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​Harper’s Canadian Pageant: ​PM’s anti-niqab tantrum is thinly veiled racism

by Ajay Parasram

I remember my Canadian citizenship ceremony fondly. Like many broke immigrants, my folks saved up forever to outfit my three brothers and I at the Sears bargain basement with suitably formal attire. We participated in the ritual, performing our newfound identities.

We even memorialized the event with a family portrait at Sears and dinner at Curry Village. I carry that portrait with me to this day.

We immigrant folk don’t take citizenship lightly. We put tremendous effort into thinking about how we should dress to both fit in and survive in our newfound “home on native land.”

That’s why I’m offended by Prime Minister Harper and his knights of the square (headed) table’s claim that Zunera Ishaq’s niqab offends them and the Canadians they allege to represent.

According to notorious then­Immigration Minister Jason Kenney it is “ridiculous” that an incoming citizen would choose to take the oath of citizenship wearing a veil. To his replacement, Chris Alexander, exposing your face should be an “obvious” part of the citizenship pageantry (despite the fact that lawyers for Ms. Ishaq have already proven beyond any legal doubt that “to be seen” is not a requirement of the public ceremony of citizenship).

Harper is so offended by Ishaq’s niqab disrupting the ceremony of citizenship that he’s vowed to appeal the Supreme Court’s ruling that she need not remove it to become a Canadian. In so doing, a white settler Christian man equipped with the limited consent of 39 per cent of eligible voters has decided that despite what the independent judiciary says, the rituals of modern citizenship demand that a brown Muslim woman who believes in the niqab for her own reasons dispense with those reasons to enable “the public” to see her on their terms instead of her own.

Ironically, this exposes a veiled attempt at asserting a Eurocentric­cum­universal conception of what it means to exist as a citizen; one that makes no effort to consider that free human beings ought to be able to choose how they dress and present themselves to their national peers.

On that note, perhaps “peer” is the key word here. Harper and those who support him cannot accept a niqab ­wearing woman as a true peer because they cannot see her as they choose; they must see her as she chooses.

Harper’s Conservative Party arguably struggles with women’s right to make choices about their own bodies. (This is, after all, the reason MP Eve Adams gives for ditching the Tories.) As the federal government, however, they have a responsibility to move beyond their own medieval sensibilities and recognize that “true identity” is much deeper than the skin on a person’s face that they feel so entitled to view.

Ethnocentric attacks on the veil are usually grounded in some kind of quasi­liberal argument, but in this case, it’s all about offending the flag. According to Maseeh Haseeb, an Afghan­ Canadian and PhD student in Law at Queen’s University, “If the Canadian government is concerned with the gender­based violence that sometimes comes with the veil, why not set up an anonymous hotline so women can choose to call for help in their own time and of their own choosing?”

We shouldn’t be surprised at behaviour like this from a government that belligerently asserts that mosques are places that radicalize people in their basement. Rather than stand self­righteously offended, Mr. Harper should learn to tolerate Ishaq’s legal and reasonable ability to express her identity as she chooses. He should appreciate this as a core component of Canada’s identity.

According to this government, cultural expression is only suitable for the public eye when it takes the form of samosas. When Harper and the gang say culture isn’t multi­, they just mean that their settler­colonial culture is better and best. When culture has rituals that get in the way of things that members of the dominant culture simply want – such as the right to see more skin than a person cares to show – culture becomes “ridiculous.”

But who’s being ridiculous here? A Muslim woman trying to find her place within the Canada’s cultural milieu, or the Prime Minister’s feelings that he should be able to see her face in the pageant?

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vo.7, No.5 (Feb/March 2015).

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