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Banning the Burka

Posted on 13 December 2011

Yesterday, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced that burkas and other forms of religious face coverings would be banned during citizenship oaths:

From the National Post:

“Kenney said the move follows complaints from citizenship judges, MPs and others who’ve participated in citizenship ceremonies who have argued it’s hard to tell whether veiled individuals are actually reciting the oath.”

From the Globe and Mail:

“He (Kenney) said he spoke with citizenship judges who told him they are concerned that they can’t tell whether some people are actually reciting the oath during the ceremony because of the garments.”

From CBC:

“Kenney said he’s had complaints from MPs and citizenship court judges that it’s hard to tell whether people with their faces covered are actually reciting the oath of citizenship, which he says is a requirement to become Canadian.”

When I posted this on Twitter, someone who recently took the oath was surprised for the stated reason, saying, “from experience nobody checked that we were speaking at all.”

@akurjata from experience nobody checked that we were speaking at all.More likely it’s for ID purposes.

— Jon Campbell (@RandomActPG) December 12, 2011

I’ve never taken the citizenship oath, so I’ll have to take his word for it. The Globe and Mail editorial board backs him up, though:

“At some ceremonies, everyone present (including current citizens) is invited to step forward and recite the oath with the newcomers, en masse. Who can be sure who is saying what?

In practice, citizenship ceremonies are treated less as a solemn oath-taking of individuals and more as a celebration of diversity, of multiculturalism, of the world’s different peoples coming together as Canadians.”

So there’s that. And even if the oath-taking was being more closely monitored, the idea that people were having trouble telling what the women wearing burkas are saying is confusing. Surely there is some mode of allowing people who can’t speak to become citizens without someone closely monitoring every syllable passing through their lips? Or are mutes precluded from becoming citizens?

No, I’m going to guess that burkas and the like are being banned because of their association with certain strains of Islam more than any practical needs to tell if someone is taking the oath. It’s part of the same line of thinking that’s wanted to ban the burka while voting or in other spheres of public life.

And I won’t deny that some women are forced to wear burkas by their families or culture. But that doesn’t mean all women who wear them are doing so against their will, nor does it make banning them the best solution. If there is a women who fears for her safety if she removes her burka, does preventing her from becoming a citizen really help protect her?

Besides, you know what else is derived from a patriarchal and sexist society? Men being allowed to go topless at beaches while women are forced to cover up based on cultural ideas of decency. In an fair and equal society, both men and women should be allowed to be topless while swimming. I’m still not going to support a bylaw that bans bathing suit tops for women. I’m not sure what Mr. Kenney would think of a society that required citizens to strip naked in public in order to vote, because it removed any notions of gender or class inequality.

Let’s apply the same notions of “protecting women” from patriarchy to another item of clothing: spaghetti strap tank tops. From the point of view of some people of certain cultural or religious backgrounds, it is inappropriate for women to wear them. There are girls whose families ban them from wearing spaghetti strap tank tops. This ban is purely cultural, largely based on patriarchal norms. From the point of view of some, these girls are being repressed. Does it follow that shirts that cover women’s shoulders should be banned?

The burka and other coverings have a lot of misunderstanding and fear surrounding them. And again, I won’t deny that there are instances where women are forced to wear them against their will. But in a reasoned debate around its use,  it is important to understand that this is not always the case. My wife comes from a Muslim background. More to the point, she studied International Studies and engaged in multiple studies of feminism and Islam. I’m going to quote from her here surrounding women who choose to wear the burka:

“some choose to wear the burqa not because it makes them lesser in any way, but rather because it transforms them from a sexual object which can be judged based on outward appearances to an equal to a man – someone who is taken seriously because of what they say and do, as well as how they act rather than how they look. Men are not gawking at their physique and so must listen to their words and watch their actions. Some choose to wear a burqa or niquab as a symbol of their faith; they do not see it as much different than a Christian choosing to symbolize their fate by wearing… a cross.”

There are some instances where the need to see a person’s face trumps any religious rights. Passport photos and driver’s licences spring to mind.  That said, in those cases I don’t think it’s too much to ask of an inclusive society that you be given the option of revealing your face in private to a person of a gender that you feel comfortable with, if that can be reasonably accommodated.

The public taking of the citizenship oath, though? I don’t see any compelling reason burkas should be banned there.

Filed under: Canada, politics

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