Our Syrian friends will soon be with us. Groups all over the country are working hard to sponsor a refugee family and I am part of one.
I am looking forward to meeting “our” family and helping them to settle in Canada. But that means that I must, and all Canadians must, put aside whatever concerns they may have about the newest members of our family and welcome them with open arms.
In Canada, we recently had a debate about wearing the niqab in citizenship courts and no doubt some of the refugees coming to Canada will be wearing one. Eighty two percent of Canadians disagree with allowing the niqab to be worn while taking the citizenship oath.
The debate was put to rest when Justice Keith Boswell recently ruled that the federal government policy requiring women to uncover their faces when they take the citizenship oath is not enforceable by law. He also said the policy is contradictory to the Citizenship Regulations, which are enforceable by law. The Regulations require judges to administer the oath with dignity and solemnity, allowing the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization or the solemn affirmation thereof.
While it is clear that government policies are not enforceable by law, it is not so clear why Justice Boswell thought the Regulations mean that women are not required to uncover their faces in citizenship court for two reasons.
First, the niqab is not a religious requirement. Although the women who wear the niqab say it is for religious purposes, the vast majority of Muslims, including Muslim scholars, agree that there is nothing in the Koran that states women must be veiled. Not only does the Jajj, Islam’s most sacred pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, not require women to cover their faces during the pilgrimage, it actually prohibits women from doing so. Therefore, there is no need for religious accommodation during the citizenship ceremony.
Secondly, the niqab has been used a symbol to oppress women. When the Ayatollah Komeni came to power in Iran in 1979, women who had been unveiled for decades, were required to don the veil and prohibited from going to university. ISIL requires women in the areas they control to wear the niqab. Wearing a symbol of oppression to citizenship court contributes to neither the dignity nor solemnity of the occasion.
While it is wonderful that Canada welcomes people from all racial, ethnic and religious groups and that they bring with them their own unique perspectives, there can be a concern that they may bring with them values related to the status of women. Men who treat their wives as inferior may not be able to leave that practice at home and treat women as equals in the labour force here.
Although we have many things to learn from other cultures, one thing we strive for in Canada is equality between the sexes. Values or symbols that undermine the equality of women should not seep into Canadian values and practices.
Canadian women have fought long and hard to obtain rights and freedoms, but we still have not reached equality. Women continue to be discriminated against at home, in the workplace and in religious institutions. And even those rights and freedoms we have obtained are vulnerable; witness the ongoing debate about abortion and remember how women lost jobs at the end of World War II to make room in the work force for returning soldiers.
And so we must be vigilant. That means symbols representing the equality of women must be observed when the state, which represents our values, interacts with its citizens. Judge Boswell should have decided that our new citizens should dress in citizenship court in accordance with Canadian values as expressed through our Charter of Rights and Freedoms and other Canadian laws. This requires covering up the body and uncovering the face.
So the majority of Canadians have lost that fight. However, there is another Canadian value and practice also important in our traditions. Canada welcomes people from all racial, ethnic and religious groups from around the world and we treat them fairly.
Syrians are in desperate need of our help. So no matter what we may think about the niqab, for the moment, we must put aside our concerns and help them settle successfully here in Canada. There must not be, as there has been in the recent past, any denigration of women who wear the niqab, or shouting at them to take it off.
We need to trust that women who do wear the niqab will eventually feel they can remove it and fully absorb the Canadian value of the equality of women. And in the meantime, we need to help them, respect them, and make sure they feel welcome in Canada.