Niqabs in Canada
Recently here in Canada, the Court struck down a move by our Conservative government that would require women to have their faces uncovered during citizenship ceremonies. Our Prime Minister referred to niqabs as un-Canadian. The Court disagreed and said she had the right to wear what she wanted under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, given there was no security risk or other argument against it. Now the government plans to appeal and it has become a bit of an election issue.
Islam and Niqabs
It is true that Islam as a whole does not require niqabs. I don’t think the Qu’ran requires any particular way of dress for women. It just says that both men and women should be modest. I haven’t read the Qu’ran, so I could be wrong on this, but I have seen Muslims saying the same thing. It is much more of a cultural thing for certain nations. Some of these were actually very open with how men and women dressed within the last generation or two. They were often very Westernized. Several wars later, understandably they wanted to distance themselves from Western culture. One way to do that was with clothing requirements for women.
In any case, if you are saying that only religious practices where every practitioner of the entire religion has to agree in order for it to be a religious right, then yes, wearing of a niqab does not carry any religious rights protection under the Charter. But would we say that Brethren who require women wear head coverings in worship no longer be allowed to wear them in public ceremonies? Most Christians don’t require head coverings, either. I doubt anybody would say that. It definitely seems like we are unfairly applying the logic.
To expand on what I said above, the government did not cite any security risk for why niqabs should not be allowed at citizenship ceremonies. Note here we are talking about the public ceremony. We are not talking about the actual legal process leading up to the ceremony. The woman in question agreed to show her face in private to the legal authorities in order to be granted citizenship. That seems like a pretty reasonable accommodation from both sides – ensures identity with minimal discomfort to the woman. The Notwithstanding Clause doesn’t apply here. Anybody citing “security risk” without any specifics of why it is a security risk must really be saying that Muslims are a security risk, or at least Muslims from certain countries. That’s just Islamophobia and that kind of fear of the other has no place in the Christian life.
Is requiring women to wear niqabs – or any other clothing – inherently oppressive? Yes. Anytime we tell women what to wear or what not to wear, that’s a problem. When we tell women they have to wear a niqab, that’s wrong. When we tell women they can’t walk down the street topless, that’s opposing their rights. When we tell women they can’t wear a tight shirt, or a v-neck, or short shorts, or a dress, or a pant suit, or clergy vestments, or [insert clothing requirement here]
That includes telling them they can’t wear a niqab. That’s opposing their rights, too. It doesn’t even really matter to me that much whether there is a religious reason or not to wear one. If a woman wants to wear one, and there isn’t any risk posed to anybody else (the notwithstanding clause), she has that right. She has a right to choose what to wear. How sad it would be to celebrate citizenship in this country at the same time that her rights as a Canadian have been stripped from her in front of a big crowd. We should be ashamed of that. That’s not how we should be welcoming somebody to a country where we claim to offer freedom.
Of course we aren’t just talking about legal rights. As a Christian, I affirm the inherent image of God in every person. I want to honour that Muslim person as somebody made by God who has decided she wants to wear a niqab – when not harming anybody – in the same way I want to affirm the God-image worth in a woman who wants to wear expensive professional clothes or a woman wearing a bikini. I can’t simultaneously affirm her humanity at the same time that I am bossing her around to dress exactly how I like. Many Christians want to say “be modest, but not too modest like those other cultures we’re afraid of.” My job is not to dictate her clothing choices. My job is to affirm her God-given ability to choose for herself.