by Matt Sheedy
A recent controversy has erupted in Canada over the case Zunera Ishaq of Mississauga, Ontario, (a suburb of Toronto) who sought to challenge a prohibition against wearing a niqab during her oath of allegiance in a swearing in ceremony for Canadian citizenship. While the Federal Court deemed it “unlawful” for the government to mandate such a provision, citing immigration laws that permit judges to accommodate for religious needs, the reigning Conservative Party of Stephen Harper has vowed to challenge this ruling, with the prime minister himself publically weighing in on the debate:
“It is not how we do things here” … “I believe, and I think most Canadians believe, that it is offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family.”
Harper went on to talk about the need for “openness” and “transparency,” which has drawn widespread criticism from mainstream commentators spanning the political spectrum, from conservative to liberal, as an unnecessary prohibition that chaffs against the principles of liberal democracy, most notably the right of religious freedom. As one popular conservative commentator, Margaret Wente, concluded in a recent piece:
I despise niqabs. I really, really do. But I despise attacks on people’s freedom even more. There’s a difference between a woman in a veil and a jihadi sawing off a head. We need to remember that.
While this particular narrative reiterates a certain discourse on civility and barbarity, and thus positions the niqab as inimical to Western values, it validates its use as falling within the bounds of religious freedom and thereby grants it the status of a tolerable practice.
Interestingly, Wente acknowledges some of the Conservative Party’s political interests behind this move, locating it within a broader spectrum that includes the rise of ISIS, the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the “lone-wolf” attack on the Canadian Parliament building in October of 2014 by an alleged Muslim radical, and the spate of beheadings at the hands of the “Islamic State.” To this also we could add the Quebec Charter of Values affair, which previously sought to ban the wearing of all “religious symbols” for public employees (see my piece here), and the recently proposed anti-terrorism legislation, Bill C-51. Although Wente does not contextualize these broader issues, she does argue that the prime minister is playing into a politics of fear by singling out the niqab for special attention, a move that other commentators have called racist.
Wente also notes, however, that according to “internal polls” 8 out of 10 Canadians support the ban on niqabs during citizenship oaths, thus revealing a discrepancy, it would seem, between public opinion and what appears to be a contrary sentiment of the majority of journalists and academics around the country, as well as from all other major political parties with the exception of the separatist Parti Québécois. Moreover, it has been widely observed that this move by the Harper government to challenge the Federal Court is an attempt to create a wedge-issue during an election year, which has resulted in a surge of support in the province of Quebec, whose consistently left-of-center electorate appears to have warmed to the Conservatives in light of this issue.
Here it is worth considering how the emphasis on Muslim women’s bodies has functioned as an easy target for waging proxy battles on larger ideological issues, including the assertion of “Western” values during a time when such things are perceived to be under threat.
Religions scholar Jennifer Selby has argued that anti-niqab rationales “delineate regulatory mainstream values on gender and secularism” and, in the case of Quebec in particular, “the covered female body evokes vestiges of oppressive Catholic patriarchal religiosity.” In this sense, it can be argued that the proposed ban on niqabs plays particularly well in Quebec because of the province’s fraught history with the Catholic Church, along with its self-identity as a “distinct society,” which, as Selby also notes, “has often been positioned as espousing a third path between Canadian multiculturalism and the French Jacoben model.”
Far from being merely a question of offence, openness and transparency, religious freedom, or equality between women and men, these contests over the wearing of the niqab offer one example of how liberal states attempt to distinguish their authority, as a set of universal legal principles, from the realm of “culture,” which is deemed to be particular—either worthy of the state’s protection or considered beyond the pale. As Wendy Brown writes:
Maintaining a distinction and presumed separation between politics and culture within liberalism is crucial to sustaining the fiction of the autonomous individual and the fiction of its imagined opposite—the radically de-individuated, culturally or religiously bound creature of a fundamentalist order. … Non-liberal polities are depicted as “ruled” by culture or religion; liberalism is depicted as ruled by law, with culture dispensed to another domain—a depoliticized or voluntary one. In this way, individual autonomy is counterposed to rule by culture, and subjects are seen to gain their autonomy not through culture but against it. (Regulating Aversion, 171)