I don't like segregation in any religion

Special to The Globe and Mail

When I start to list the reasons I don’t like the niqab, I sound like something out of Dr. Seuss:

“I do not like them

here or there.

I do not like them

anywhere.”

I can’t imagine myself in a niqab, let alone a full burka.

Shrouded in black from head to toe, face obscured except for my eyes. The mere thought of wearing what some orthodox Muslim women do in public in this country – by choice, or because they are compelled to – makes me feel both claustrophobic and angry.

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And yet this very inability to put myself in their place limits my empathy and tolerance for the custom. I am not proud of feeling like this, but I just wish the niqab would go away.

Obviously I am not alone. The general discomfort in Canada – and even within the Muslim community – over the niqab was underscored this week when Conservative Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney proclaimed that, henceforth, women wearing the face-obscuring garment cannot take the oath of Canadian citizenship without revealing their faces.

Let’s just say that the majority of online comments about this ruling can be summed up as “that’s what it means to be Canadian, and if you don’t like it, go somewhere else.”

Now let’s get the facts straight. Mr. Kenney is not banning the burka. He is implementing a rule that faces must be shown when these women take the citizenship oath, because showing one’s face is mandated in certain public duties in our country and surely has been applied to others before. If for example, I, in the name of religious freedom, chose to wear a balaclava at a citizenship ceremony or in court, I’m sure I would be told to remove it and make it snappy.

But the ruling was also instituted, because, as the minister stated, “We want women to be full and equal members of Canadian society.”

Cue the alarm bells. Mr. Kenney is not exactly known as a feminist. (A vehement anti-abortion crusader in his student days, he tried to shut down a pro-choice group speaking at the Catholic-run San Francisco University and made the CNN news.)

So here you have a Conservative government, the same Conservative government that moved to defund any agency that would provide abortion services to imperilled women in Third World countries, striking a blow for women’s equality. But only some equality, not the equality of choice, not the fundamental equality that a woman’s body belongs to her.

Alarm bells again: “I'm sure they'll trump up some stupid Charter of Rights challenge,” Mr. Kenney also said, debasing any future attempt to challenge this ruling, which is a democratic right.

What a rich stew indeed, what a quandary for us, who think highly of ourselves as tolerant Canadians.

Some argue for compromise – perhaps the women could unveil themselves to a female judge – but as with the honour killing trial in Kingston, we are learning about the perils of cultural accommodation.

The problem with accommodation is that it legitimizes and institutionalizes a form of segregation for women that most of us find unacceptable in this country. Where does it end?

Some men have told me they find women wearing the niqab and burka a “threatening” sight. Most men, on the other hand, would not use the word “threatening” to describe the sight of a scantily clad woman. So is covering up an affront to our modern sexual mores?

Simply put, we do not like the niqab or burka because we see it as being imposed on women for cultural reasons (i.e. to keep control of their visibility and sexuality). Furthermore, even Muslim scholars and activists disagree about the religious justification for this full female body and face coverage in Islam, with some arguing it is only about female segregation and male dominance.

I don't like any rules in any religion, including my own, that separate women from the mainstream, or make them less than full partners in society, whether it involves synagogues who seat women separately from men or Christian sects who set down rigid and alienating rules for women. No matter what the pretty justification for it, all these rules make women less equal than men. As a woman and a feminist, I find this intolerable.

So even taking the feminist hypocrisy of the Harper Tories into account, I should be totally fine with Mr. Kenney’s proclamation. Yet somehow I am still uneasy. If the niqab wearer is not trampling on my rights, why should I trample on hers?

Maybe the real reason I don’t like the niqab is that my reaction to it makes me feel like a bigot. And that is an unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling. Yet more and more, it’s the price we pay these days for trying to sort through these difficult cultural issues.

There probably will be a Charter challenge to this latest edict – so our courts will ultimately decide whether it violates any freedom enshrined in our Constitution. That way we can return to our own cozy feelings of being a tolerant, accepting country, except when a Muslim woman wearing a niqab walks into the room.

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