believe that it could still qualify as public for all intents and purposes. Furthermore, suggesting that someone's face being covered-up somehow robs the event of its "publicness" is patently absurd and purely conventional. We generally attend most public events with almost every part of our body covered, I don't see how there exists a huge conceptual distinction concerning the covering of the face. As for the question of "security," this is, I believe, a non-issue and part of the traditional scare-politics of the rightwing. No, Minister Kenney's arguments are hollow and specious and meant only to maintain a politics of fear. I don't think the issue is that Mr. Kenney hates Islamic women and wants us to fear and hate them also. Rather, like rightwingers have always done, they turn Islamic women who wear a niqab into simply a means to an end, an easy target that allows the right to a divided society in which we all fear compromise, difference, and perceived deviancy. The right has always depended on images of "normality" as well as division and fear to maintain power. This is what their crime bills are about. They know crime is at an all time low and that their efforts will do nothing to decrease crime or reform criminals. Rather, their efforts are about creating a brooding sense of doom among citizens in which we all imagine that there are criminals behind every corner and if we practice an open and forgiving lifestyle we will all go to hell in a hand-basket.
Now we have to address the question of religious symbolism. Many people have argued in public that the niqab is not, in fact, a religious symbol but only a cultural one. People like Kenney, of course, need to make this argument because if it is a religious symbol not only will the optics of prohibiting it be bad but eventually the SCoC will strike down any restrictions that Mr. Kenney seeks to make. The problem is, of course, that the SCoC has already rulled that what is important in such matters are not the technicalities of whether a particular symbol or action is or is not actually part of a religion, but whether there is a reasonable conviction among certain people that it is so. This was a necessary decision by the Supreme Court because it didn't want to put itself in the position becoming the ultimate arbiter of theological questions. Such a situation would have been deeply problematic and inevitably created all sorts of bad blood between people and groups. Based on these facts it is folly to make an argument about the non-religious status of the niqab and any such argument will eventually fail.
Now, having said all of that, I believe the only meaningful argument that one could present concerning restrictions of the niqab would be a kind of feminist one. Like many people, I admit to being troubled by the niqab. I can't imagine any religion or culture that really believed in gender equality in a meaningful way, advocating such garments which hide women from public eyes. Furthermore, I believe that the niqab and even the hijab do the exact opposite of what the advocates suggest that they do, and instead they sexualizes women by suggesting that simply seeing the head of a woman precipitates sexual feeling. The creation of a taboo often creates sexuality where none might otherwise exists. The problem is, however, that even if I have a certain amount of trouble with people's actions, it doesn't mean that I can justify restriction of those actions. One always has to weigh questions of freedom with questions of prohibition. And here we have a real problem - it can be very paternalistic for us to tell women who wear the niqab that they are victims of a rampant misogyny. These are adult women, most of whom would say that they are making their own decisions. And of course, there are not very women in Western nations who actually wear the niqab. I remember when France took steps to outlaw the public use of this garment it was estimated that their were only two thousand women in all of France that used the niqab. This small number of people makes restrictions on them seem like a serious over-reaction. When only a very small number of people choose to engage in what many perceive to be a strange or deviant behaviour, it is difficult to justify restrictions on that behaviour unless it is clearly and demonstrably harmful to others. I think one could make an argument that the niqab is harmful to women, but even in a strong argument that harm would be socially small and I think outlawing the niqab would simply create more problems than it would aim to solve. I mean, I would like to see the end of skinny, anorexic-like models, in magazines and on television, but legislating the weight of models would be an near-impossible issue.
Thus, even though I could see that one could make an argument against the public use of the niqab, I ultimately believe that such arguments are simply not strong enough to justify the outlawing of this garment, and as long as we have not outlawed it, restricting its use in public (whether at a citizenship ceremony or elsewhere) is deeply problematic.
I have no doubt that Mr. Kenney, or any rightwinger, will be swayed by my arguments here. They are generally not interested in the actual arguments (pro and con) for an issue, they have goals that transcends the actual issue, and these goals are usually about fear, division, control, and power. Jason Kenney has as little interest in the rights of women as he does about democracy, or justice; these things only mean something to him in as much as they can lead to his power and control. But I have a real hope that the Harpercons will eventually be hounded from power by a public that realizes just how evil and anti-democratic they are, and when that time comes I hope that reasonable discourse actually means something.
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