Thanks to candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson, American political discourse seems to be dominated by xenophobia. Now,Canadaseems to be following suit. A few weeks ago, the ruling Conservative Party looked like they might lose the federal elections, due to be held on 19 October. Since then, they have taken the lead by making the election about whether women can wear the niqab, a face veil that leaves only a slit for the eyes, while swearing the citizenship oath. The discussion about the niqab is, by all accounts, a distraction tool – yet it seems to be working.
Muslims make up 3.2% of Canada’s population and niqabis, women who wear the face veil, make up less than 1% of the 1.05 million Muslims in Canada. Canada’s CBC reported that out of 680,000 of people who have taken the citizenship oath since 2011, only two tried to wear the niqab during the ceremony. Still, the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois, a federal political party, have spent hundreds of thousands of dollarsturning this non-issue into a viable political talking point.
This is an issue that was previously irrelevant, especially since reciting the oath is mostly symbolic. In Canada, women in face-covering veils have sworn oaths at their weddings for centuries. This seems to be an effective election strategy in a country where a government-commissioned poll found that 82% of Canadians support such a ban, an oft-repeated point.
There is an absurdity and danger in basing minority rights on the opinions of the majority, especially when the poll surveyed only 3000 Canadians before the federal court ruled on the matter. That means the opinion of 2,460 Canadians surveyed in March in a country of over 35 million have led to an overwhelming majority of our media coverage two weeks before election day.
Ever since making the niqab a central campaign issue, the Conservatives haverisen by 10% in the polls. It has also led to a massive spike in support for the otherwise fledgling Bloc Quebecois, a Quebec-centered federal party whose leader believes thatniqabis should be prevented from accessing all public services.
While the leaders of the other major federal parties have affirmed the right of a woman to wear the niqab at her citizenship ceremony – a position the Supreme Court of Canada has recentlyupheld– their stance regarding the practice of niqab in general is unclear. No one wants to admit that the niqab can be an independent expression of choice and agency by a woman; doing so would be political death in this context. In the last federal election, all party leaders were either supportive or suspiciously silent on Bill 94, a piece of Quebec legislation that would ban niqabi women from accessing public services in the province. This bill similarly had high rates of support in polls.
It is no coincidence that these are the polling numbers shaping public discourse in Canada. If you were to look at otherpolls, you would find overwhelming public support for an inquiry into the missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Yet we see this mentioned only as a convenient addendum to the current political discourse, where no major federal debate has even brought up issues affecting indigenous communities. Meanwhile, at least three debates have brought up the niqab. Canadian political and thought leaders, including both politicians and media, seem to be fixated more on the dress of a handful of Muslim women than the tragic loss of over 1000 Aboriginal women.
Just a few short weeks ago, the national discussion was heavily centered on Syrian refugees and was seemingly more human. Today, the discourse problematizes a non-issue and relies on the fear and alarmism of a few to win electoral favor among the masses. According to Conservative leader Stephen Harper, the niqab is rooted in a culture that is “anti-woman”. In some cases, it may be forced. In all, absolutely not. If the purpose of targeting the niqab is to protect women, it seems to be backfiring as there are now increasingreports of violence towards niqabi women.
While more tempered than the debates in the United States, the positioning of the niqab as a problem for the Canadian state is similarly anti-choice and xenophobic. If it ultimately ends up working on election day, it will lead to serious questions as to who Canadian democracy is intended for. Given all the attention directed towards governing a Muslim woman’s dress while ignoring real social problems facing the country, the answer may be all too frighteningly clear.