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Canada: Ban on women’s veils when taking citizenship oath ham-handed, absurd & unnecessary PDF Print E-mail

images/stories/TheStar_logo.gif Toronto ~ Tuesday December 13 2011
What’s right about Jason Kenney’s very wrong no-veil rule

By images/stories/ThomasWalkom.jpegThomas Walkom National Affairs Columnist

images/stories/JasonKenney.jpg Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s decision to withhold Canadian citizenship from veiled Muslim women is ham-handed and, at one level, absurd.

It is a remedy to a problem that does not exist, based on complaints from a single Conservative MP and the unverified anecdotes of unnamed citizenship judges.

Do many women show up for their final citizenship ceremonies in full burka or wearing the niqab face veil? We don’t know and neither, by his department’s own admission, does Kenney.

The only possible explanation for the minister’s unusual haste (the ban takes effect immediately) is political. Stephen Harper’s government is under attack ­ for its handling of the housing crisis at the Attawapiskat reserve, for its cavalier approach to climate change at the just-completed Durban conference and for its flawed border deal with the U.S.

At such a time, playing the Muslim card is a classic remedy. It gets people talking. It discomfits the opposition. It appeals to lurking racism. It changes the channel.

And yet . . .

And yet veiling, the practice of hiding women from the world, is not just an issue of religious freedom. It is not just about accommodating minorities. It also speaks to ­ and perhaps subverts ­ a belief prized in this country, that women are equal to men and have the right to participate fully and publicly in all aspects of Canadian society.

Sexual equality is a hard-won, if not always practised, Canadian value. And to many Canadians (particularly women I think), veiling is a kind of insult ­ a reminder of the 1950s, when wives could not obtain bank loans without their husbands’ signatures, when women were expected to stay at home and when those who did work outside the house were routinely paid less than men.

When I started working in newspapers, which wasn’t that long ago, female reporters were routinely relegated to what were then called the women’s pages.

True, those who wear the veil are not necessarily meek. I’ve met articulate, accomplished ­ and tough-minded ­ women who choose to wear the niqab.

Nor is Islam the only religion in which some (not all) practitioners argue that women should be subservient to men.

In many Christian sects ­ ranging from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Roman Catholics ­ men are given theological primacy over women. Indeed, based on the biblical story of Eden, in which Eve persuaded Adam to taste the forbidden fruit, many Christian sects are deeply suspicious of women, seeing them as sly temptresses and seducers who ­ unless kept firmly in check ­ will divert men from God.

But for the most part, Canada has managed to overcome the anti-feminism of its religious history. Certainly, Canadians seem unwilling to tolerate social practices just because they are avowedly Christian. This was underlined recently when the B.C. Supreme Court upheld Canada’s law against polygamous marriage. I didn’t hear many complaints about that ruling.

All of this may help explain why many find the growth of yet another seemingly anti-woman religious strain ­ this time within Islam ­ so alarming. We’ve just recently beaten back the excesses of Christianity. Must we fight the same battles all over again?

Kenney’s sledgehammer approach, however, is not the solution. Using the heavy hand of the state risks transforming this relatively minor dispute over ceremony into a much more intense cultural battle.

Perhaps the answer is for those who would veil womenfolk to voluntarily rethink their position. Accommodation works both ways. In southwestern Ontario, Amish families reject electric lighting for religious reasons. Yet they happily employ generators to run their power tools. God is infinitely flexible.

Thomas Walkom’s column appears Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.
images/stories/GlobeAndMail_logo.png Toronto ~ Tuesday December 13 2011
Globe Editorial
Is the banning of veils at citizenship oath ceremonies really necessary?

images/stories/JasonKenney.jpg Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has announced that, beginning immediately, veiled Muslim women will have to remove their facial veils when they take their citizenship oath, to make sure the oath can be heard. He’s right that the oath needs to be taken, and heard to be taken. But then, anyone who has been to a citizenship ceremony lately knows that many oath-takers can’t be heard, and that the whole effort is more like a symbolic court or show-court than an actual one.

At some ceremonies, everyone present (including current citizens) is invited to step forward and recite the oath with the newcomers, en masse. Who can be sure who is saying what?

In practice, citizenship ceremonies are treated less as a solemn oath-taking of individuals and more as a celebration of diversity, of multiculturalism, of the world’s different peoples coming together as Canadians.

But Mr. Kenney is right. The oath of citizenship – an oath to the Queen and her successors, and to obey the laws of Canada, and fulfill the duties of being a citizen – should be taken seriously. Does the face need to be bare to demonstrate seriousness? Mr. Kenney says that to be seen, and not to be covered, is in keeping with Canadian values. True, but protection of religious expression, as long as it causes no direct harm to the vulnerable, is also a Canadian value.

It’s hard to understand why the Crown would insist on depriving an individual of her religious garb as a condition of taking an oath. The honour of the Crown rests in part on the protection of minorities.

But Canada has the right to insist on confirming the identity of the oath-taker (they need to know who is under the veil), and in insisting that the oath be taken, audibly. Are there ways to do so while also accommodating religious belief? Surely a country built on compromise, and whose citizenship ceremonies celebrate diversity, can find a way.

As a start, the ceremonies deserve to be treated with gravitas, and not as such a show-court heralding multiculturalism. They should be about individuals taking an extremely important oath to the Crown, and through the Crown to their new country.