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.