Niqab Debate

The Niqab Debate refers to the divisive debate that began during the 2015 federal election and continues. The issue arose when the Stephen Harper government announced in 2011 that it would prohibit new Canadians from taking their citizenship oath while wearing the face-covering niqab veil. This regulation was challenged in court by Zunera Ishaq, who refused to removed her niqab to take the oath. The Federal Court ruled in September, 2015 that the rule violated the Citizenship Act. In the midst of the election, Harper announced that his government would appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court and set off a national debate on the matter.

The Niqab Debate didn’t happen overnight but over time. It began after 9/11 and continues today. The Fall of 2014, which saw two “lone wolf” murders of Canadian soldiers, one an attack on Parliament Hill, returned it to the national consciousness. The issue has been particularly pronounced in Quebec, where issues of identity and the primacy of secularism are most fraught. The province has been consumed by debates over the “reasonable accommodation” of Muslim citizens, culminating in the introduction of the (ultimately nixed) “Charter of Quebec Values” by Pauline Marois’ PQ government in 2013 and most recently Bill 62, the “religious neutrality” law.

Supporters of the ban have seen the niqab as inherently anti-woman, and out of place in the 21st century. Some have equated it with the larger threat of jihadism and terrorism. Opponents saw the ban as pandering to prejudice, ignorance and racism – the type of “dog whistle” increasingly common in American politics.

Against the backdrop of the tightly contested 2015 federal election, the debate over face coverings was red-hot and often ugly. The Liberals and NDP were put in the awkward position of defending what some saw as fundamentally illiberal cultural practices. Harper cast himself in the unlikely role of champion of women’s rights. The situation was also fuelled by the unfolding crisis in Syria and Canada’s admission of Syrian refugees. It was further inflamed by Conservatives’ disastrous, widely derided and (unintentionally) hilarious “Barbaric Cultural Practices Hotline” promise.

Most support for the ban came from Quebec. The Bloc Quebecois even ran a bizarre anti-NDP commercial that strangely – but effectively – linked its opposition to pipelines and the niqab. This put the NDP – which held most of the province’s seats – in the painful position of trying to soften its opposition to the ban in Quebec to compete with the Bloc and Conservatives while trumpeting it elsewhere to compete with the Liberals.

On election day – which saw Justin Trudeau’s Liberals win a majority – the effects were clear. The tightrope walked by the NDP hurt the party both in Quebec and elsewhere and it lost official opposition status. Yet even more importantly, the issue hurt the Conservatives and contributed to their loss; cementing some perceptions of the party as divisive and negative. The Conservatives burned its bridges to ethnic communities in metropolitan areas across Canada; assiduously and painstakingly built over years and essential to their 2011 majority victory. In contrast, Trudeau’s opposition to the ban was consistent with his broader message of inclusion.

The Niqab Debate is still with us. The 2015 election was merely its first act, and the issue returned to the national stage in the fall of 2017, following the passage of Bill 62 by the National Assembly of Quebec. Deemed a “religious neutrality” law by the Quebec Liberal government, it stipulated that anyone receiving public services must do so with their face uncovered. While ostensibly aimed at all religions, many saw it clearly targeting the niqab.

Echoing the first act, reaction to Bill 62 was deeply polarized. The bill passed easily in the National Assembly; polls showed that a healthy majority of Quebeckers approve of it. Yet its many opponents – municipalities, civil rights groups, other provinces and more – saw it as Islamaphobic and unconstitutional. Its definition of “services” included such things as public transit, leading to speculation that niqab-clad women would be kept off city busses. Many pointed to the myriad contradictions of the bill, aimed at the “coercion” of religion yet being coercive itself and speaking of “religious neutrality” but only mentioning face-coverings.

Despite the firestorms, the Quebec Liberals seem resolved to press forward on the issue. The drama of the 2015 election and the uproar over Bill 62 demonstrates both the furor of the Niqab Debate and its enduring relevance in Canadian public life.

Image source: Flickr user David Dennis

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