10/13/2015 05:19 EDT | Updated 10/13/2016 05:12 EDT

'Niqabophobia' Thwarts Real Debate About Faith and Gender

Last March, a Leger Marketing survey conducted for the Privy Council of Canada revealed that 82 per cent of Canadians support a ban on the wearing of the niqab at a citizenship ceremony.

This finding likely strengthened the government's resolve to prevent such a very exceptional occurrence by proposing a ban. The Federal Court of Canada however rejected the government initiative and the Court of Appeal refused to grant the government a stay which would have permitted a delay until revised legislation would be introduced. The issue may very well end up in the Supreme Court. This should be welcomed. A top court ruling on the matter would be of considerable educational benefit to the population. The Canadian judiciary needs to offer us guidance and set precedent against which to base future deliberation on this and other related questions. As things currently stand, in the midst of an election campaign, the question is being heard in the court of public opinion.

The same Privy Council survey asked Canadians to indicate why they supported such a ban. Among the main reasons offered were the insistence on facial identification, the need to respect our cultural norms, to adopt Canadian culture and/or to follow our laws and rules. A mere two per cent of survey respondents explicitly stated that the niqab discriminates against women which is the offered the strongest rationale for the ban.

Other opinion surveys also conducted this year confirm that nearly one in two Canadians surveyed were uncomfortable when they see someone wearing a niqab. A Leger survey conducted for the Association for Canadian Studies last March found that one in three citizens feels shocked and angered when they see it being worn. But disdain and revulsion of the niqab do not justify a ban. Nor is the argument that the niqab is an affront to Canadian values. However much we may dislike the Niqab does not make wearing it at a citizenship ceremony a values violation that is offensive the meaning of being Canadian. Surveys reveal that it is the protection of fundamental rights that is the value most cherished by Canadians. We look to the judiciary to define those rights and for the time being the Federal Court has ruled that the ban constitutes a violation of them.

Ideally supporters of the ban need to demonstrate that women wearing the niqab are being compelled to do so. It is not enough to simply insist that it is the case. On this crucial point, there is uncertainty among an important segment of the Canadian population. Some 58 per cent of Canadians (69 per cent in Quebec) believe that the niqab is imposed on women by their families and communities. The rest either disagree or say they don't know. Another telling statistic is that some 51 per cent of Canadians agree that seeing someone wearing the niqab has no particular impact on them and that people should feel free to choose what they wear. Quebecers are much less favorable to that view.

A reason sometimes offered for an even wider ban on wearing the niqab is that doing so somehow constitutes a threat to the security of the population. Some one in four Canadians believes that a ban on the niqab will help fight terrorism, a view held by more than one in three Quebecers. This might be described as "niqabophobia." Yet again such fear of the niqab is an especially weak justification for a ban and to adopt one on this basis has potentially troubling implications for how society addresses such matters.

Those who oppose the ban shouldn't insist that it's so obvious a rights violation that it doesn't merit explanation. It is impudent to simply dismiss a large majority of Canadians who support the idea of a niqab ban at a citizenship ceremony, as misguided as that may be. Such response is unhelpful given the need for pedagogy and guidance on an issue with such potentially important ramifications for forthcoming debates about gender, faith and fundamental freedoms.


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