Why is the niqab an election issue? Q & A with Professor Aisha Ahmad
"...My wardrobe has fallen under increased scrutiny, as part of a toxic discourse that is pitting Canadians against their own neighbours," says Ahmad.
Quebec is the the only province requiring Muslim women who wear a niqab to unveil their faces when delivering public services as employees of the government, or receiving them as citizens.
But Prime Minister Stephen Harper has increasingly been voicing his support for the law outside of Quebec – sparking heated debates in the public discourse and gaining ground as an election issue.
U of T News spoke to Aisha Ahmad about the significance of the niqab for Muslim women and her thoughts on the proposed law.
Ahmad is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, specializing in international security. She has conducted extensive field research on Islamic extremist groups in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia.
What is a niqab?
The niqab is a veil that some Muslim women choose to wear that covers their nose and mouth. The majority of Muslim women do not wear a veil, but some make this choice out of religious conviction. Much more common among Muslim women is the hijab, which is a headscarf that covers the hair, but not the face.
As a security specialist who works on political conflict in the Muslim world, I've worn every possible variation of hijab and niqab from East Africa to the Middle East to South Asia. I fancy myself to be a connoisseur of the hijab and its many cultural and stylistic expressions.
As a Canadian Muslim, I also have experience wearing a hijab right here at home. At different points in my life, I have chosen to wear a hijab (and not wear a hijab), as an expression of my own socio-cultural identity. Right now, I choose to wear a hijab when I teach my classes at the university, but I don't wear it when I train at my boxing gym.
Before this election, my daily choice of dress has never been a political issue, and no one other than me has chosen what I wear on any given day. My closet is home to an array of summer dresses, boxing equipment, flower-printed hijabs, and a Team Canada Crosby jersey. All of a sudden, part of my wardrobe has fallen under increased scrutiny, as part of a toxic discourse that is pitting Canadians against their own neighbours.
What do you think about the government’s decision to try to ban face coverings at citizenship ceremonies?
It started with the citizenship ceremonies, but now the Conservatives are looking to exclude Muslim women in other public spaces as well. Harper’s obsession with forcibly removing Muslim women’s clothing has so far succeeded in distracting voters from his abysmal record on the economy and foreign relations.
Realizing they were on the ropes in this election, the Harper-Duceppe strategy has been to stoke up xenophobia over a tiny group of benign women. It has been part of a multi-pronged strategy aimed at targeting minorities who have little power, and are therefore easy prey. The attempted ban of the veil was deemed illegal by a federal judge, but the move did exactly what Harper and Duceppe hoped it would: distract voters from the issues that really matter to them.
From targeting religious attire to calling other cultures “barbaric,” the Harper-Duceppe strategy aims at actively creating social xenophobia and then presenting themselves as protectors against an imagined enemy.
This is an old move from a political playbook that we’ve seen used in places like the former Yugoslavia. And in all cases where this political tactic is used, xenophobic violence typically follows. From Bosnia to Rwanda, the science clearly shows that when political leaders use xenophobic tactics, they have the power to incite violence between neighbours who otherwise had no problems with each other.
The fact that these political strategies are being employed in Canada today, however, is astonishing and unprecedented. It’s a dark change in the political culture of Ottawa.
From a security specialist viewpoint, are there any circumstances when you would support calls for Muslim women to unveil their faces?
All circumstances in which a Muslim woman should be required to unveil for security purposes are already well established in our laws. Muslim women already unveil for identification purposes and screening at airports and government offices, in accordance with the many laws we have in place to ensure public safety. Muslim women who choose to wear a veil have cooperated with these procedures, just as other Canadians have.
Why is Harper focusing on this issue now?
Frankly, the Harper-Duceppe obsession with forcibly removing Muslim women’s clothing reeks of desperation and failure. But political leaders are by definition in positions of leadership and trust. Putting any vulnerable populations at risk in a desperate attempt to hold onto power should ostensibly disqualify a person from office.
The government has no business in the wardrobes of Canadians. It is time for those political frontrunners who are focused on the issues to be given the opportunity to lead, and refocus the public discourse on Canada’s real values of freedom, inclusivity, and respect.