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Change My Mind: Should Canada Ban Muslim Face Coverings?

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Welcome to our Change My Mind debate series, in which we challenge leading voices to debate an issue -- and allow you, the reader, to determine who wins.

Today's topic is based on Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's decision to ban Muslim face coverings from citizenship ceremonies. In doing so, he said: "Isolating and separating a group of Canadians or allowing that group to hide their faces while they are becoming members of our community is completely counter to Canada's commitment to openness and social cohesion." Huffpost asked two of our prominent Muslim contributors, Farzana Hassan and Farah Mawani, to debate the following statement:


Pre-debate poll:

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Muslim face coverings (such as the burka and niqab) should be banned in free and democratic societies.

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Who makes the better argument?

Farzana Hassan Author

Democracy is not to be confused with anarchy. Democracies still need laws to regulate society, public interaction, and public institutions. These are formulated through democratic processes of debate, discussion, and majority vote.

Opponents of a burka ban, nonetheless, seem to think democracies mean absolute individual liberties including full religious freedom. They often overlook Canada's Charter provisions which, while guaranteeing religious freedom, also leave room for possible restrictions on these freedoms if deemed "demonstrably justified."

In this regard, I will argue that the niqab or other face coverings pose a security threat. The right to cover one's face in public provides an unnecessary opportunity for criminal elements to abuse the right. While guns and explosives can also be hidden under ordinary clothing, the burka as a cloak-like garment, provides an additional opportunity to do so. Little wonder that bank robberies and violent acts of religious extremism have often been committed by burka-clad individuals. There is ample documented evidence to support this contention. It amounts to unnecessary risk when the garment is not religiously mandated.

Some may question this stance by stating that it is not up to one group or individual to decide what is religiously mandated. If a religious practice is deemed mandatory by a segment of a particular religious community, then the state must not interfere with that perception, because a free and democratic society in fact, enables diversity and religious pluralism.

Let us examine Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms on how it has come to bear on this issue. The Charter as we know, guarantees freedom of conscience and religion, which leads into a discussion on what constitutes a religious right. Some Muslims argue, as I have earlier, that the practice of wearing the burka represents a minority view within Islam. But is deviant religious practice a religious right according to the provisions of the Charter? Yes, most certainly. The whole purpose of separating religion and state is to ensure that the state maintains a degree of neutrality toward diverse religious practices.

The question however remains: Like other religious rights, is the right to wear a burka an absolute right, or can it be subjected to reasonable limits? Some religious practices, however deviant, are benign, while others may be quite inimical to society. The burka in my opinion, falls under this category as I have demonstrated above.

Some argue that the law must not interfere with citizen's rights in matters of dress. Fair enough! But are we failing to recognize that Muslim women are subjected to an alternative legal system: An ultra-conservative brand of Sharia law which places great emphasis on their appearance as a matter of dominance and control?

We therefore have two competing laws: Canadian law, which is subject to change based on democratic processes, and Sharia law, which is regarded as divinely ordained and therefore immutable. Which of these laws should one favour? Canadian law which is egalitarian and gender-friendly, or Sharia law which is inherently patriarchal?

Farah Mawani responds to Farzana Hassan

Mawani contends that a general ban on face coverings such as the niqab is not "demonstrably justified" under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That assertion can be easily refuted by presenting the following evidence. These are only a few examples of several documented crimes:

A man in a burka committed a bank robbery in an Ottawa strip mall on New Year's Eve in 2010. In 2009, an armed burka-clad man robbed a Scotiabank in Mississauga. Such incidents have occurred south of the border as well. An armed burka-clad man robbed a bank at gunpoint in North Carolina. Similar robberies took place in 2007 in Philadelphia, resulting in the death of a policeman. Burka-clad criminals have committed similar crimes in the UK, where jewelry stores, sometimes owned by Muslims, have been robbed in Glasgow and Oxfordshire.

Burka-clad individuals have committed other crimes. Two travel agencies were vandalized in Dunstable and Luton in Britain. Stabbings, pick-pocketing, and assault have also been committed by criminals disguised in burkas. Finally, known terror suspects have escaped arrest by wearing burkas, including one who escaped from Heathrow Airport, London. This is hard evidence rather than the "ideology" Mawani has alleged. The burka was clearly the garb of choice for perpetrators of these crimes. But this does not implicate burka-clad women in these crimes. The evidence cited above simply means that criminal elements of society can use the burka to pursue their criminal activity, be they Muslim or non-Muslim. There are no "false dichotomies" being created here.

Mawani asks why purported negative effects of a burka ban in France do not inform the burka debate in Canada. Suffice it to say that the tensions existing between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in France are unheard of in Canada. Social conditions in one country are not necessarily replicated in another.

Furthermore, if Mawani proposes formulating laws based on the best interest of all members of society, then she must also consider the rights of ordinary Canadians who do not cover their faces. These citizens have the right to know who they interact with.

Mawani argues for women's equality. A burka ban will help women who are being coerced into adopting the garb. These women suffer extreme inequality by being segregated. A burka ban will create opportunities for women to seek professions which would otherwise not be available to them.

A point of clarification: to suggest that wearing the burka is a "deviant" religious practice is simply to assert that it represents a minority view within Islam. There is no negativity intended here. Certainly, Canada's democracy is inclusive, but Canada must not tolerate the marginalization of Muslim women. Religious practices adopted at the behest of radical theologies cannot be embraced if they are contrary to tenets of freedom that our society enshrines.

Finally, I would urge Mawani to stick to arguments rather than indulge in personal attacks. Opposition to the burka reflects genuine concerns rather than a deliberate "posing of false dichotomies, and misrepresenting the perspectives of those with differing views."

Farah Mawani Policy Researcher & Founder, Farahway Global @Centre for Social Innovation

Completely banning Muslim face coverings is a very simplistic response to very complex issues. Rather than addressing the issues Kenney raises of "isolating and separating a group of Canadians," such drastic policies, that don't take complex contexts into account, further isolate and separate already marginalized groups. Rather than honouring "commitment to openness and social cohesion" such policies demonstrate a lack of commitment to openness and social cohesion.

In Canada, as well as other countries that have implemented similar bans, there are Muslims from many different sects and countries, and they have varying belief systems with regard to women's dress. Some Muslim women have the right to choose their dress based on their belief systems. Others are forced to cover themselves to varying degrees by men in their families and communities. For the latter, Kenney's policy creates a no-win situation: Men in their families/communities force them to wear the veils, but, according to Kenney's policy, if they do, they are prevented from becoming Canadian citizens. This makes it even more difficult for them to overcome their oppression because, if they cannot become Canadian citizens, they are denied the complete set of rights, legal protections, access to services, and social support provided by such status. This marginalizes them even further, prevents them from being able to live freely in our country, and potentially threatens their safety.

This kind of discriminatory practice - sanctioned by, and, in fact, originating from, governments - has real and worrisome implications. Evidence from around the globe indicates that immigrants and refugees who experience racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination are at increased risk of developing mental-health issues and illness. My own extensive research shows that this is especially true for immigrants and refugees who experience systemic discrimination at the hands of the Canadian government. This risk is magnified for those who have already been persecuted by governments in their countries of origin, as they may be re-traumatized by the experience of discrimination in Canada - especially when they reasonably assume that they have fled danger to settle in a safe new home. Within the context of such pre-migration experiences and the distinct risks faced by Muslims amidst the increasing Islamophobia around the globe since 9/11, it is not difficult to imagine the trauma being forced to remove a veil might cause for a Muslim woman seeking citizenship in Canada.

The framework for Canada's first mental-health strategy, released by the Mental Health Commission of Canada in 2009, recognizes the damaging impact that racism and discrimination have on mental health, and prioritizes addressing these issues to improve mental health in Canada. One of the strategy's main goals is to establish a "mental health system [that] responds to the diverse needs of all people in Canada," taking into consideration dimensions of diversity including, "ethno-cultural background, experience of racism, and migration history; stage of life; language spoken; sex, gender, and sexual orientation; geographical location; different abilities; socio-economic status; and spiritual or religious beliefs."

In the context of the growing diversity in Canada, our federal government is not only ignoring the global evidence of the physical and mental health risks related to systemic discrimination inherent in policies targeting specific groups, but is also disregarding the guidance, based on extensive research and stakeholder consultation, of national organizations that it funds.

In the report of a project funded by the Departments of Canadian Heritage and Justice, the Canadian Council on Social Development stressed that the dimensions of equal opportunity and active participation in society are key to social cohesion. Banning Muslim face coverings is not a solution to the complex challenges faced by Muslim women around the world. Governments truly committed to freedom, democracy and social cohesion need to ensure that they include the small proportion of Muslim women, who wear face coverings, in decision-making that affects their lives.

(Some of this reply is excerpted from "Unveiling a Discriminatory Policy," The Mark News.)

Farzana Hassan responds to Farah Mawani

I agree with Ms. Hassan that democracies need laws to regulate society and that those laws should be "formulated through democratic processes of debate, discussion." Debate and discussion should be informed by local, national and international evidence. This ensures that discussion is thoughtful and measured rather than inflammatory, and policy formulation is evidence- rather than ideology-based. In a democracy, policy formulation should have the best interests of all members of society in mind. It should decrease rather than increase inequalities between groups and individuals in society.

Posing false dichotomies, and misrepresenting the perspectives of those with differing views, such as Hassan does, is not helpful in furthering discussion and decreasing inequalities within society. The lack of a total ban on Muslim face coverings in democratic societies, will not result in anarchy. In addition, although I oppose an outright burqa ban, I do not advocate absolute individual liberties at the expense of the well-being of society members as a whole, as Hassan suggests. I do not advocate hate speech in the name of freedom of speech, as hate speech is extremely harmful to those it targets and thus has no place in an inclusive society.

As Hassan highlights, Canada's Charter of Rights andFreedoms clearly states that limits on rights and freedoms must be "reasonable and demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society". A burqa ban has not been "demonstrably justified." Criminalizing Muslim women and instilling unsubstantiated fear of violence against non-Muslims does not provide "demonstrable justification" for banning the burqa. Instead, it increases the risk of violence against Muslim women wearing face veils.

According to an article published just months ago in The Guardian, "Since France introduced its burqa ban in April there have been violent attacks on women wearing the niqab...Muslim groups report a worrying increase in discrimination and verbal and physical violence against women in veils." Why is the evidence from France, not informing our debate in Canada and around the world? Why aren't the voices of Muslim groups in France being heard?

I also question Hassan's leap from "the practice of wearing the burqa represents a minority view within Islam," to describing this minority view as a "deviant religious practice" that is "inimical." Rather than fostering the inclusiveness inherent in democracy, that Canada has been known for, such inimical language is divisive and vilifies a small group of Muslim women, already facing many challenges including Islamophobia, systemic discrimination, barriers to accessing services and challenges associated with migration and resettlement.

Rather than increasing misunderstanding, vilification, criminalization and exclusion of Muslim women who wear face veils, and thus increasing their marginalization and mental health risks, policymakers need to increase their participation in society. This includes ensuring they have a voice in policy formulation that directly affects their lives.



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Muslim face coverings (such as the burka and niqab) should be banned in free and democratic societies.


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