Late last year, the Conservative government of Canada made a decsion that sparked off an interesting discussion. In a country that hasn't had much in the way of controversy around the role of foreign customs and traditions in every day life -- at least as compared to our southern neighbours -- it was perhaps a bit surprising to see such a bright line drawn. Though, the fact that that line revolves around the place of Islamist customs in Canadian life is less surpising.
In December of 2011, the Canadian government formally and officialy banned the wearing of niqab's (traditional face veils) during Canadian citizenship ceremonies. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's comments in regards to the decision do a reasonable job of summing up one side of the discussion around whether the ban represents a step forward or backward.
Kenney explained the rationale behind the ban,
"The oath of citizenship is basically a public gesture, a public declaration that shows that you are joining the Canadian family and this has to be done freely and openly, not secretly. Isolating and separating a group of Canadians or allowing that group to hide their faces while they are becoming members of our community is completely counter to Canada's commitment to openness and social cohesion."
In short, for Kenney -- and a not insubtantial number of other Canadians -- the niqab is a symbol that stands fundamentally opposed to the notions of freedom and openness that underwrite Canadian life. Groups like the Muslim Congress of Canada agree with Kenney, calling the decision, "wonderful" and noting that the niqab is really a tool for extremist Islam oppression of women.
Tahir Gora of the Congress,
"[The niqab] should be completely banned in Canada … We feel that this is a marginalization of Muslim women. When you put a niqab on a woman, they are unable to fulfill their duties, they are unable to intermingle in the society[.]"
Minister Kenney went on to echo this point,
"It is a cultural tradition which I think reflects a certain view about women that we do not accept in Canada. We want women to be full and equal members of Canadian society and certainly, when they are taking the citizenship oath, that is the right place to start."
But not everyone received the decision with such exuberance. Indeed, many observers leveled the criticism that by dictating to women in what cultural traditions they could and could not engage during such a ceremony, the Canadian government effectively undermined the very freedoms the decision claimed to uphold.
Whida Valiante of the Canadian Islamic Congress elucidates,
“Those women have the same rights as other Canadian citizens. The laws apply to us equally. If the Minister thinks that these women are not living by the very heart of our values, and just by taking the niqab off they will join the heart of our values, they already have. They went through the process of learning and making sure that they passed the exams. If their heart and soul was not there, why would they do all that?”
“Mr. Kenney, really, he is not consulting the community. I mean he ask one person and comes up with this. If he had consulted a large community, we are Shia and Sunni and the largest group of Muslims and we have a lot of scholars in our midst who can understand and explain and even draw negotiations around these issues, and he should do that. Then that would be a Canadian value. We hold that dear to us, we want our freedoms and we want to be able to do it openly."
Two sides, both claiming the moral high ground, both vying for the rights of women. It's an interesting dynamic to say the least. I know that even here at Beams and Struts, there is some divergence on this issue -- it really does cleave an interesting divide in our thinking and understanding of (post post)modern life.
So what do you think?
Is the Canadian government's ban a valient and potentially integral move to recognize that some cultural customs are underwritten by values that we as modern liberal socities must openly and forcefully reject? Or is this simply an ideologically driven and ignorant move that undermines both the women it seeks to free and the rights and freedoms the government purports to use in service of that mission?