Eyes without a face

Peter Jackson
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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.

Silly reasoning

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 pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Western society, Supreme Court

Geographic location: Vatican, France, Canada

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Recent comments

  • Pawlo
    December 14, 2011 - 19:19

    As a democratic and free society it is my right not to be discriminated. I am free to dress how I please. In my country we can be nude anywhere so I choose this. If someone stops me then they are violating my rights. IS THIS WHAT WE WANT HERE IN CANADA???????. If I went to Saudi Arabia I would we killed for not wearing the Burka so Here our laws should prevail. BEFORE you come into Canada one should read our laws and values and if you don't like it then DON T come into our country.

  • Kieran
    December 14, 2011 - 12:59

    This is Canada, NOT Saudi Arabia or Yemen. The miqab, burka and the hijab are symbols of Islamic oppression of women, which is clearly not a Canadian value. In Canada, we have the Charter to protect the rights of all citizens. Wearing the hijab denies women equality, and is therefore un-Canadian. Jason Kenney is right to have it banned from citizenship swearings-in. If you want to come to our multi-racial, multicultural democracy, welcome, but leave your religion and bigotry behind you.

    • Politically Incorrect
      December 14, 2011 - 14:10

      Exactly, this is Canada where women can and should wear what they choose. Furthermore, the citizenship ceremony is just that:; a ceremony. It seems ironic that a citizenship ceremony would be used as a platform to parade the government's distain for diversity (especially when it comes to Muslims). If you ban the hijab are you also willing to ban the kulfi, kipah, or turban? What about Amish and other Christian head coverings? Why aren’t they banned? (you do know that a hijab is a headscarf, right?) To many people the clothes western women often wear are seen demeaning and oppressive. Shall we ban mini-skirts? And if you take it upon yourself to tell people to leave their religions behind, I assume that you extend that to all Canadians including Christians and Jews. Finally, why do you ASSSUME that “they” are bringing bigotry with them? Where's your evidence? If they don't bring bigotry with them, there's certainly enough here already.

    • Chantal
      December 15, 2011 - 07:16

      And no doubt Yukoners, as the westermost part of Canada, are just as upset that they too are left out.

  • Doug Smith
    December 14, 2011 - 11:17

    Mr. Jackson, I was disappointed that you did not stand up for women and their right to be a free first class person. Surely you must know that the niqab and burkas are symbols for the oppression of women. You don’t see men wearing these garments do you? These women’s religion has been manipulated by men to subjugate females. The title of the song, “Eyes Without A Face” has two lines that also seem appropriate to the veiling of women. Got no human grace your eyes without a face. Such a human waste your eyes without a face. To Mr. Maurice E. Adams, whenever a person is discriminated against because of their sex it is the obligation of the state to intervene. You obviously haven’t bothered to inform yourself about the history of horrendous abuse of women that the niqab and burka symbolize. A person’s freedom and liberty are more important than any religion.

  • Abdul Saieed
    December 14, 2011 - 09:04

    Many Canadian women wear the burqa or niqab, so why is Kenney making an issue of this now? I would guess that it helps to distract us from his government's sabotage of the Durban conference and it's mishandling of the housing crisis at the Attawapiskat reserve. This is nothing more than a manufactured problem that will only result in the further heightening of tensions and bigotry from which this cynical government seems to benefit.

  • Jeremiah
    December 14, 2011 - 07:35

    Mummering (janneying) is a cultural activity but it is against the law to wear a face covering (mask) so janneying has almost died out. What's the difference? (It is not a religious practice, it is culture, tribal)

  • Maurice E. Adams
    December 14, 2011 - 06:58

    Peter, I am not one of those people who you suggest --- must "admire Minister Kenney" . ++++++ In my view, it is Minister Kenny who is violating Canadian values by preventing a woman from wearing a burqa during the citizen ceremony. +++++ It is my understanding that one of Canada's most important values is not only its acceptance, but its celebration of diversity. +++++ Minister Kenney has turned this celebration of a woman's choice to become a Canadian citizen into something that is very non-Canadian. ++++++ It is Minister Kenney that has trampled on Canadian values, and we all should be very concerned about that.