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There’s a simple solution to niqabs and oath swearing – but Harper won’t allow it

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal-based journalist.

The only reason there's a debate over niqabs at Canadian citizenship ceremonies is because the Conservatives have taken away the opportunity for Muslim women to remove them with dignity.

Women like Zunera Ishaq needn't feel obliged to wear their veils while swearing the citizenship oath. Religious freedoms can be respected by simply allowing them to take the oath in a room where no men are present. In that case, exposing their faces would not conflict with their religious values.

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This is what the law calls a "reasonable accommodation," a gesture that harms no one but allows affected individuals to respect their beliefs. Ms. Ishaq has shown flexibility, removing her veil for identification purposes, her driver's licence photo and at airport security. But the Tories would have the country in an uproar because Ms. Ishaq drew the line at exposing her face yet again in a room full of male strangers when there is no practical reason to require it.

Gender segregation for modesty is hardly contrary to Canadian values, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper suggests – it's an integral part of our social system. Our bathrooms and changing rooms are separate for precisely that reason. We may walk around the public pool in skin-tight bathing suits, but when it's time to change, we expect to do so free from opposite-sex oglers. Some may think this overly prudish, but their perception is not allowed to prevail over our personal sense of propriety.

Allowing Ms. Ishaq to swear her oath among women resolves the conflict. But in 2011, citizenship and immigration minister Jason Kenney, rejecting the advice of his own legal advisers, took that choice away. Ministry e-mails cited in court show he spurned accommodation and made public removal of the niqab obligatory.

The Harper government wasn't interested in finding a reasonable solution. It instead spent $260,000 in a losing battle to fight Ms. Ishaq in two lower courts, and it is prepared to spend much more.

All this for no other reason than to force a few dozen women a year to perform a niqab peep show.

Oh, and to win votes in a critically tight election.

We may find her concept of propriety bewildering, but it is not very far removed from our own beliefs that no one should be subjected to a strip search by, or in front of, someone of the opposite gender. Canadian law only allows such searches in circumstances involving "danger to human life or safety." Otherwise, police or guards have to wait for a same-sex officer to do the search in private.

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Is it fair to compare strip searches to asking a religious woman to remove a niqab? It is when we force her to do it in a room full of men, with no attempt to extend her a consideration we routinely grant our prisoners. It should be easy for us to empathize with that sense of personal invasion, one that is amplified a hundredfold when the article of clothing being stripped away is also an article of faith.

You or I may disagree with Ms. Ishaq's belief that exposing her face in public is a violation, but that doesn't give us the right to blithely override it to prove some chauvinistic point.

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe says this as an issue of sexual equality. If he means women shouldn't be forced against their will to wear a niqab, we agree. But how can he then champion the idea that they should be forced against their will to take it off? The argument defeats itself.

Mr. Harper's argument for pushing the issue is this: "When you join the Canadian family in a public citizenship ceremony, it is essential that that is a time when you reveal yourselves to Canadians."

By denying the right of Ms. Ishaq and others to do just that with a gender-segregated ceremony, Mr. Harper has revealed not one face, but two.

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