Political parties can’t be all things to all people, nor should they. Instead, they court votes based on their principles, and where they align with various constituencies. The progressive vote. The “family values” vote. The middle-class vote. The ethnic vote. The women’s vote.
It is the latter two categories that are colliding head-on in the run-up to the next federal election. At issue is a war of words over the niqab, a face veil covering all but the eyes, worn by some Muslim women as a symbol of devotion to their faith, eschewed by others as not being strictly necessary according to the rules of Islam. The niqab is banned in some countries including Turkey, Tunisia and France; in others, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Syria, it is not legally required, but is a norm that when violated is met with ostracism and physical abuse.
Stephen Harper doubles down on niqab debate: ‘Rooted in a culture that is anti-women’
OTTAWA – Stephen Harper doubled down Tuesday on his aversion to face-covering veils worn by some Muslim women, calling them the product of a culture that is “anti-women.”
The prime minister ratcheted up the rhetoric against the niqab even as Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau accused him and his ministers of stoking prejudice against Muslims.
Among other things, Trudeau pointed to Immigration Minister Chris Alexander calling the hijab – a head scarf worn by some Muslim women – a perversion of Canadian values, and New Brunswick MP John Williamson, a former Harper communications director, referring last weekend to “whities” and “brown people.”
Here in Canada, the controversy involves the case of Zunera Ishaq, a Muslim woman who sought to take her citizenship oath wearing a niqab. Told she could not do so, she took the government to court and won. The federal government has appealed the decision: Stephen Harper’s view is that “This is a society that is transparent, open and where people are equal, and I think we find that offensive.” This week the PM went further, stating in the House of Commons, “Why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practice at that time that is not transparent, that is not open and, frankly, is rooted in a culture that is anti-women. Mr. Speaker, that is unacceptable to Canadians, unacceptable to Canadian women.”
Cue the cognitive dissonance. According to their critics, aren’t the Tories supposedly anti-women? Isn’t their income-splitting policy a disguised attempt to send mothers back to the kitchen? Aren’t their backbenchers constantly introducing private members’ bills that attempt to circumscribe abortion rights? Furthermore, aren’t they the party that was elected based on the support of immigrant and ethnic voters, and their appeal to such common causes as traditional family values?
But it gets better on the other side of the aisle. This week, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau lambasted the Conservatives for opposing the niqab – and basically accused them of being racist. “…[T]hose who would use the state’s power to restrict women’s religious freedom and freedom of expression indulge the very same repressive impulse that they profess to condemn. It is a cruel joke to claim you are liberating people from oppression by dictating in law what they can and cannot wear…. It is nothing less than an attempt to play on people’s fears and foster prejudice, directly toward the Muslim faith…. This is not the spirit of Canadian liberty, my friends. It is the spirit of the Komagata Maru. Of the St. Louis. Of ‘none is too many.’ ”
In other words, the Liberals are now the party of tolerance, inclusion … and the natural home for the ethnic vote. As for women, well, the Liberals are actually on their side, too, defending them against the dictatorial Conservatives who would force them to expose their face. The Liberals aren’t just pro-choice on abortion, they’re pro-choice where it really counts: in the wardrobe.
Except that they aren’t striking a blow for freedom, certainly not where women are concerned. That’s because the niqab is not merely a piece of clothing, nor even merely religious anymore. It isn’t a surgical mask, white shoes, yesterday’s underwear, or any of the other cheeky comparisons being drawn on the hashtag #DressCodePM, which was trending on Twitter while I wrote this. It isn’t a headscarf, turban, or kippa – and not just because it obscures the face.
Even if you defend the niqab on religious lines, you run up against the fact that not all religious beliefs are defensible
In the context of the current conflict between fanatic Islamic terrorism and the West, the niqab has transcended both vestment and faith to become a political symbol. It represents a rejection of the very enlightenment values that Trudeau supposedly defends: equality of men and women, freedom of expression, movement and association, and even pluralism itself. The niqab cannot be judged in isolation, but for what it represents. Countries where women wear the niqab do not allow them to travel alone. They do not allow them to drive cars. They do not allow them to vote. They do not allow girls to go to school. They do not allow them to perform the same occupations as men, or to mix with men in the public sphere.
There are other garments and images which started off as religious or benign, and have become potent political symbols. The pointed hood of the Klu Klux Klan was originally a religious outfit worn during Holy Week in Spain; it is now a symbol of racism. The swastika was originally a sacred Hindu and Buddhist symbol; it is now a symbol of the world’s most heinous genocidal war criminals. The balaclava was originally a helmet liner worn by British troops to keep warm in the Crimean war; it is now for many a symbol of anarchy.
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Would Trudeau be comfortable with a hooded Klansman taking the oath of citizenship? Or a Nazi wearing a swastika armband? Or an anarchist wearing a balaclava? Even if you defend the niqab on religious lines, you run up against the fact that not all religious beliefs are defensible. Would it be OK for a man – either Muslim or Christian – to bring his four wives to the citizenship ceremony, because his God says plural marriage is a right?
This isn’t about the right to choose a burka over a bikini. This is about upholding the fundamental values of the country in which you wish to make your home. While the Conservatives need to stop playing the fear card, the Liberals should drop the xenophobia accusations. And both should defend the right of women to be free from oppression.