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NDP MPPs Kristyn Wong-Tam, centre, and Joel Harden leave the chamber at Ontario's Legislature, with Independent MPP Sarah Jama, left, remains on May 6.Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

Unless I misread their biographies, I don’t believe NDP MPPs Kristyn Wong-Tam and Joel Harden trace their lineage to the Levant. Was Mr. Harden’s activism born from his experience as a young Palestinian trying to survive in Gaza? Or was it from his position as a student activist railing against capitalism within the comfy confines of Canadian universities? I suppose I will leave it to Mr. Harden, as well as Ms. Wong-Tam, to clarify.

Surely they understand the confusion they have stirred up this week by defying a rule in Ontario’s legislature against wearing keffiyehs, which, we are told, are absolutely not political symbols, but cultural pieces of clothing deeply tied to Arabic identity. Ms. Wong-Tam was merely embracing her, erm, culture by wearing the garment in the Chamber. And it was “not a prop” for Mr. Harden when he used it to, erm, non-verbally protest the Speaker’s ban on the scarf in the legislature. Everyone got that straight?

We can choose to go along with the tenuous claim that the keffiyeh hasn’t taken on new political meaning since the war in Gaza began, or we can acknowledge the reality that symbols evolve. What was once just an article of clothing is now a clear symbol of Palestinian resistance, which is why political undergrads who are about as Arab as tuna casserole are suddenly wearing them to pick up their morning coffee. That’s not a bad thing; it’s simply an acknowledgement that context matters when talking about how symbols or gestures are used and perceived.

It is well within the Speaker’s rights to ban the keffiyeh in the chamber (earlier this week, he scaled back his prohibition on the keffiyeh in the entire building). The rules clearly prohibit “the display of signs, banners, buttons, clothing with partisan/political messages or obscenities” and so on within the legislature, and it’s reasonable to argue that the keffiyeh is being used to send a political message, especially since Mr. Harden, Ms. Wong-Tam and independent MPP Sarah Jama didn’t wear them in the legislature before the war began.

But the Speaker has discretion, and this is a battle he would’ve been better off leaving alone, especially since the clash has become a multiweek distraction from more important matters at Queen’s Park. Indeed, this spectacle has given Ms. Jama more of an audience for her remarks on Gaza (which, in the past, have included denying the rape of Israeli women, and more recently included a call to “globalize the intifada”) than she would have had by simply wearing her keffiyeh in the legislature.

And while the keffiyeh has undoubtedly become a political symbol, its meaning is not universal. B’nai Brith Canada released a statement claiming that the keffiyeh’s “innocuous origins as a cultural symbol have been corrupted by radicals,” and that “it has become a divisive symbol that is used to incite.” But that’s no more true than claiming that the Israeli flag has morphed from an innocuous symbol of patriotism to an incendiary symbol of “genocide,” as some pro-Palestinian activists have claimed.

The keffiyeh is worn by people who want to show solidarity with Palestinians’ suffering, who reject the West’s involvement in supporting Israel, and who want to see an immediate and lasting ceasefire – and yes, also by those who deny the rape of Israeli women, and by others who openly praise Hamas. If it were a symbol whose only or primary interpretation was hateful – like a swastika, or the Hamas flag – there would be no question that it should be banned from the legislature. But the freedom to wear a cultural garment, even if it has taken on more complicated meaning in recent months, should be maintained in our legislatures.

Some will argue that whether or not the keffiyeh’s message is incendiary, it is nevertheless political, which is expressly against the rules, and that by allowing it, the Speaker risks turning the legislature into a circus where props, signs, buttons, flags and symbols for myriad causes become the norm. But the keffiyeh is an ambiguous case. It is not, say, a sign with a political slogan, and it would be defensible in this case for the Speaker to use his discretion to allow it (which he has already done by loosening the rules). What’s more, the prohibition on political symbols is arguably trying to maintain a level of decorum in the legislature that doesn’t actually exist: there is plenty of activism, posturing and silly theatrics already. The addition of a scarf doesn’t exactly bastardize the place.

So while the keffiyeh undoubtedly has taken on political meaning, banning it serves little practical purpose, while at the same time creating an unnecessary distraction. And I think we can all agree that Mr. Harden must be allowed to celebrate his heritage.

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