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The Week In Niqab Debate Started With Duceppe's 'Invisible' Comments

09/24/2015 07:00 EDT | Updated 09/25/2015 08:59 EDT

The issue of whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear face-covering veils at the precise moment they take their oath of Canadian citizenship sparked debate again this week.

But for Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe, the controversy over the niqab is a matter of morality.

Last week, it was ruled that women could wear the veils while swearing in as citizens, although the Conservatives are appealing that ruling to the Supreme Court of Canada.

At Up For Debate, a women’s issues discussion featuring video interviews from four party leaders, Duceppe equated the wearing of face veils to a disappearing act.

In a video excerpt shown in part above and in the transcript of Duceppe’s full interview, he said he didn’t believe women should disappear “from the public sphere.”

“...But all three parties agree that women can cover their faces when they are sworn in, except for Mr. Harper. But for voting or for providing or receiving civil services, which is federal, all three parties agree that women can cover their faces,” Duceppe said in French to interviewer Francine Pelletier.

“Asking women to make themselves invisible is not only creating inequality, it’s asking them to disappear as individuals! We’re the only party to say, “No, that’s not right. That makes no sense whatsoever.”

“But if there are women who defend the right to choose to present themselves like that, we can be on either side of the fence in terms of that debate, i.e. whether or not women have the right to make their own decisions,” Pelletier said.

“No, I don’t think you can be on both sides of the fence on this,” Duceppe said. "Because it’s too easy to fall into religious fanaticism and present the same arguments. To me it’s ridiculous to say to a woman, ‘Yes, go ahead and make yourself invisible.’”

In a panel held after screening Duceppe and the other leaders’ interviews, First Nations lawyer Katherine Hensel said it wasn’t up to Canadian mainstream to tell other cultures what equality means within themselves.

“He’s talking about reaching into women’s bodies and ripping off a piece of clothing with the force of the state behind you,” Hensel said.

Black and LGBT rights activist Angela Robertson agreed, saying that the Conservative government’s “insidious ways” of enforcing the niqab ban plant certain ideas about women.

“It is not the place of the state to tell women how to dress and use that to vilify particular communities of women,” Robertson said. “We’re seeing it here, that means you are ‘conservative’ and ‘oppressed in your own community.”

Up For Debate’s video also showed Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau talking about the niqab.

“The woman we are talking about has a right to her own choices,” Trudeau said in French. “Here in Canada, we protect minority rights and if a woman wants to wear a veil, we need to protect that choice. Be it personal, cultural, or religious. Individual rights must be protected, especially for the most vulnerable.”

Trudeau and the Liberals expressed support for the right of women to wear niqabs during the oath. They have stated they would not oppose the recent court decision.

In Quebec, where a French-language leaders' debate took place Thursday, 90 per cent of respondents to a Vote Compass survey said they oppose the wearing of the veils during citizenship ceremonies.

This in spite of Quebec’s relatively low population of niqab-wearers. The Toronto Star reported that the Muslim Council of Montreal only recorded 25 Muslim Quebecers who wore face-coverings in 2010. And a report by the Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW) lists “less than a hundred” as a possible figure for niqab wearers in Quebec.

The CCMW found that none of the women surveyed were forced to wear the niqab, and many were flexible on removing their veils, depending on the situation and security conditions.

Everyone applying for Canadian citizenship must prove their identity before the ceremony. Niqab wearers have said they are willing to unveil privately in front of a female official beforehand -- just not for the entire ceremony. Zunera Ishaq and Maiia Mykolayivna Zaafrane, the two niqab-wearing women who first challenged the niqab ban, have both said they would be willing to unveil for these reasons.

Duceppe announced Tuesday he would support the use of the notwithstanding clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to legally enforce the niqab ban at citizenship ceremonies.

The Bloc came under fire earlier last week for an attack ad they released titled “La goutte de trop” or “The last straw”. Meant to attack the NDP’s positions on the Energy East pipeline and niqabs, the video shows an oil puddle morphing into a niqab.

Elizabeth May told The Canadian Press she was “horrified” by the Bloc’s attack video. While she doesn’t plan to prod either Harper or Duceppe on the niqab issue at Thursday’s debate, she said Duceppe has disappointed her.

May supports the right of women to wear the niqab during citizenship ceremonies, at which she says new Canadians are encouraged to wear traditional garb.

"It's 2015 — there are real challenges that face Canada. But a woman being entitled to wear a niqab in a citizenship ceremony is an issue? Excuse me, this is not an issue. This is a cynical manipulation."

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair announced Wednesday that he agreed face veils should be removed to verify identity in the citizenship process -- but not throughout the ceremony.

"I understand that many view the niqab as a symbol of oppression of women," Mulcair told party faithful in Montreal.

"And on that let me be clear: No one has the right to tell a woman what she must — or must not — wear. I am in agreement with the existing rule under which anyone seeking citizenship must uncover their face to identify themselves before swearing the oath, in accordance with their religious beliefs."

Mulcair said in French that emphasizing the niqab issue was the latest from the Conservatives' "bag of tricks" in what he added has become a "truly toxic" campaign.

Harper has long opposed the wearing of the niqab. Last March, amid allegations from Trudeau that he was playing on anti-Muslim fears, Harper told the House of Commons that niqabs were “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.”

At Thursday's debate, Duceppe said, "We're talking about a fundamental question, it's the question of equality between men and women in our society," He promised the Bloc's first bill in the Commons would be to extend a ban on the veil to other areas, such as public servants.

Although NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau are going head to head for seats in Quebec, they wound up on the same page on the issue — they didn't think a woman should be told how to dress.

"I understand it's a question that makes many people uneasy, but for me, the state is there to defend minority rights, and to defend the rights of women," Trudeau said.

Harper maintained his stance during the debate's exchange. "Mr. Mulcair, I will never tell my young daughter that a woman should cover her face because she is woman. That's not our Canada, that's not acceptable for me," he said.

"Attack the oppressor, don't attack the woman, Mr. Harper ... have the courage to do that," Mulcair said. "But it's not by depriving these women of their citizenship and their rights that you're going to succeed in helping them.

Green party Leader Elizabeth May called the issue a "fake debate" that has nothing to do with important questions on climate change, unemployment and the economy.

"For women's rights, where is the inquiry on missing and murdered aboriginal women?" she asked.

With files from The Canadian Press

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