Thursday, September 24, 2015

Harper and the Niqab. . .

I didn't really want to write a blogpost about the question of niqabs at citizenship ceremonies. I really didn't! But I am so shocked by the fact that not only are Harper's supporters lining up behind him on this but many centrists and even people who claim to be leftists have begun to quietly play Harper's tune.

What I find amazing is this - I still haven't heard a single coherent argument against the wearing of the niqab at citizenship ceremonies. I don't mean the arguments have been weak or poorly articulated. I mean I haven't heard a real argument. All I have heard are personal feelings and platitudes. That's it.

First of all, let's make it clear - your personal feelings about the niqab are irrelevant. That is the very point about protecting minority rights. The legal efforts to protect minority rights exist by their very nature because the majority don't like them in some way. If people didn't oppose them, there would, a priori, be no need to take steps to legally protect them! Whether you like it or not, here are the facts: the wearing of the niqab is a recognized religious principle (some try to argue that it is only cultural but since a significant group of people practice it as a religious symbol, with a long history, courts have already ruled on that) and we have an adult, articulate woman who has a serious religious commitment to it. Thus, we are dealing with a pretty simple case of minority rights. You don't have to like the niqab, you are free to argue that it is bad, a symbol of oppression, and problematic from a feminist point of view. But that is an entirely different issue from the legal protection of the RIGHT to wear it. I really don't like the man-bun or the wearing of socks with sandals but that is not a legal argument. In a country like Canada it is the muslim women themselves that have to decide, and the courts have to protect that right to decide. This puts paid to the most common platitude that is invoked to ban the niqab; that the niqab is "bad" or "sexist." Those things it may be but from a legal point of view entirely irrelevant.

Perhaps the most comic argument people appeal to here is when they suggest that because they can't wear a Batman mask to a citizenship ceremony, that means no one else should be permitted to wear any kind of face covering. I am amazed that anyone, other than your average conservative ignoramus has the gall to attempt to use this argument. Again, minority rights are about…wait for it…yes, minorities! Human rights are about universality. Minority rights (at least in cases like this) are about accommodation. (If you want to attempt to get the wearing of halloween masked recognized as a religious symbol worthy of protection, do so by all means.) The courts aren't protecting a universal right, they are protecting a minority right. In other words, if your personal feelings about face coverings mattered, leagally speaking,  a Supreme  Court would be unnecessary, we could just take a poll about every issue and let that decide about minority rights. But, of course, we all know what that would mean - slavery would still be legal in many places.

Even many Conservatives, as lame-brained as they are, now admit that there is no security issue. So we don't have to even go there.

Left with no real argument, even Harper has been reduced to pure symbolism to try to stir up anti-muslim sentiment (and, sadly, it seems to be working). He has been reduced to suggesting that there is just something symbolically wrong with someone covering their face when in a citizenship ceremony. Now, first of all, this simply isn't an argument. Since when did optics trump the principles of the constitution?? It is nonsensical and, like patriotism, symbolism has become the last refuge of a scoundrel.

But here's the kicker. Even at the symbolic level Harper is wrong on this one. Remember the racist storm that revolved around the RCMP/Turban debate? There too, people were reduced to symbolism, arguing that if an RCMP officer wore a turban he would be disruption to the symbolism inherent in the RCMP dress uniform. We all remember how the courts decided on that one. But the importance of that court decision was that the symbolism of diversity and the right to accommodation was the most important symbolism of all. The symbolism of a century-plus old uniform was nowhere near as important as the symbolism of accepting and celebrating the principle of diversity.

The same issue prevails here. The symbolism of the citizenship ceremony is tenuous at best. But the symbolism of diversity, accommodation and acceptance are the real symbols to which we should be looking.

There conclusion here is that I see, nor have I heard, a single real argument for banning niqabs at citizenship ceremonies. I have heard plenty of arguments that the niqab is a problem in general, that it symbolizes centuries of oppression against women, misogyny and sexism. Fair enough, I agree that it does. But surely we cannot overcome centuries of sexism against women by using the coercive power of the state to tell them what not to wear.


Anonymous said...

Count on Harper and his crew of 'old stock Canadians' to push this issue as long as they can so that they get out the bigot anti-Muslim vote and create the widest possible wedge issue without having to do much at all.

Bill said...

You wrote: I am so shocked by the fact that not only are ... supporters lining up behind....

But we're in the middle of an election campaign. Very few of my close friends (only the totally apolitical) are non-partisan right now. So I'm not surprised that people who are in any way politically active are shamelessly partisan. Riding associations are little more than election machines; their members are inherent bobble-heads.

Kim Campbell had it right: an election campaign is not the time for a serious discussion about anything.

Simon said...

hi Kirby....I did my part. I warned that for a piece of cloth a country could be lost. I said that mindless partisanship would only help the Cons. And this should be the final warning:

Anonymous said...

There is no legal basis to prohibit the niqab at citizenship ceremonies. Indeed, it is likely contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Can I quibble - in a friendly way - with your use of "minority" rights? It is semantics mostly - but also I propose a different way to look at the issue.

The rights engaged here are not specific to minorities (such as the Constitutional protections for minority language rights) but are the fundamental freedoms of Section 2 of the Charter of Rights, namely:

(a) freedom of conscience and religion;
(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;

These are rights that *all* Canadian have and enjoy - not just minorities. These are actually majority - universal - rights.

The same "rights" invoked by Niqab-wearing would-be-citizens are the very same rights that protect us from State-mandated religious education, or laws prohibiting blasphemy.

Canadians are blind to their daily use and reliance on these rights - they are like the water we swim in - and should be made to realize they are the same rights used by Zunera Ishaq.

The very existence of these rights, as so articulated, presupposes disagreement (disgust even) between differing religions, beliefs, and expressions (without such presupposition, there would be no need to specifically describe these rights at all). Canada has no legal basis for treating Christian beliefs and differently than Muslim ones (each case of accommodation is adjudicated on its particular circumstances - but the legal present case isn't really about accommodation, per se, in that there wasn't any rule or obstacle prohibiting the use of the niqab, but rather the Minister's ham-fisted attempt to erect such a rule, which makes it plain-old discrimination).

To call for less freedom of religion is to call for *less freedom*. End stop.

Kirby Evans said...

@ Anonymous - Yes, I think you are right about this being a section 2 issue. I think it is a convenient, but probably unnecessary, conceptual shortcut. But what you have said is true and well stated. I guess one can argue that accommodation (as that word is usually used) doesn't apply because since no special treatment is really being asked for. And I am certain that in court section 2 would be the only real issue. But I think the way I framed it makes it an easier argument in popular terms. Though I wonder if your point makes the way I have framed it seem somewhat racially tainted, while yours doesn't possess that problem.

Anonymous said...

Yes, we end up at the same place, just different routes.

In my experience, I often hear complainants about "special treatment" for "minorities". Those folks aren't persuaded by the protection of minorities argument. So it's those folks who need to hear the message that it isn't "special" at all, nor is it restricted to "minorities". These are fundamental freedoms for whom everyone has equal consideration and enjoyment.

Kirby Evans said...

@ Anonymous, Yes, you are right. But we are kind of stuck in a way, because what you say about my argument is true, it relies too much on people being fair-minded etc. On the other hand, I think there is actually more simplicity in your (legally correct) argument it is, nevertheless, something that many people find difficult to come to grips with. EIther way, I have a terrible fear that it doesn't matter because the latent racism of Canadians seems to be winning out and Harper is edging to his 2nd majority and we are edging toward a precipice that is more or less final.

doconnor said...

Like what happened with the Quebec secularism charter and banning gay marriage people start out following their baser instincts, but as the issue is discussed the merits of the arguments come through, people will come around.

That's why it is in the Conservative's interest not to make a big deal about it and that is probably why they haven't made a big deal about the marijuana issue.

karen said...

Thank you so much for writing this. I have watched an explosion of negative reaction around me to this, and it seems small and hateful, and out of proportion, and I have struggled to understand my conflicting feelings about it. I was alarmed when the ban first came out and then pleased with the Court's response, but at the same time I feel uncomfortable with the niqqab. This post and the comments have helped me immensely.

Kirby Evans said...

@Karen. I understand I sympathize with your conflicted feelings. The confusion is rooted in the fact that we too easily forget (and people like Harper want us to forget) the principles on which Social Democracies are founded - principles like freedom of religion, protections of minority rights, protection from the arbitrary exercise of power by the state, etc. When we forget these things then we too easily let our personal feelings play into areas where they don't belong. The niqab makes me uncomfortable, but honestly so do nun's habits and the kirpan. But if I let my own feelings enter into it then I am abandoning the principles of liberal, social democracy and going down the path of states that tell people what they can and can't wear, what they can and can't believe. The fact that politicians like are, for their own political gain, effectively encouraging people to forget and abandon our principles is an incredibly sad testament to our poverty of vision.

Askingtherightquestions said...

Kirby, I also want to thank you for writing this. I am of a similar age. I have had the opportunity to watch a variety of leaders over the years. I thought that Nixon would set an example and Mulroney? ...... but Mr. Harper continues to reach ever lower and I am never surprised at what he and his minions are capable of. Your points are legally and ethically correct.

What has shocked me, is the apparent level of support that Harper has maintained. I think our greatest hope is that the majority of Canadians will realize in time that this individual is the greatest political charlatan yet produced in our country. He speaks the counterfactual continually and without shame (none has discredited the phrase "Let me be clear...." more) , has little respect for the law while promoting a "law and order" agenda and has faced the existential threat of our time with negligence while destroying adequate, independent oversight and simultaneously cheerleading tar sands development. We haven't even covered the damage caused by "free trade" deals, the general destruction of the civil service and his attacks on health care. Harper has been allowed (with the aid of compliant, hyperpartisan MPs) to radically alter the political discourse of our country leading to a level of nastiness and "baffelgab".