Burqa Ban Comes to Canada: Liberation Through Assimilation

This isn't about whether we think wearing burqas or niqabs is a good idea or not. The issue is whether a government should be able to impose its notion of national identity on its citizens
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The legal banning of the burqa and niqab (the full veil worn by some Muslim women) has been growing in popularity in Europe and is now making its way across the Atlantic. Canadian Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, known for his conservative and anti-immigrant policies, announced that new Canadian citizens will now be forced to remove the burqa or niqab while taking their oath of citizenship.

Jason Kenney said most Canadians have misgivings about Islamic face coverings and said new Canadians should take the oath in view of their fellow citizens...

The Conservative minister called the issue a matter of deep principle that goes to the heart of Canada's identity and the country's values of openness and equality. He said women who feel obliged to have their faces covered in public often come from a cultural milieu that treats women as property rather than equal human beings.

Perhaps it was appropriate that Kenney made the announcement in French-speaking Quebec as his justification for limiting religious freedom is almost identical to that of France, which has outlawed the niqab in public and hijabs and turbans in the classroom.

This isn't about whether we think wearing burqas or niqabs is a good idea or not. The issue is whether a government should be able to impose its notion of national identity on its citizens (and non-citizens for that matter) by dictating what articles of faith we can and cannot wear.

We Sikhs are all too familiar with the confines of national identity. Thousands of Sikhs were killed in the 1980s in the name of Indian patriotism, we've faced immense backlash violence in the United States (and elsewhere) since 9/11 (many perpetrators calling themselves patriots), and we continue to face a legal ban on turbans in French classrooms and photographs on government-issued identification.

As a Sikh, and as someone who values religious freedom and cultural pluralism, I am disturbed by the growing number of laws that ban the niqab in Europe and now Canada. These laws further push a government's ethnocentric assertion of a homogeneous national identity -- all in the name of liberating women.

French Muslim woman Hind Ahmas hardly sees these policies as a means to her liberation, as she currently could face jail time for refusing to remove her niqab. Last Monday she was fined 150 euros and sentenced to a 15-day "citizenship course" for wearing her niqab. Her sentence was given in her absence, as the court would not allow her inside wearing her niqab. She stated to reporters, "This citizenship course, I will not do it. It is the people in the court who need lessons on French citizenship, not me."

Ahmas could face a fine of 30,000 euros and up to two years in prison if she does not attend the course.

While hundreds of thousands of working people, students, immigrants, and rather ordinary people are rising up throughout the world against corporate greed, political corruption, and growing inequality, our elected officials are apparently spending their time and resources creating and implementing policies that restrict and police religious garb. Priorities, priorities ...

As Islam continues to be openly vilified by politicians and media pundits, policies like these targeting the niqab are strategic, political moves used to galvanize support (and votes) via fear and exclusion. Michael Tubiana of the French Human Rights League (LDH) believes Ahmas is being targeted in this way because the government wants to be seen as tough on immigrants and Islamists as next year's elections quickly approach. He states, "The government just wants to compete with the National Front for votes at the next election. It used to be a case of the National Front trying to win votes from the centre right UMP party but now it is the other way round."

Indeed, it's hard to imagine Kenney's political motivations in Canada being much different. Every (intolerant) society needs its enemy. For Europe and North America, Muslims continue to unapologetically be the target.

So, as the popular union anthem asks, which side are you on?

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