The Niqab Debate

It is a discussion that needs to be had, though it is unfortunate that it became an election issue. Political points were being scored over something that is far more fundamental than party politics.

The niqab has been much discussed in Canada recently, with the government and the courts taking opposite positions. Strangely, they are both right

The question was: should a Muslim woman who wears a niqab for religious reasons be permitted to take the Canadian citizenship oath while so veiled. The Conservative government said no. The courts said yes. (The woman was willing to unveil privately to officials before the ceremony, she just didn’t want to show her face in public.)

That wearing the niqab is not a religious requirement for Muslims seems to be commonly understood, but that is irrelevant in this case. The woman in question feels it is central to her faith, and under Canadian law that is sufficient. After all, there are differences of belief among Christians. My reading of the Bible may be different from yours, we might even disagree on the basics. I think though that we would be in agreement that we don’t want the government passing judgement on what is or is not central to our faith. If the woman thinks the niqab is a religious requirement I may think she is deluded, but my thoughts on the matter are irrelevant.

It boils down to the question of what do we as a society want as our core values? Becoming a Canadian citizen is not a right but a privilege. In the past half century or so Canada has seen itself as a mosaic, not the American melting pot. That implies a respect for others’ cultures, which may include women wearing the niqab.

I know all the arguments, that the niqab is a symbol of cultural oppression and therefore un-Canadian. In this one case though it seems that the decision to wear it was freely undertaken by an intelligent and articulate woman. Do we take things too far when we generalize? Or are there common values that all Canadians ascribe to? Should those aspiring to citizenship, who wish to become part of the Canadian family, agree to a set of family values, even if it means setting aside cultural or religious convictions? I am assuming there is something about Canada and its culture that draw people to want to become citizens. If so, shouldn’t newcomers accommodate themselves to society rather than expecting society to accommodate them?

Canada in the 21st century is vastly different from Canada in the 19th century. We are no longer white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant (if we ever really were) with a grudging tolerance for Francophone Roman Catholics and no use for the Aboriginal population whose ancestors were here first. We pride ourselves on our tolerance of other cultures, but the niqab became a hot-button issue in the election campaign, one that cost parties votes, no matter which position they took. Emotions seemed to replace logic and reason on both sides of the debate.

Public opinion was overwhelmingly on the side of the Conservative government (which was not re-elected, showing that the niqab was not the most important election issue). But I wonder how much thought the average person really gave to the subject, and how much was a gut reaction, an understandable but somewhat illogical fear of the “other.” Immigration patterns have changed, and those with European background may at times have difficulty accepting that.

I am not a big fan of the niqab, though I won’t go into all the arguments against it. My reaction may not be logical. After all, I grew up in a culture where the only people who covered their faces were bank robbers.

I do think there is a lot to be said in having shared values, but we need to have discussion as to what those values actually are.

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