Seriously? Are we actually gonna make niqabs a big election issue?

Like, actually?

Let me tell you, people: I am committed to covering this election. So much so that I suffered through the French-language debate last night, dubbed into English by the CBC. And though I’m sure a ton of nuance was lost in translation, one thing came through loud and clear – the niqab is a pretty friggin’ big deal in Quebec.

Which made me pine for the good old days when Quebecers mostly wanted to talk about independence – until I remembered Jacques Parizeau blaming the ’95 referendum defeat on “money and the ethnic vote”.

Multicultural “tolerance” – or the lack thereof – is a festering open wound upon this society, and nowhere more so than in Quebec, where the unkillable Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe* seems to have staked his comeback battle against the NDP entirely on his position on the niqab.

He’s against it, in case you haven’t been paying attention.

So much against it, in fact, that he takes great pride in pointing out that while other parties (like, every single party in Quebec) want to force Muslim women to remove their niqabs to access government services, he goes even further – he wants them to be forced to remove their niqabs to vote.

Because nothing says feminism like messing with women’s ability to vote.

I wish I could just ignore this and write it off as a batshit fringe position – but apparently 90% of Quebecers and an overwhelming majority of Canadians favour intrusive government restrictions on women’s ability to wear a niqab or a burqa while accessing government services. (For those who are uncertain about hijabs and niqabs and burqas and etc., here’s a handy diagram.)

And also, for reasons that I don’t really want to think about but have been anyway, this is a major election issue.

That’s right. This year, this election, the question of the niqab’s place in Canadian society is a major point of contention.

Just in case you’ve forgotten, we’re in a recession, our economy is vastly over-dependent on the extraction of oil, the planet is on a collision course for catastrophic global warming, the current regime of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has put us on the path to an Orwellian dictatorship while muzzling the ability of scientists and civil servants to speak plainly about facts, there’s a crisis of poverty among this nation’s Indigenous peoples, dozens if not hundreds of homeless folks freeze to death on the streets of our cities every single year, there’s a looming housing bubble in Toronto and Vancouver that’s gonna pop any day now, refugees by the tens of thousands desperately want to reach our nation but are being kept out by a xenophobic government…should I go on?

That the niqab even merits attention during the self-proclaimed Most Important Election in a Generation is disgusting.

But because it apparently needs to be said, I’ll say it:


The premise underlying politicians’ (and ordinary Canadians’) desire to compel Muslim women to not cover their faces is that face veils are (they say) inherently oppressive. They are “anti-women”, in the memorable words of Stephen Harper.

And look, nobody should deny that in some cases, women are essentially forced to wear niqabs or burqas. And nobody should deny that this is unacceptable, a violation of their right to free expression.

But having come this far, let’s turn around and look at the proposed solution: that the government force these very same women to not wear a niqab or burqa in certain contexts.

Let’s rephrase that. It’s anti-women for Muslim men to force Muslim women to dress a certain way, but it’s morally imperative for a bunch of non-Muslim men in government to force Muslim women to dress a certain (different) way.

See the absurdity here?

And all of this argument completely overlooks the fact that many Muslim women wear niqabs entirely voluntarily, that nobody in their family pressures them to do so, that they find the experience of being veiled to be empowering and an intrinsic part of their expression of who they are to the world.

Some of them even see it as a blow for feminism and against capitalist hegemony:

And I think that it’s telling that we don’t listen to what Muslim women have to say about their experiences of choosing to wear veils when debating this topic – that the veil is an essential part of their religious expression and worship, that they enjoy the sensation of modesty, that they feel empowered by their veils. We ignore this firsthand testimony in condemning the wearing of niqabs because this debate isn’t really about feminism.

It’s about Islamophobia. It’s about demonization of the Other. It’s about Us and Them and how We are deeply and inherently superior.

And this fear- and hate-mongering has been a key component of the Conservative campaign to date. Between the way-overhyped “menace” posed by the “barbaric, fanatic, radically violent bunch of jihadist terrorist murderers” that is ISIS, according to the PM, and the danger posed by desperate Syrian refugees who, after all, are coming from a “terrorist war zone“, Islamophobia is a key ingredient in the Conservative message.

And clearly, this overt racism is effective, at least with their base – recent polls show the HarperCons riding high in the polls, despite what many folks saw as their disgusting handling of the Syrian refugee crisis.

Apparently, the Conservative think they can squeeze their way to victory by mobilizing their base with inflammatory fear-and-hate-based rhetoric – and, Frith save us all, they may be right.

This is rare praise for party leaders from me, but: Kudos to Justin Trudeau, Thomas Mulcair, and Elizabeth May for strongly and unequivocally denouncing this racist fearmongering in last night’s debate. Ms. May put it best, I think, when she said in her rough but comprehensible French:

“What is the impact of the niqab on the economy?” May asked. “What is the impact of the niqab on climate change? What is the impact of the niqab on the jobless? It is a false debate meant as distraction from the real challenges for Canada.”

Let’s just hope that this false distraction doesn’t do what it was designed to do.


* Fun fact about Gilles Duceppe that I wish was more widely known and which I therefore repeat at every opportunity: as a not-so-young man, he was a member of the Workers’ Communist Party of Canada, a Maoist organization, and he spoiled his ballot in the 1980 independence referendum, arguing that Quebec could not be truly independent until capitalism was defeated.

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