Niqab debate necessary — but the hysteria surrounding it needs to go

The question of whether women should be allowed to wear the niqab during a citizenship ceremony has sparked fiery debate among politicians. The cultural accommodation question is a tinderbox, and if all sides insist on running around with matches, we’ll just go up in flames, Andrew MacDougall writes.

We need to proceed with caution on the niqab debate

The Federal Court has struck down the federal government's ban on wearing the niqab while taking the citizenship oath. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said the government will appeal. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

One of the joys of vacationing after leaving politics is that I don’t have to bring my work phone along, and if I do, I don’t have to check it like an obsessive monkey while I'm away.

And so when I fired up the Twitter machine on the shaky airport Wi-Fi to tune back into the world at the end of my recent holiday in Egypt, I wasn't sure what I was going to find.

It turns out I didn't miss much. Well, other than the prime minister talking some frank language about the culture that produced the niqab being "anti-women," Justin Trudeau in return implying the prime minister is a racist while making dubious comparisons to shameful episodes in Canadian history, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney firing some crooked bullets of his own, and the commentariat spilling volumes of digital ink describing it all.

Isn't it lovely when we have a nice adult debate about sensitive and challenging issues?

As I was getting caught up on the drama, I was sitting close to a woman who was lifting her niqab to eat some lunch, while her husband sat next to her in shorts and a T-shirt. It was the first time I had seen a veiled woman in the 10 days I spent in Egypt, although I don't imagine the niqab crowd go to Sharm El-Sheikh to get their sun among the skimpily dressed hordes of Russians, English and Italians. But I digress.

The prime minister's point, it seems to me, is a valid one. If you were to compare the rate of veiling with the protection and promotion of women’s rights, you're likely to find an inverse relationship. The woman eating her lunch next to me was waiting for a flight to Saudi Arabia, nobody's champion for female emancipation. Well, no woman's champion.

Trudeau's comment about anti-Muslim fear-mongering is also valid, although crying hysterically that Muslims are a target isn't particularly helpful, especially when it's not the case. Ah, but the niqab hubbub is just a government proxy for a more insidious anti-Muslim agenda, they’ll say.

PM cited culture — not religion

It should go without saying that the prime minister's comments don't necessarily mean that all Muslims are anti-women, or that Islam, as it's practised in Canada, will lead to a Saudi-style outcome. The prime minister mentioned "culture," and not "religion," for a reason, as the practice of covering the face isn't mandated by the Qur'an.

It's a cultural choice that some make. Indeed, the young woman behind the court challenge has provided an elegant defence of her choice in the Toronto Star.

But for others it's a choice that’s foisted upon them, and so we ought to be worried about where on that particular continuum we are, and whether we're at risk of moral relativism settling in to the detriment of women in our country. All sides should calm down and avoid hysteria so we can talk about it a little bit.

Returning to Egypt, it was fascinating to speak with young Egyptians in Cairo who had been caught up in the past four years of revolutionary turmoil. They were thankful for two things, above all else: that stability had returned to the country, and that the Muslim Brotherhood weren't going to set women back. For these young Egyptians, the Brotherhood meant an end to dreams of equality. It wasn't a matter of cultural choice to wear a niqab, it represented servitude.

The niqab makes a lot of Canadians uncomfortable, for a lot of reasons. There are many Larry Millers out there. But then again, why would we feel comfortable? We've never had a habit of obscuring our physical appearance in public.
Conservative MP Larry Miller apologized after saying on a radio show that women who want to wear the niqab during the citizenship oath should "stay the hell where you came from." (LarryMiller.ca)

There might be good reasons for it, and it would be good to hear from more people who wear the niqab, like Zunera Ishaq, so that we might figure out if she’s the exception, or the rule. Then again, those who have the niqab forced upon them will probably not be at liberty to discuss it. We might only ever hear from those who have a choice.

But try to hear we must. Other countries have had a similar debate, with some countries like France going as far as to ban the niqab. The government of Canada is proposing no such thing. The government, the polls show, has support for its stance on the niqab and citizenship.

There are two (difficult) questions for Canada to answer: What cultural practices, if any, are antithetical to our values as a country; and when do these cultural practices impede the government's ability to do its job and what should be done about it?

Without doubt, the cultural accommodation debate is a tinderbox. We must proceed with caution. But if all sides insist on running around with matches we won’t get to debate, we’ll just go up in flames.

Andrew MacDougall is a former director of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He is now the senior executive consultant at MSLGROUP London. Follow him @agmacdougall.


Andrew MacDougall is a Canadian-British national based in London who writes about politics and current affairs. He was previously director of communications for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.


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