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Elliot Leven

Two women in Burqas


By Elliot Leven, posted Feb 23, 2012

In December, 2011, federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced a change in rules for immigrants taking the Canadian citizenship oath. Effective immediately, no one would be permitted to take the oath with a covered face, even if the covering were for religious reasons. The primary targets were Muslim women who wear burkas or niqabs.
“Requiring that all candidates show their faces while reciting the oath allows judges, and everyone present to share in the ceremony, to ensure that all citizenship candidates are, in fact, taking the oath as required by law,” Kenney said. “This is not simply a practical measure. It is a matter of deep principle that goes to the heart of our identity and our values of openness and equality.” Kenney said he believed veils were not always a religious requirement for Muslim women.
Muslim groups had mixed reactions. Shahina Siddiqui (president of Winnipeg’s Islamic Social Services Association) opposed the new rules. “It’s basically saying, ‘If you wear a veil, you cannot be a citizen.’ That’s the message for us loud and clear,” commented Siddiqui. “What will they do with women who were born and raised here who take the veil? How are you going to strip them of their citizenship?”
The Muslim Canadian Congress, meanwhile, welcomed the new regulation, urging Ottawa to go even further and ban the burka and niqab from all public places in Canada. Tahir Gora, the group's secretary general, said women who wear the veils are the victims of male chauvinism and brainwashing. These women, he said, have marginalized themselves within Canadian society. "If they want to use this religious thing, they can use it at their religious places, they can use (it) at their homes," said Gora, who noted the burka and niqab are not compulsory in the Muslim faith.
For those who support human rights, including the equality of women, the issue is complex. Firstly, there is something instinctively offensive about any religious dogma that requires women (but not men) to cover their faces.
Secondly, the debate about whether Islam actually requires a burka or niqab is a red herring. The fact is that a tiny number of Canadian Muslim women sincerely consider it to be a part of their religion. It is not up to a secular authority to adjudicate disputes about Muslim dogma.
Thirdly, there is a practical compromise available. Women who wear niqabs or burkas and wish to take the citizenship oath, could be offered the option of removing their face covering and taking the oath privately in front of a female citizenship judge.
Fourthly, respecting religious freedoms includes respecting the right of people to choose dogmas that you personally deplore. As a gay man, I abhor the preachings of many religions that homosexuality is sin, but I defend the right of religions to preach these dogmas, as long as they respect the separation of church and state.
Fifthly, it is difficult for me to analyze this issue objectively, in light of the government that is changing the rules. The federal Conservative Party (and the Reform Party before it) has never been known as a champion of human rights or, for that matter, as a champion of compromise. Rather, it has a sad track record of playing to its right-wing political base, and placing ideology over pragmatism.
Sixthly, people like Siddiqui undermine their own positions with foolish hyperbole. No one is proposing stripping existing citizens of their citizenship because they choose to start wearing face-coverings. Stick to the facts, Ms. Siddiqui.
Weighing and balancing all these competing facts and feelings, I come to the conclusion that the ban goes too far. Women who say they wear face-coverings for religious reasons should be given the option of taking the citizenship oath privately in front of a female citizenship judge, at a time convenient to the judge. When all is said and done, that is the most “Canadian” way to handle this complex issue.
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