If there was ever a shred of doubt remaining that our beloved Conservative government is hopelessly and chronically xenophobic, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has put those doubts to rest. His latest decree, forcing Muslim women to remove their burkas or niqabs, while taking the oath of Canadian citizenship, demonstrates a clear political (see: ideological) motive that is quite apart from any practical concerns.
According to Mr. Kenney: “The citizenship oath is a quintessentially public act.” Well, sure it is. And these women are there, in public, participating in the ceremony, as required by law; but why do they need to be unmasked? For security reasons? To verify their identity? No. He claims to speak for a group of unidentified citizenship judges, who are, according to the minister, concerned that they can’t tell if these women are actually speaking the oath or not. If I were one of those judges, I, too, would not wish to be numbered and named.
Okay, let’s break this down into manageable bits.
First, the security risk. Presumably, Muslim women pass through the same security screening and metal detectors as the rest of the future Canadians, before they are permitted to enter the ceremonial chamber. There is no reason to believe this headgear presents any significant increase in potential danger to the public. A person setting out to do harm can just as successfully hide a “doomsday device” under her arm as under her chin, which means removal of a niquab would not help.
Second, the question of identity. This has also plagued election overseers, in recent years, who use photo ID, such as a driver’s license or photo health card, to make a formal identification. Let me offer a simple solution: permit these Muslim women to step behind a curtain with a female official, where they can momentarily reveal their face and thus prove they are who they claim to be. There is no valid reason to expose these women to public scrutiny, unless the aim is to punish or humiliate Muslims for being different, or at the very least for being on the “wrong” side of the religious fence.
Finally, there is the judges’ concern. Honestly, this part seems made-up, as if Mr. Kenney needed just one more thing to add to his list of reasons, and so he concocted this band of unknown judges out of thin air. Then again, judges are people, too, as liable to be fraught with prejudices and intolerance and kooky ideas as anyone else. But let’s explore the complaint by asking some simple questions: What if these women are not saying the words? What if they are quietly giving thanks to Allah for delivering them safely to the land of plenty and opportunity? What if, behind that burka, they are humming the melody to Rihanna’s Only Girl in the World? Will any of that make them less Canadian? Less honest and law-abiding? Less productive in society? On the other hand, if they mouth the required words for all to see and hear, does that guarantee they will be better citizens? What is to prevent any applicant, man or woman, covered or un-, from shouting the ceremonial phrases with real gusto, and then going outside, to the very public streets of Canada, to commit a crime or live off the dole or drive while intoxicated?
And why stop at Muslim headgear? What if my bushman beard hides my lips from the judge’s keen eye? Should I be compelled, by government edict, to be clean shaven before I am allowed to take my vows? What about those soon-to-be-citizens who have little grasp of English, and therefore neither know nor care what they are reciting? Does anyone take those vows seriously? Ceremonies are, well, ceremonial. Most of us, sooner or later, take wedding vows. The words are often little more than a means to an end, which isn’t to say we aren’t taking the ritual seriously, but the words themselves are not the important bit. Speaking them loudly and articulately does not make them more or less effective or meaningful. It’s the ritual that is important; it’s the willingness to participate that demonstrates that intentions are well-meant.
Forcing these women—who have strict and meaningful (to them) reasons to remain covered in public—to reveal themselves for no sensible reason is nothing more than a petty display of power by a government that has proven, time and again, that it does not like visible minorities. Remember Omar Khadr? Suaad Hagi Mohamud? Maher Arar? It’s a shame that this sort of prejudice can occupy so much time and energy, when there are clearly more important issues that deserve our attention these days. That this “problem” could be so easily solved (see paragraph 4, above), illustrates that our government is engaged in an active war on the “foreign” element for reasons that cannot be objectively justified.
Dear Muslim brothers and sisters, welcome to Canada. Please don’t forget to exercise your fundamental right to vote.