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Forcing Women to Remove Their Niqabs Is Just Another Kind of Oppression

03/12/2015 12:56 EDT | Updated 05/12/2015 05:59 EDT
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In February, I sat in Victoria Station in London, England. A tall black man was shouting something, clearly drunk. I didn't really pay him any attention. Then I heard the guy sitting across from me shout out, "shut the f-k up, you f-ing Arab!"

The drunk man then shouted, "Allahu aukbar." Which led another Londoner to shout back, "We don't need any of that religion here."

I felt sick to my stomach, but also vaguely smug; such a thing would never happen in Canada, I assured myself.

Now, I'm not so sure.

In a thoughtful Maclean's magazine article, Rachel Browne reports how Farrah Khan, a Toronto counsellor, is "seeing Muslim women come into the clinic saying they're being attacked on the subway and at school."

Recent terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists no doubt instigated such a spate of prejudice, but as Browne writes, "Stephen Harper's Tuesday comments about women wearing niqabs during their Canadian citizenship ceremonies made things seem worse."

Our Prime Minister said that the wearing of the niqab -- a veil and face covering worn by conservative Muslim women -- is "rooted in a culture that is anti-woman." (It is unclear whether he meant conservative Islamic culture in specific or Islamic culture in general; frankly, to me it doesn't matter, because the prime minister has a responsibility to choose his words more carefully, lest his meaning be misinterpreted, especially on such a sensitive issue.)

To be clear: the issue of a woman wearing a niqab during a citizenship ceremony is not about concerns over verifying her identity; her identity was already verified in private when she signed her paperwork. A helpful analogy might be this: a bride oftentimes wears a veil on her wedding day, for religious or cultural reasons, which is fine. It's a ceremony, she can wear what she wants. When she signs the actual legal marriage certificate, there is no question as to her identity. She can have her veil and fill out the paperwork, too, and then eat her cake.

Likewise, when a woman stands in a citizenship ceremony, why shouldn't she be entitled to wear whatever religious garb she wants? She's taking an oath (ostensibly before God), an oath as Mr Harper says, to "join the Canadian family," a family with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms whose very first enumerated freedom is religious liberty, as Prof Clifford Orwin pointed out in a fascinating interview with Steve Paikin.

What could be more Canadian than including someone's harmless religious practices in a citizenship ceremony, or really any other facet of public life?

As if Mr. Harper's comments weren't bad enough, his Immigration Minister conflated the niqab and the hijab as equally unacceptable during citizenship ceremonies, and a judge in Québec refused to hear the case of a woman wearing a hijab (which, to be fair, some Conservative cabinet ministers have rightly condemned as unjust).

Perhaps there is an element to which the Conservatives truly believe they are fighting a cultural and religious practice that they find repugnant. Even still, that seems far beyond the point, as has been stated many times by various commentators: a conservative man forcing a woman not to wear a niqab is effectively the same violation of her liberty as a conservative man forcing her to wear the niqab.

I don't like what the niqab represents. While I grew up in a conservative Christian household (my dad is a Presbyterian minister), I fundamentally dislike any attempts to tell women what that they have to wear to behave modestly. But I also dislike the converse. I will always treasure the words of St Paul: "it is for freedom that you have been set free."

I feel the same anger I felt when a woman at my church told my sister she was being immodest for wearing a nose ring as when the PM tells Muslim women they cannot wear a niqab.

I was as sickened by those racist taunts in a London tube station as I was by Saudis attacking Michelle Obama on Twitter as immodest for not wearing a headscarf on a state visit. Forcing a woman to cover her hair against her will is offensive, but so is slut shaming.

Moreover, there is rightly a question of the Conservatives' real motivation to consider. Why is the government choosing to focus on religious garments worn by Muslim women only, and not other head or face coverings such as those worn by Catholic nuns, or Orthodox, Amish or Jewish women? This singular focus is rightly being interpreted as dog-whistles to raise the ire of Islamophobic members of the Conservative base -- why else would the Tories fundraise off of such statements other than dog-whistle politics?

For the past few months, Justin Trudeau has been making me nervous and a little frustrated. It too often seemed he was prepared to put being palatable to the majority ahead of being principled on progressive issues. I worried he was accepting that the Conservatives had moved the centre of Canadian politics to the right.

Then, in the face of popular opinion, he came out swinging against the Conservatives' dog-whistles.

In a forceful and eloquent speech on liberty, Trudeau traced the horrendous history of prejudice in Canadian society. While many have criticized his comparisons between racist rhetoric in the past and the far more subtle Islamophobia we see today, his broader point is well taken:

"What we cannot ever do is blur the line between a real security threat and simple prejudice, as this government has done. I believe they have done it deliberately, and I believe what they have done is deeply wrong. In defending Canada, we cannot allow ourselves to become less Canadian.

Ultimately, my friends, the antidote to repression is liberty. It is this idea that will defeat terrorism and totalitarianism in the long run. It always has. The lethal enemies of terrorists and dictators are societies that are open, thriving and free. Not just on paper, but in the streets."

Liberals are at our best when we aren't afraid to challenge the status quo. As Trudeau discussed in his speech, freedom to a liberal is not merely the absence of oppression, it is the equality of opportunity necessary to achieve one's potential. I firmly believe that people should be free to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But, (forgive the mixed metaphor) I also know that someone is not truly free to do so if the deck is stacked against him because of the circumstances of his birth.

President Obama fought this fight back in 2012 with the "you didn't build that" debate. No one, no matter how successful in our society, does it alone. Whether by public education or publicly funded highways, it takes a village.

"The arc of Canadian history bends toward inclusion, toward liberty," Trudeau said. "Where there was repression, it would be defeated by the more compelling Canadian opportunity to achieve liberty. Where there was isolation, we would meet it with openness and inclusion."

This focus on liberty and inclusion is a fight worth having. It is also a fight Liberals must fight and can win by offering something bolder and better.

Premier Kathleen Wynne didn't simply oppose Tim Hudak's foolish plan to fire 100,000 public servants. She proposed something better: strengthened pensions and new public transit and better education so people could truly succeed.

The answer to the Conservative argument that liberty is all about less government is the Liberal notion that we create true freedom when everyone is empowered to improve their lot in life, regardless of their circumstances. Practical policies to create that equality of opportunity, which in turn enables meaningful liberty, are what the Liberal Party is all about.

Trudeau's speech this week was a welcome example of boldness and a strong call for liberal values. It is a theme that he should forcibly continue, as he seeks (to borrow his words) not simply to replace this government, but to give Canadians a better government.

For the vast majority of Canadians who want a change in government, it is time to unashamedly and compellingly oppose Mr. Harper's agenda. In his speech on liberty, Justin Trudeau showed that he can be that forceful, articulate champion of liberal values. Let's have more of it.

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