In Your Face: Rules, Conventions and Cultural Sensitivity in the Niqab Debate

By H. Grant Timms

I try, up the level of my admittedly low tolerance, to keep an eye on the comments sections of some of the news and political sites on the Internet. Recently, the case of Mrs. Zinera Ishaq and her niqab has popped up again. As it was in February when the case was first getting a lot of coverage, there are people who remain very angry about this issue – as are the PM and Minister of Immigration Chris Alexander, apparently.

Were I obliged to take a position, and vote on an issue like this, I would likely favour banning all religious symbols from civic ceremonies. On the other hand, if, as is the case, the country is to be religiously pluralistic, and is to uphold the principle of religious freedom then it banning any religious accoutrement would seem to be inconsistent with that principle. Also inconsistent are statements by politicians (even if only in Tweets) designed to provoke prejudice and exploit religious intolerance for their own cynical political purposes.

I know little about the religion or the religiously based custom to which Mrs. Ishaq adheres; I thus approach the issue with some caution, as I would not want to give offence (however inadvertently) on a subject I admittedly know little about. In part, my concern in this regard stems from my solidarity with many friends and family who have strong feelings on issues such as this – particularly those who, through their service, have demonstrated their patriotism, have stood up for Canada and what they believe in as a system of Canadian values. They, to be sure, need no reminder that these values are enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that one purpose of the Charter is to protect the rights of minorities against the tyranny of the majority – including the tyranny of majority government.

Religious freedom and cultural pluralism go hand in hand. To uphold one in principle is to uphold the other because there is, and can be no clear distinction between the two. Upholding the principle of religious freedom, moreover, includes the idea that what the non-Christian thinks of Christianity, or what the non-Muslim thinks Islam means, has no political significance. Pluralism is based not only on tolerance but on deference – something Minister Alexander, it appears, has yet to learn. Once that first line is crossed, and one is not willing to defer to the meaning held to by the person of faith, tolerance ceases soon after.

This is not to say that a country should not have things that the people hold to in common. We surely must grant to a society or nation the prerogative if not the right to determine what its own values, customs, traditions and symbols are, given that these are the things that distinguish it from others.

The neat trick always involves determining where to draw the line because, as we’ve recently seen in the South Carolina debate over the Confederate Battle Flag, one person’s symbol of freedom can be another’s symbol of oppression.

One could, I suppose, place the niqab debate in the same context as the battle flag, because, well, it was. Mrs. Ishaq, in taking the federal ban on wearing the niqab during a citizenship swearing in ceremony to federal court (where she won), insisted that the garment held for her a particular meaning, and this involved a religious duty to wear the garment while in public. Religious obligations, when undertaken by individuals, are curious things: one exercises one’s choice to give oneself no choice. Mrs. Ishaq, on one hand insisted she had no choice but the wear the niqab, but on the other this was a religious duty she undertook voluntarily — and the Charter gave the right to the religious expression of her choice. In this way, then, the niqab served as a symbol of her religious freedom.

The niqab also served as a symbol for the Prime Minister and the Minister of Immigration, though the meanings differed significantly. The PM complained that covering the face went against a Canadian tradition of openness and transparency; the naked face served as a symbol of honesty, sincerity, and ingenuousness. For the PM, apparently, the niqab was the functional equivalent of a mask, and so symbolised disingenuousness, insincerity and perhaps even dishonesty. For Minister Chris Alexander, it was a symbol of the oppression of women in foreign countries. For him, it implicitly, or even explicitly, symbolised inequality. In linking it the Taliban, he suggested it symbolised that group, and so he gestured toward the idea that the niqab was a symbol of Terror.

So we are talking about symbols. There is nothing about this particular garment, or any other object, that demands it must have a specific meaning – or any at all. Both the niqab and the hijab are bits of cloth that could have been made into any number of different garments, or used as a table cloth, or made into a pillow case. To create an object as a symbol, we are simply taking object A and attaching a thought B to it, and creating a relationship between the two. But the relationship is not a necessary one. The relationship is one that exists first in the mind.

Other than the fact that the niqab issue had not come up in citizenship swearing in ceremonies before now, I’m not sure where the Prime Minister got the idea that an uncovered face was part of Canadian tradition. The associations the PM has made suggest, rather, that he is speaking to culturally grounded understandings of what a covered face means. Indeed, it might even be an understanding derived more from popular culture — such as that found in old westerns.

Mr. Alexander, on the other hand, is invoking a recently formed association between the niqab and the Taliban. One would venture a guess that prior to 9/11 he, like most people in the West, had never even heard of the niqab, probably did not associate it with the oppression of women and certainly had not associated it with the Taliban.

Perhaps it is time that the legislature undertook a discussion of the issue, and crafted clearer, more up to date rules for citizenship swearing in ceremonies. Clearly, there must be rules that respect not only customs but good taste. For, in principle — and aside from the religious implications — there is really no difference between a niqab and a pair of trousers. If government is granted the right to demand that citizens being sworn remove one kind of garment, why not others? At what point does partial nudity become an affront to the solemnity of the occasion?

More seriously, some of the popular outrage over this issue appears to stem from the perception that citizenship requirements are too lax, or that new immigrants are given too much latitude in terms of an obligation to adopt Canadian standards and values. Fine. Let us have an open public discussion about such things. Pluralism is, and always has been one of those great Canadian values, but finding ways to creation social solidarity is likewise important. Our geography and regional diversity, coupled with a small population has always made this a challenge. Perhaps it is time for an open political debate about what Canadian values actually are, and what makes certain values specifically Canadian.

What is interesting about Mrs. Ishaq’s case, however, is that her use of the garment has profoundly disrupted the meanings that both the PM and Mr. Alexander ascribe to it. The PM’s meaning she denies, though she has made efforts to accommodate his cultural sensitivity. She has subverted Mr. Alexander’s meaning by standing up to authority — his and the PM’s. Granted this is a different one than the rigidly patriarchal religious authority Mr. Alexander sees as the meaning of the niqab, but an authority just the same. What is more, she has stood up to an authority for which there is no legislative backing, nor is there (even more importantly) a constitutional backing — as her case before the federal court demonstrated. The only authority the PM and Mr. Alexander have invoked is popular opinion and prejudice that has made the same symbolic associations that the PM and Mr. Alexander have.