Lifting the veil – What this election’s Niqab debate says about Canada

Posted by Miguel Santa Maria & filed under Life, Politics.


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For months, the NDP spearheaded polls as the main agent of change for voters. With the staling Conservatives and the “Just Not Ready” attacks on Liberals, they easily found themselves first place in the polls. Even after small setbacks and slipping numbers during campaign, the New Democrats held their ground as a competitive party.

However, just a few short weeks ago their bag of support was slashed and spilled onto the floor. From a first place high during the summer of 37% on CBC’s Poll Tracker, to a low of 24% as of October 7. Pundits, stumped at first, came to realize that the leak’s biggest culprit was Tom Mulcair’s comments on a particular piece of clothing: the niqab.

The niqab has been a long debated issue in Canadian policy, long before the campaign even started. The Conservative government has a history of pressing the issue, with the most well-known attempt concerning a ban from citizenship ceremonies. Still, there were no signs prior or during the campaign that merited it as an important election issue until this point.

“So why now?” many probably ask. In all likelihood, it is a dangerous mix of three elements: political tactics, fear and the unfortunate truth that the Canadian identity is not as accepting as it seems.

Since the 9/11 attacks more than a decade ago, Muslim prejudice has become a common staple of Western society. In the past few years alone, anti-Muslim sentiment has also grown here in Canada. As this Maclean’s article mentions, it is usually due to anxiety and misconceptions stemming from many sources like media coverage. Still, this confusion is never a good excuse for discrimination. It is also becomes much worse when it turns into firm collective belief.

Take the example of Quebec, a province that has a prominent anti-Muslim sentiment. As this Huffington Post writer puts it, it’s also become so hostile to the point of being so embedded within the province. Whether because of fear mongering or the province’s growing secularism, Islamic prejudice has become worryingly commonplace.

“The level of prejudice against Muslim Quebecers has reached its peak in recent history in the province. Such rumours have crossed ethics and principles of honest media reporting putting children, pupils, employees and ordinary citizens at danger by associating them with institutions that are connected to alleged ‘fanatics.’”

This does not mean that the provincial government is completely passive on the issue. Just recently, Quebec introduced new legislation condemning this discrimination. Still, this does not change the fact how overblown the niqab debate has become on a federal level.

This is where the more concerning factor comes in, especially within the context of the election: political “wedge” tactics. It is the strategy of garnering support by dividing people over a controversial issue (usually minor to the bigger picture). Thus, creating a ‘wedge’ between one party with their opposition – an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. Considering growing prejudice similar to Quebec and broader terrorism concerns catalyzed by ISIS, the tactic is the likely culprit behind the niqab’s late-campaign footprint.

With NDP leader Tom Mulcair’s defensive stance for the niqab, parties like the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois quickly gunned for the strategy. The latter had already been targeting the NDP with attack ads bringing up the “danger” of the face veil. In terms of the Conservatives, the tactic panders to both nationwide anxieties and their senior, “traditional-valued” base voters. A writer from The Walrus summarizes the reasons easily.

“Makes old people scared? Check. Dovetails well with news-media images of crazed foreigners killing one another in the Middle East? Check. Demonstrates a commitment to stand by core supporters ‘through fire and water’? Check.”

With the Quebec-reliant NDP dipping in the polls, it’s evidently worked for both parties nonetheless (ironically, with more benefit to the Liberals).

Given all the fear mongering and political strategy, it’s easy to forget those with the biggest stake in this: Muslim women themselves. Ultimately, it is their rights and reputations being directly affected by the debate. It is insult to injury given they have been targets of discrimination long before this discussion.

Unsurprisingly, as CBC News reports, many Canadian Muslim women find the overall issue appalling. Zarqa Nawaz, creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie, tells the CBC that the debate itself is “stupid”, and not just because of how it potentially further demonizes Muslim women.

“We’re in a recession, what is the plan to go forward? Those are the things I want to talk about. Not about women in [the] niqab and why she can’t sing the national anthem with her face covered.”

Zehra Naqvi, a writer and student at the University of British Columbia, also shares Nawaz’s sentiments.

“By focussing so much the niqab issue, [Harper] is taking away attention from more pertinent issues like the economy, the environment, immigration,” Naqvi said, also stating that the issue is a clear example of this country’s unsung discrimination problem. “From the way Bill C-51 was introduced…the rhetoric surrounding the niqab and headscarf debates, [the] hotline for ‘barbaric cultural practices’, this country is currently embroiled in a lot of Islamophobia rhetoric.”

Most important of all for Naqvi, who wears a Hijab, it detracts from her already dwindling sense of personal security.
“I have been called names and pushed in public. There is a definitely a sense of fear. I have to be extra cautious and watchful when I am out in public,” she said. “I know that I have become a target.”

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