10/06/2015 01:00 EDT | Updated 10/06/2016 05:12 EDT

Damn the Niqab, but Don't Ban It

Cathy Yeulet via Getty Images
Portrait of a middle eastern woman wearing a black

What position should our western culture take regarding such garments as the niqab and what sanctions, if any, should we adopt to proscribe their use? Once again, the debate is heating up as the issue takes prominence during the current election campaign. Stephen Harper says anyone taking the citizenship oath should be required to remove face coverings. Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair disagree.

This issue arose five years ago when the Muslim Canadian Congress called for an outright ban on the wearing of the niqab or the burka. At the time, I welcomed that position. After all, it took real courage for an Islamic organization to label these garments as medieval and oppressive, and to publicly announce that they have no religious basis in the Koran. It was a welcome and progressive move.

However, when the Congress called for an outright ban on these garments and even when the federal government limits such a ban just to citizenship ceremonies, they have gone too far. Since niqab-wearing women are not directly endangering society or themselves, we need not impose an outright ban. After all, we are mature and broad-minded enough to accommodate all manner of headgear, even in the workplace.

But that doesn't mean that we have to celebrate such restrictive clothing. Is it not reasonable to ask women immigrating to this country to make at least some effort to adapt to western cultural norms? Unlike many of their countries of origin, ours is an exceedingly liberal state allowing all manner of beliefs and cultural practices.

Some, of course, will make the argument that there's no need to force niqab-wearing women to uncover their faces. After all, a Canadian need not show her face to vote. On the other hand, a passport, driver's license, or security ID is of less use without a facial profile.

So, why not allow the wearing of the burka and niqab, you might say? In fact, why don't we celebrate them as evidence of our inclusive, multicultural society?

Because we should not be obliged to encourage that which our culture finds offensive. Instead of considering how a particular custom or practice affects the new immigrant, it's time to consider how it affects society at large. Apart from the degrading and misogynistic aspects of burkas and niqabs, they offend against a fundamental implicit tenet of our society, namely the right to see the faces of our fellow citizens.

Whether we realize it or not, much of our daily interaction is based on seeing and reading one another's faces and the underlying emotions. We are a society of tolerance and acceptance. We rely on the openness and transparency of others to establish and strengthen the cultural, social and economic ties that bind us and make us who we are.

Yet we should not prohibit the restrictive dress that some Muslim women wear. For some of those women may have no choice; they may be forced to remain invisible by their husbands or families.

But that does not mean that we are obliged to match the invisibility of these women with our own silence. Their manner of dress is offensive to us; it disrespects our basic cultural norms.

Thus, it is our duty to speak out against such backward, tribal customs. Let it be known that a real Canadian takes pride in presenting her face in public and in being an active, visible, identifiable member of society.

We may not be able to convince all of those wearing the burka and the niqab to change their ways. In fact, for some that may be asking too much.

But by publicly making our views known, we can make it easier for second and third generation Canadians to throw off these medieval reminders of repressive, backward societies. Let's ensure that future Canadian women are not coerced into restrictive practices that not only separate them from their fellow Canadians but also lessen their ability to fully function as citizens in our modern world.


Hijab, Burka And Niqab Use Around The World