Shireen Ahmed is a Toronto-based freelance writer who focuses on misogyny and race in issues of sports and society.
As the world uncomfortably watched how a burkini ban in France pushed women away from enjoying public spaces, Canada announced that Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers now have the right to wear a headscarf. Hijab-wearing women are now permitted to wear a particular scarf that has gone through safety testing and meets uniform requirements. It has also been designed to fit under the traditional RCMP forage cap.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims is lauding the RCMP on a move that is expected to further emphasize values of tolerance. A statement sent to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale reads: "The objective will be to demonstrate that the RCMP is a progressive and inclusive police service that values and respects persons of all cultural and religious backgrounds."
RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said the move will help encourage Muslim to consider a career in the Mounties.
As strongly as I feel about the importance of inclusion of women in fields where they are outnumbered by men, it is important to look at the culture surrounding the workplace environment and not immediately applaud new policies – however progressive.
The RCMP has a long history of discrimination against women (including verbal, sexual and physical abuse) and has barely recovered. More than 400 women are involved in a lawsuit against the RCMP for allegedly ignoring rampant sexual harassment. The misogynistic culture of the organization was so blatant that Human Rights Watch did an independent investigation into alleged sexualized violence and harassment of indigenous women in northern British Columbia by RCMP officers. The harrowing accounts from former officers include details of enduring post-traumatic stress disorder and battling mental health issues.
As a Muslim woman, what concerns me as much as exclusion and discrimination, is this toxic environment in which women are trying to serve, protect and enrich their communities.
Using a banner of inclusion and appreciation might come across as disingenuous given the RCMP's history of allowing head coverings. As an RCMP prospect in the late 1980s, Baltej Singh Dhillon, a Sikh, had to fight for the right to wear his turban and work as a Mountie. He faced incredible amounts of racist commentary and endured vacuous discussions from politicians who were unmoved by facts, such as that Sikhs fought for Great Britain in two world wars.
I was in junior high school when that debacle occurred but I clearly remember thinking, "Sikhs were good enough to fight and die on the front lines for the Empire but Dhillon can't sit on a horse for Canada?" My dislike for the RCMP was born. I knew it would never be for me, or for women like me.
The discussions about Staff Sergeant Dhillon's turban are not forgotten to many Canadians from ethnic communities. I remember them well. His identity and faith were maliciously challenged. The RCMP's iconic Mountie image could not be changed, people argued, but it changed. Just as the RCMP is now hoping that the number of Muslim women recruits might change.
One might wonder whether this move has been prompted by low recruitment rates. The RCMP recently made changes to its recruitment process to entice more applicants. In April, the force even dropped the citizenship requirement for new applicants – permanent residents are now eligible. Is the hijab announcement happenstance, or a strategic move by the RCMP to endear itself to open-minded Canadians?
Diversifying an organization that is meant to provide peace of mind to Canadians is not a bad thing. But task forces and investigations are not always the most efficient way to bring about change – particularly for a police force that has been steeped in hypermasculinity, homophobia and racism since it's inception.
But let's move forward. Are there increased numbers of senior female officers? Are recruits and senior male staff getting gender-sensitivity training? Are officers still abusing with impunity? Before I would consider joining, I would have a very long list of questions, most unanswered. I am unsatisfied that sufficient changes have been made so quickly to create healthy and meaningful work places for female officers, particularly non-white women.
My 14-year-old daughter decided to wear hijab this year. She is around the same age I was when Staff Sgt. Dhillon challenged the RCMP's policy on head coverings. As she enters high school and thinks about career choices, hijab bans are somewhat of a guide for her; what industries permit the head covering that she chooses to wear?
Now that the RCMP allows hijabs, this could be an option. But as her mother and a feminist, I will be advising her that before real change in policy and practice is administered, she and her hijab should look elsewhere for career options.