Hijab, niqab, and some Canadian common sense

This is not about freedom of religion. This is about the openness of our society and the equality of men and women in Canada.

(This column originally appeared in the Toronto Sun)

By: Candice Malcolm

You can’t always blame politicians for getting it wrong. Especially our MPs. After all, they spend their time in Ottawa — where reality tends to get distorted. When I worked on Parliament Hill, I called this phenomenon the “Ottawa bubble.” You start to forget how the rest of the country may view an issue, because you are primarily getting feedback from a narrow group of people.

A perfect example of this groupthink unfolded last week, over the issue of allowing would-be new Canadians to wear a veil over their face during their oath of Canadian citizenship.

After a federal judge struck down the 2011 law banning face coverings during the citizenship oath, Prime Minister Harper made clear his government’s intention to appeal the decision.

The Conservative Party then sent out a fundraising letter to that same tune from the desk of Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander. In that letter, the minister wrote that the government opposes allowing “people to wear the hijab while taking the Oath.”

Ottawa journalists went ablaze on Twitter. Many cried foul, insisting Alexander had mistakenly — or perhaps cynically — used the word “hijab” when he meant “niqab.”

Ottawa journalists love to point out small errors made by politicians — particularly Conservatives. It fits their stereotype that Conservatives are stupid and, in this case, culturally insensitive or even harbouring a hidden agenda.

Lo and behold, the next day in question period Toronto Centre Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland, with a big smile on her face, made the exact same point in a question to Alexander.

Smugness aside, the twittersphere and Freeland are wrong on this issue.

A “hijab” is a general term meaning “to cover” or “veil” and therefore describes a variety of garments worn by conservative Muslim women (or women in conservative Muslim countries). Under the category of “hijab” falls the “niqab” — a veil covering the head and face — and a “burka” — a veil that covers the head, face and body, with a mesh window to cover the eyes.

Thanks to a popular misconception stemming from the imperfect translation from Arabic, the word “hijab” now also commonly refers to a headscarf that covers the head and neck, but not the face. Freeland et al were using this definition to mock the Conservative government.

Alexander was clearly using the first, more accurate, definition.

But never let facts get in the way of a good zinger. Especially one that equates a Conservative to a Neanderthal.

Unfortunately for Freeland and her journalist friends, Minister Chris Alexander simply doesn’t fit into that mould. Educated at Oxford, Alexander is a former Canadian diplomat. In 2003, he moved to Kabul, Afghanistan, where he became Canada’s first resident ambassador. He speaks Farsi, and knows a thing or two about life in a Muslim country.

But that’s life inside the bubble. Rather than debating the substance of the issue at hand — whether Canada should allow people to cover their faces during their oath of citizenship — we are stuck discussing the process.

Perhaps this kind of sideshow is also why folks in the media are so far removed from everyday Canadians in their thinking on this issue.

When the federal judge overturned this law, three of Canada’s major papers — the National Post, Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star — applauded the judge’s decision. They all issued editorials explaining how religious freedoms must prevail.

But this is not about religious freedoms. The niqab and burka are faux-religious cultural practices designed to subjugate and silence women. And most Canadians see this distinction. This is not about freedom of religion. This is about the openess of our society and the equality of men and women in Canada.

In 2011 when the law was introduced, I was working in Ottawa as press secretary to Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. At the time, polling showed that eight in 10 Canadians agreed with the new law, and only 14% opposed.

An Angus Reid poll just last year found that 90% of Quebecers and nearly 70% of Canadians outside Quebec supported a proposed provincial ban on the niqab in government offices, schools and publicly funded institutions.

How often are Canadians that united in their beliefs about anything?

This is only one of many issues where the views of everyday people are at odds with those inside the bubble. Canadians have it right. Despite the groupthink that consumes elites in media and political circles, Canadian common sense prevails.