Should it be illegal for women to wear a full-face veil (the niqab) during the official citizenship ceremony in Canada?

NiqabSomehow, this question has become a hot issue in the campaign leading up to the Federal election in Canada on October 19. It is hard to imagine there are not more substantive issues to debate at this point, but this one is certainly generating a lot of heat.

But, if Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi is right, the niqab issue may be both more important and less important than it appears.

In a CBC interview with Wendy Mesley, Nenshi explains both the trivial nature of this debate, but also the more serious underlying issue at stake. Nenshi describes the surface issue saying,

What we’re talking about is a symbolic ceremony for thirty seconds during a citizenship ceremony. And lots of people have said to me, “I think you should have to identify yourself… the issue of identity is very important.”… But the real part of the ceremony happens before the ceremony. You’ve got to unveil yourself; you’ve got to identify yourself; you’ve got to sign the oath. The actual verbal speaking of the oath is entirely ceremonial. And most citizenship judges invite everybody who’s a Canadian to stand up and take the oath together. … in the case of the woman in question here, she had identified herself; she had unveiled; she’d offered to take the oath in a room with women present. She’d also offered, I believe, to take the oath with a wireless mic, so she could be heard taking the oath underneath the niqab.

So is there an important underlying concern here? For Nenshi the answer is “Yes.” He explains,

The challenge is this. A lot of people have said to me, “Oh do you hate women? Do you believe in these medieval barbaric practices that treat people like property?” I don’t much like the niqab and I wish people wouldn’t wear it. But what I like even less is telling people what to do.

So, we’re hearing it’s a symbol of oppression for these two women who’ve tried to gain their citizenship with it and we shouldn’t let their husbands or their brothers tell them what to wear. Well how is it any different than letting Jason Kenny [Canadian Minister of National Defence and Minister for Multiculturalism] tell them what to wear. And the fact that two women are making this statement, are fighting the government, saying, “We want to wear it” – how are we protecting them if we tell them you can’t do something you want to do? 

If we want to have a conversation about the status of women in this country, let’s have that conversation. Let’s talk about murdered and missing aboriginal women. Let’s talk about the UN chastising Canada for its poor performance on women’s issues. And let’s talk about real social change that means we are funding shelters, so we are helping people escape from domestic violence situations such that they don’t have to do what their husbands, fathers, and brothers say they must.

Asked whether this issue is simply being driven by pollsters who have determined that apparently the majority of Canadians are opposed to the niqab, Nenshi answers,

If Jason believes [this is a medieval custom and a means of oppression of women] then he should attempt to ban it everywhere, not just for thirty seconds of someone’s life during a citizenship ceremony. He doesn’t do that because he knows that won’t pass muster with the Constitution. But to pretend that’s what he’s doing is really ridiculous.

As a politician I don’t really focus on what the polls say when the issue is of basic human rights. It’s not about majority rule when it comes to human beings and their rights.

My battle is for basic human dignity… for Canada to work means that we have to speak against the voices of intolerance and the voices of small-mindedness wherever we find them. And I think all Canadians should do that.

Now that is an important issue. A Canada in which all Canadians speak out “against the voices of intolerance and the voices of small-mindedness” is a vision worth getting behind whatever our political allegiance may be.