From Marois to Harper, niqab debate plays with xenophobic fire

The election is coming to an end. All the way, I resisted the urge to write about the niqab. Why? I didn’t want to create more controversy and stir the already ugly pot simmering in many people’s minds. But then, it became stronger than me. My brain isn’t as disciplined as my fingers so I found myself typing out thoughts about the niqab.
Who would have thought that “niqab” — a word not well known or used in the Muslim world — would find its way into political debates among party leaders and hundreds of articles in the North American context?! Even the U.S. and U.K. newspapers that covered the Canadian election did so from the perspective of the niqab.
For those who followed the Quebec election in 2013, Pauline Marois and her genius “strategists” (à la Lynton Crosby) introduced the Charter of Values disguised in noble arguments of secularism and gender equality, intended to ban wearing the hijab and the niqab in the public service. Now following the news during this federal election, I had the impression I was watching the same horror movie, this time in English.
The doors of bigotry and xenophobia seem to have been opened and very rare were those who stood up bravely and firmly trying to close them. It’s ironic that during Marois’ failed attempt at banning the niqab, English Canada looked at Quebec with superiority, insinuating that Quebecers were more uncomfortable with diversity and especially with the Muslim religion than the rest of Canadians.
Three years later, the rest of Canada found itself immersed in the same polarized debate à la George Bush: you’re either on the side of the niqabis (and thus you are oppressed, barbaric, misogynistic, archaic, anti-women, for Saudi-Arabia, for the Taliban, for the terrorists) or you side with us (and you are for security, for freedom, for women’s rights, for freedom, for gender equality, for universal human rights).
So Stephen Harper, following in the footsteps of Marois, started talking the niqab language. And all of a sudden, we discovered a “feminist” Stephen Harper who cared about women’s equality and who even set up a hotline for people to report barbaric practices, a.k.a., practices related to Islam.
When we were children, we were told that if we played with matches, we risked being burned. Has Stephen Harper heard this warning? Or maybe he is betting on being a superhero, a sort of inflammable one. He is playing with the fire of Islamophobia and simultaneously refuses to be blamed for it. Actually, he doesn’t even refuse: he ignores the consequences.
In this landscape filled with dangerous games, there is hope. Hope coming from women. These women don’t need men to talk on their behalf; for sure not the likes of Stephen Harper. A group of 538 women from various fields — political, academic, legal, religious, business — issued the statement “Respect Women” to denounce how the niqab issue was used in the election campaign. They stated:
“It troubles us that the current focus on the few instances of women wanting to wear a niqab during their citizenship ceremony has divided Canadians and stigmatized Muslim women. We are alarmed that this appears to have incited discrimination, and even violence, which undermines equality and respect for human rights and ignores the greater issues facing women in Canada.”
The group included prominent names like: the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, Alexa McDonough, Sheila Copps, Maureen McTeer, the Right Reverend Jordan Cantwell, Marlys Edwardh, Dawn Memee Harvard, and hundreds of other women who joined their voices together. Their purpose wasn’t to defend the niqab. Their message was to refocus the debate:
“We are worried about the economic insecurity facing many women as we age in Canada. We are disturbed that women, on average, are not earning at the same level as their male colleagues. And we are troubled at the lack of investment in women’s empowerment and leadership across this great country. It is time to set aside the issue of the niqab and move to the issues that impact the daily lives of most women and girls in Canada.”
The journalists who were so eager to report on the niqab in the last few weeks were not as eager to report on the powerful voices of 538 women. Maybe this is not “hot” enough!

This column was previously published at rabble.ca

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