Not to trivialize the issue with a choice double entendre, but the decision to ban veils at citizenship ceremonies is really only window dressing on a larger issue.
Last week, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced that women will not be permitted to wear face coverings such as burqas and niqabs when reciting the oath of citizenship.
The rationale, at least the one given, is that new citizens must be seen and heard reciting the oath by all present.
The reasoning is a tad silly. As anyone knows, group recitations rarely take place with universal participation. And only the most expert lip reader could discern whether each immigrant is pledging his undying loyalty.
The real reason for Kenney's edict is, ironically, symbolism. In the same way that the veil symbolizes religious or cultural beliefs (depending on who’s interpreting the history), the minister is telling these women that the veil is antithetical to Canadian values and has no place at the symbolic gateway into citizenship.
He’s right. And not. It’s a complicated issue that pits individual freedom against the best interests of society.
In one sense, you have to admire Kenney. It takes a lot of chutzpah to tell women what they’re allowed to wear (or not wear, in this case). As a rule, women demand free rein on their own attire. And, although few would dare walk into a courtroom in a bikini, women face fewer and fewer restrictions on how they can dress. There are some exceptions, of course. Don’t even think of visiting the Vatican in shorts and a halter top. It won’t happen.
Veils, of course, are not foreign to Western society. They are de rigueur for grieving widows and blushing brides, but their use is only a nominal gesture to past practices.
On the other hand
The niqab and the whole-body burqa are a different story. In practice, they only come off in private, with family or with other women. Despite the freedom to dress and behave as they wish, women who persist in wearing the burqa in the West do so with ironic zeal.
There are circumstances in which face coverings are problematic. The citizenship ceremony is a dubious case; not so questionable are situations where facial identity and expression are central concerns. A Supreme Court decision is anticipated soon in the case of a woman who wants to testify while wearing a veil. Such an allowance would violate fundamental principles of justice, such as the right to face one’s accuser and the ability of a jury to assess the credibility of a witness.
Unlike France, where veils are banned outright, Canada is not likely to impose radical dress codes. This is, after all, a country of compromise.
But this has nothing to do with the fashion statement itself. And no amount of compromise will undo the bizarre hypocrisy represented by the burqa and its half-sister garb.
Those who wear them insist they are adhering to their beliefs. But beliefs do not arise in a vacuum. And the full-face coverings in question are uniquely associated with cultures whose oppressive practices run counter to Western democracy.
It’s hard not to read some sort of unwelcome message into veiled faces: “Women are not equal,” “Attractiveness is a sin,” “Men are unable to control their desires” or even “The rest of you are impure and corrupt.”
No one should be surprised at the power of that symbolism.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.