With a federal election in plain sight, Canadians can look forward to politicians passionately declaring their commitment to the betterment of society. Election strategies involve debating and deflecting from pressing issues such as foreign policy, military commitments, the environment and budget concerns. Often, party leaders choose to focus on a message that might unite the public. They pander to potential voters, and their election staff and advisors carefully prepare strategies.
In an attempt to get re-elected, the Harper government has unsurprisingly chosen to highlight his commitment to fighting terrorism as his primary platform, but in an odd turn, is obsessing with a woman’s constitutional right to wear niqab as a point to rile up voters and distract them from real concerns.
Niqab Deemed ‘Anti-Women’
Last week, still irked after a Supreme Court judge ruled against the government’s attempt to ban niqab at citizenship ceremonies, Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared that wearing niqab (a veil that covers the face) was “rooted in a culture that is anti-women”. His comments provoked much response from social media as Canadians took to Twitter to mock his misogynistic and Islamophobic remarks using the hashtags #DressCodePM and #ListenNotSave.
Perhaps Harper’s lip service to the plight of oppressed and ‘enslaved women’ might have been tolerable had he and his colleague not been so greatly misinformed.
That Harper attempted to present himself as someone who is concerned with the status of women is laughable. Particularly as his government has repeatedly ignored calls to investigate thousands of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
Perhaps Harper’s lip service to the plight of oppressed and ‘enslaved women’ might have been tolerable had he and his colleague not been so greatly misinformed, and had either of them communicated or reached out to a single woman who chooses to wear niqab.
“I am not looking for Mr. Harper to approve my life choices or dress. I am certainly not looking for him to speak on my behalf and “save” me from oppression, without even ever having bothered to reach out to me and speak with me,” wrote Zunera Ishaq in the Toronto Star. Ishaq is the woman who launched the legal challenge to Ottawa’s ban of niqabs.
It is clear that through the ongoing debates of his Anti-Terrorism Bill C-51, Harper will link Islam and potential terrorism to convince Canadians that his government is the only one equipped to fight this madness (earlier this month Embassy Magazine released a cartoon by Michael de Adder – shown to the right – that pokes fun at this). This is despite a recent report from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) stating that it is “white supremacy” and not Islam that is the biggest threat to national security.
Policing of Women in 2015
Harper’s incessant attempt to shame Muslim women and comment on their mode of dress is not unexpected. Another recent political adventure of the Harper government was its introduction of Bill S7 known as the “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices”. This is an unnecessary bill, marinated in ignorance, inferring that newcomers – namely those with a strong cultural background – would threaten peace and safety of Canadian woman. Targeting marginalized communities is horrendous. Advocates from violence against women agencies and law clinics, who are experts in dealing with cases of abuse, are challenging this legislation.
Surely, Alexander, the Minister of Immigration and Citizenship, might want to consider learning about the difference between ‘hijab’ and ‘niqab’.
At the helm of Bill S7 is Minister Chris Alexander, who, taking a page from the Prime Minister’s handbook on inflammatory comments, has been spewing hateful and ignorant commentary via e-mail and on Twitter, while simultaneously confusing hijab and niqab.
Surely, Alexander, the Minister of Immigration and Citizenship, might want to consider learning about the difference between ‘hijab’ and ‘niqab’. Perhaps he is satisfied with maligning any outfit a Muslim woman chooses to wear. Regardless of his experience abroad, Alexander does not get to decide what hijab and niqab mean to Canadian women.
Nor does Harper have the power or privilege to strip women of their privileges accorded by section 2a of the Canadian Charter of Freedoms and Rights Act.
Policing women’s bodies and controlling their clothing is the same modus operandi of the extremist governments, which the frenzied Harper and Alexander claim to be against.
It must be noted that one does not have to agree with every choice a fellow Canadian makes in order to support their right to choose it. The mere fact that these discussions are raging in 2015 over an article of clothing a woman chooses to wear is reprehensible. That is the real face of a culture that is increasingly anti-women. Policing women’s bodies and controlling their clothing is the same modus operandi of the extremist governments, which the frenzied Harper and Alexander claim to be against.
And it is the same misogyny upon which the Harper government has set its course. In fact some of his esteemed colleagues now seem to be falling in the ranks and also making xenophonic and misogynistic remarks on this issue, as did Tory MP Larry Miller. To conflate issues of immigration and religious clothing is dangerous and horribly offensive. Not all practising Muslims in Canada are recent immigrants. Many actually choose to dress a certain way because of the freedoms allowed in Canada.
It would be of no surprise if Canadians soon begin to tire of Harper’s frantic rhetoric asserting a fear of terrorism to fan political support – even drawing on support from the United States.
Harper’s attempt to push Bills S7 and C51, and his repetition of the perils of niqabs, stems from his documented bias against Islam.
But for Stephen Harper to try to use the plight of women in the same sweep as his intolerant comments is ill advised and unbecoming of a statesman and the leader of this magnificent country. To arrogantly declare what he feels is Canadian dressing and Canadian culture is, in fact, the anti-thesis of being Canadian: tolerant, strong and free.
Shireen Ahmed is a writer, public speaker and sports activist focusing on Muslim women in sports. She is an athlete, advocate, community organizer, and works with youth of colour on empowerment projects. She is a regular contributor to Muslimah Media Watch, a global sports correspondent for Safe World For Women and works on the Muslim Women in Sports website. Her work has been featured and discussed in Racialicious, Policy Mic, The Globe and Mail and several more. Ahmed’s blog Tales from a Hijabi Footballer, where her passion for sport, politics and women’s issues collide, has been recognized by Sports Media for its candid discussions. She is currently working on her first book.