A Veil of Significance
One issue that has exploded into the forefront of Canada’s current election campaign to dominate its latter half is the question of whether it should be permissible for the niqab, a garment worn by extremely fundamentalist Islamic women, to be allowed during the swearing in ceremony for new citizens. The government of Canada has decided, to their credit, to say no. The two main opposition parties have resolutely argued against this. With some notable exceptions, the usual suspects in the chattering classes have sided with the opposition on the matter, while simultaneously deriding the entire matter as a distraction and non-issue that is not even worth the time to discuss.
The surprising thing is that despite the united consensus of the media, academic, and political elite of the country, there has been an equally united consensus from the actual Canada public that it is the government of Canada who are in the right on this question. Polls have shown as much as eighty percent of the public at large do not want the niqab allowed at citizenship ceremonies. This support crosses ethnic lines, with majorities of both first generation immigrants and the country’s visible minorities siding with the government as well. The “silent majority” is often spoken of in politics, but in this case it would seem to truly exist. None of the Laurentian elite of the Great White North may be willing to give voice to it, but the people themselves are speaking and choosing to say they want nothing to do with the niqab.
They are right. Now, the opposition have expressed numerous times that they do think it is the place of government to tell women what to wear. I agree with them, but that is not the issue here. In your private, personal life people should be free to wear whatever they want. If someone wishes to wear a niqab in their daily life they are free to do so with no regard for what I may feel about the matter. But this is not the private life of an individual we are discussing here. This is a public event, and given that it is a citizenship ceremony (the very moment when we are welcoming them to become part of our Canadian society) one could argue it is irreversibly intertwined with the very notion of what we are as a society. It is a statement of who we are as a people and the meaning of our values.
And those values are not those of the niqab. It is a garment that says a woman belongs to a man (either her husband or her father), and her body is something that can be seen by him and him alone. Her utter existence is the possession of someone else to do with as he will. It is an expression of an identity that is misogynistic, oppressive and at odds with the modern world in all of the worst possible ways. Now, it would be an understatement to say I am an espouser of traditional views on gender relations, so some might wonder why my opposition to this is so virulent. It is because while I certainly dislike the libertine debauchery of the modern world, my desired alternative is not the enslavement of one half of the gendered spectrum to the other. A man’s wife is not his property but his partner, one who owes duties to him but he also owes duties to in return. A true relationship between husband and wife is not one of domination but rather shared responsibility. And putting aside particulars this is a view near universally held by the people of Canada. Yes, one value we hold is that as a society we wish to maximize freedom for each other and so we allow others to think or act in ways we find abhorrent. However, we hold others values as well, ones that state that there are thoughts and actions that we as a people hold up to be abhorrent, and by refusing to allow them into the public sphere (even if we tolerate them in the private) we reaffirm that.
In truth, one of the most discouraging aspects of this debate has not even been the issue of the niqab itself, but the response I have seen from many of those defending it and most especially when it has come from individuals who in all other aspects of their lives proclaim themselves to be feminists. Those who have argued that we are a nation of laws, and those laws demand we must tolerate the intolerable may be wrong but I can at least understand the principle they espouse. If you consider the maximization of the individual’s liberty to act as they wish to be the utmost important goal for society at large then that view is consistent with this position. But what I have heard from so many quarters is an argument that goes even further; an argument that the niqab is not just something odious that must be tolerated like a bad smell but actually is merely misunderstood, that many women wear the niqab freely and even against the will of their families, that it’s seen as liberating due to society’s over sexualisation of women, or that it is only a symbol of their Islamic identity.
Now I’m sure there are women who do wear the niqab freely. What seems to be glossed over, and truly sets my teeth on edge, is the implication made by this argument that somehow all women are wearing it freely; that many women wear it only out of fear and coercion is some kind of delusion the Canadian public has that it is our enlightened sages’ duty to dispel us of, or so the argument goes. We shouldn’t just tolerate the niqab out of some liberal sense of “live and let live” but embrace it as a perfectly valid and acceptable life choice (as if it was simply a particularly risqué style of dress with no greater connotations attached to it), or so the fools drone. And this is the very reason why it is so important that we stand firm about not allowing the niqab to gain a foothold in the public sphere. It is because symbolism does matter, and in this case it reaffirms that the niqab is not something to be embraced, or normalized, or accepted as just another part of the Canadian cultural mosaic.
Indeed, one parallel I see quite strongly here is the debate that was held in the aftermath of the Charleston Church shootings about the Confederate Flag. Liberals and lefties and various progressive progs were lining up to say that while the flag might have been a symbol of Southern identity to some, to many others it was a symbol of slavery and racism, and that the latter trumped the former making the Confederate Flag something that had no place in the public sphere. With some hemming and hawing and qualifications I did ultimately agree with the basic principle that in the name of symbolism the flag should not have a place within the public sphere. With the niqab it is no different. Yes, we may tolerate it, because unlike some we do not behead, crucify, burn alive, drown or throw off the top of a building anything we happen to dislike, but we will never accept it as a part of who we are.