Fear-mongering about the alleged threats of the Muslim faith took a decidedly Canadian turn last month when Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared in Parliament that covering one’s face with a niqab (a headscarf that covers every part of a woman’s face but her eyes) is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.”
Using pro-equality rhetoric to justify reactionary policies is a well-developed tool in the neo-conservative language of Canada’s right wing. It goes to the center of why Harper continues to be re-elected, despite Canada’s tendency to walk slightly left of center in its 148-year history. Sadly, polls suggest that most Canadians agree with his twisted logic.
Harper called the Muslim faith anti-woman in Parliament to justify the government’s decision to appeal a court ruling overturning a policy requiring women to remove the niqab during their citizenship ceremony. In Canada, all constitutional rights—like freedom of religion and women’s right to equality—are expressly balanced against the government’s obligation to consider the public interest. The government is allowed to infringe citizens’ rights if they can justify the infringement on the basis of a different public interest good. But where religious freedom and women’s equality intersect, the courts can be unpredictable.
Fighting for the right to wear a niqab is hardly a feminist cause in and of itself, but it becomes one when the critique of it becomes an essentialist and simplistic argument against an entire faith group. The niqab may a symbol of women’s lack of freedom, no matter if individual women have made personal choice to wear it or not. But it can only be racism that is behind an unnecessary policy (the Muslim tenet that proscribes the niqab also allows women to remove it in front of female officials for the purposes of legal identification) and the defense of it by claiming the entire Muslim faith is anti-woman.
Whether the court ruling is right or not (and the decision does align with the Supreme Court of Canada in a case called R. v N.S. in which a woman was found to have the right to wear her niqab when testifying in a sexual assault case), Harper’s comments are ironic on so many levels. The number of Muslim women in Canada who actually wear the niqab is minuscule—less than .5 percent of Canadians. Meanwhile best estimates suggest that almost half a million women annually experience sexual assault in Canada. Aboriginal women experience a much higher level of sexual violence and continue to go missing.
This second group of women—Aboriginal women make up at least 2 percent of the Canadian population—do not attract government policy for their protection. Instead, when asked to comment on the death of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old Aboriginal girl whose body was found in a river, Harper replied, “We should not view this as a sociological phenomenon. We should view it as a crime.” He responded to calls for an inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women by saying “It isn’t really high on our radar to be honest.” But regulating what Muslim women wear is.
In addition to the government’s active denial of the brutal sexualization of our Aboriginal women is the religious context of his anti-Muslim rhetoric. Canada is mostly Christian (67 percent of Canadians) with the majority of those practicing Catholics. Catholicism has a long and brutal history of anti-woman behavior. Protestant religions are central in much of the Tea Party rhetoric, along with a wide range of other anti-woman “theology.” Countering this are many Christians who would argue that the Bible can and should be interpreted in a way that actually supports equality, justice and freedom. There are many who say the same about the Qu’ran.
The truth is Harper has actively pursued a political agenda that is cutting away at the foundations of equality in Canada. The most recent attack is in the form of Bill C-51, known as the Anti-Terror Bill. Its full name reflects eloquent Conservative Jedi-mind tricks: “An Act to enact the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act and the Secure Air Travel Act, to amend the Criminal Code, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and to make related and consequential amendments to other Acts.” It is impossible to even discuss this atrocious assault on the constitutional rights of Canadians without simplifying it to base elements—a trick that lets Harper’s communications staff lead by simplifying it to something that has many Canadians saying with a shrug “That can’t be a bad thing to do.”
But it is. Attacking the Muslim faith as anti-woman is the doormat to Harper’s attack on the freedoms of all Canadians who are not privileged by their race and gender. “Come and join me,” he is saying, “in protecting the vulnerable.” But his idea of vulnerability is one that comes with a loss of privilege and power, something Harper doesn’t bother to mention to our polite and traditionally compassionate nation.
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