The Politics of Freedom and Tradition: Niqabs, Undebated Bills, and Gym Hours

For those of you who keep up with the news, it should have been pretty hard to miss the stories involving culture and religion arising from Canadian politics over last few months—particularly those involving Muslims.

The actions of terrorist groups, such as ISIS, have led to knee-jerk reactions by governments around the world, with little hesitation or consideration for what’s fair and equitable. Worse, these reactions and “protective measures” have had a trickle-down effect, often fanning the fires of prejudice rhetoric that lurk under the surface Canada’s reputation for kindness and acceptance.

I won’t tell you that one side is always right and one side is always wrong—not only is that a fool’s errand, it would also just be adding fuel to an already raging fire. What I will suggest is that we need to stop and consider why we react the way that we do, and start to examine the differences between doing things because they are sensible, and doing things because that’s the way we’ve always done them.

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It’s no secret that Canada has always had a bit of an identity crisis. Our population is a mixture of aboriginal peoples and waves of immigrants from nearly (if not) every country around the world. Northern Europeans (mostly the Scots, the Irish, and the English) came over in droves, with immigrants from Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and even China following not far behind. Now immigrants from Africa and the Middle-East are just as common, and our diversity grows, pushing at the boundaries of our national identity.

We are located just north of one of the largest military and economic powers of the 20th century, which is somewhat of a big brother, having forged an independent identity just a few scant hundreds of years before we really forged our own.

We have an independent constitution, but are tied to the British monarchy.

We are, I would suggest, a bit of a loveable mutt.

Perhaps it’s that mixed heritage, that multi-colored mosaic, that makes it so difficult for us to make distinctions between what we were, and what we have become. It certainly complicates things when we attempt to make the very human (though perhaps true of all social animals) distinction between us and them. We have such an interesting variety of traditions, from so many different sources, that it’s tough not to latch on to them, as though our very existence depends on it.

Let me give you an example.

I recall the public outcry that happened when RCMP officers were first allowed to wear religious headgear (I believe turbans were at the forefront of the discussion, at the time), rather than their traditional Stetson. People were appalled that a Canadian icon was being changed, solely to meet the needs of a special interest group. After all, nobody is required to be an RCMP member, right? But does that mean that it’s right to make it impossible for someone to meet their religious obligations while serving their country?

We continue to have the same teething problems today. Both a Quebec judge and the Prime Minister himself recently came under fire for the same thing: insistence that a niqab, a formal veil worn by Muslim women as part of an abaya head covering, be removed; the judge insisted that the niqab be removed before she would hear a case in court, while the PM noted his government’s commitment to appealing a court decision that overturned the government ban on niqabs during the citizenship ceremony.

So why the insistence on removing the niqab? Two reasons have been suggested: confirmation of identity, and respect. The first is a straw man argument; applicants to court and those participating in citizenship ceremonies can have their identities confirmed in a private setting (and do so already). The second reason is grounded in cultural and religious tradition. The prevailing tradition in Canada is to remove one’s hat when inside, as a sign of respect. As much as this has eroded (and I’ll note that many people do wear ball caps inside, despite this tradition), it is still generally held to during formal occasions. Both the PM and the Quebec judge have stated that a failure to follow this tradition is, in fact, a sign of disrespect for the proceedings. The PM has also stated, in response to criticism from other political parties, that “almost all Canadians oppose the wearing of face coverings during citizenship ceremonies,” and that the act of wearing the niqab is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.”

I think it’s fair to say that these comments have been divisive, splitting Canadians (those that have paid attention) at both the political and grassroots levels. Some argue that those coming to our country should conform to the existing value system, while others argue that religious and cultural traditions of all Canadians should be upheld. The far larger problem that arises is the almost inevitable descent these “conversations” make into racist rhetoric, Islamaphobia, and misogyny.

So what’s the middle ground? Surely there are cultural and religious values that we need to respect—for if we value our own, it’s unfair not to value those of others. At the same time, we do have established traditions, and it’s just as unfair to completely dismantle them for the sake of inclusion.
I would suggest that the way forward is through a conscious evaluation of the cost of change versus the value of tradition, specific to each case. I want to go back, for a moment, to my example of turbans for RCMP members. What is the value of the traditional Stetson? As with all uniforms, I would suggest that the primary value is in visual recognition; we see the RCMP uniform, and we know precisely who they are. Do we lose that recognition if we remove the Stetson? Do we suddenly fail to recognize the uniform as uniquely RCMP? No; clearly there are enough visual indicators remaining. That suggests to me that the remainder of our attachment to it is probably little more than nostalgia and resistance to change—understandable, certainly, but not necessarily of any inherent value.

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By contrast, what value is there in allowing someone to wear a turban? Well, if we accept that wearing it is a fundamental part of someone’s cultural or religious values, so strongly ingrained that disallowing its wear would force the applicant to choose between serving his god and serving his country, then we’re talking about a fairly significant loss affecting a large cultural group. From a national perspective, we’re also reducing the pool of applicants available to fill an important job, and depriving the country of tax revenue it would receive on the RCMP officer’s potential earnings. Perhaps most importantly, we’re shooting ourselves in the multi-cultural foot; with a country already made up people and traditions from diverse backgrounds, and heavily dependent on immigration for growth (our birth rates are low, meaning that without immigration there will be too few to pay taxes and keep social programs going), there will eventually come a time where the majority is no longer of western-European descent and Christian background. We can choose to embrace multiculturalism, or continue with a cultural hegemony that will one day see prevailing traditions supplanted entirely—except perhaps poutine; I feel like that’s something most of us can agree on.
Let’s return to your regularly scheduled programming: the niqab. Let’s apply the same evaluation. What will be lost by allowing someone to wear the niqab? As previously noted, identity is not an issue, as a judge privately confirms the identity of each person prior to the ceremony. That leaves tradition: a vague sense that it’s inappropriate for people to wear headgear of any kind during a formal ceremony—though this rule is frequently broken by brides during weddings, orthodox Jews, and a large cross-section of religious officials.

So then, what is the value of allowing niqabs? Let’s start with the entire point of the ceremony: inclusion. The whole reason we have a citizenship ceremony is to ceremonially welcome new immigrants into the Canadian family. They are becoming part of the greater us, and are therefore to be granted all of the rights and freedoms of expression and belief that we enjoy. Let’s be clear, as well: we’re not talking about telling your teenage son not to wear the band t-shirt with the aborted fetus on it; we’re talking about preventing people from wearing clothes that form a significant part of their religious and cultural identity. They aren’t doing it to be rude or to challenge us, and it costs us nothing to allow it.
But “where does it all stop?” you ask. “Are there any situations where we should be favouring existing practices over newcomer requests?” Let me propose one more evaluation. Recently, a student at McGill University has come forward to request female-only gym hours, citing her cultural and religious beliefs as the reason.

So what would be lost by approving the request, and dedicating facility hours solely to women? Well, all university students pay (generally a fee over and above their tuition) for access to the campus’ recreational facilities. Dedicating facility time solely to one sex has the effect of reducing the overall available use times for all of the other sex. Let’s say, for example, that one hour was dedicated every day to women. Over the course of the 8 month school year (we’ll ignore spring/summer here, as only a small portion of students attend during that semester), that represents around 242 hours (approximately 34.6 weeks at 7 hours per week) that all male students are paying for, but not receiving. According to McGill’s website, 17,329 males attended McGill in 2013. That means that a total of 4,193,618 person-hours in the gym will be lost to males in the course of one year.

Now, what is to be gained? As with previous examples, I would suggest that there is a level of comfort and inclusion involved—the women who would prefer to attend the gym with only their own sex for cultural or religious reasons could do so, provided the gym hours chosen worked with their schedule. The problem is that we’re talking about a very small group who fit all of the following criteria: a) female, b) works out at the gym; c) belongs to culture that requires specific coverings for women in the presence of men; d) is unwilling or unable to wear those specific coverings while working out; and e) has a schedule that works with the hours chosen. Admittedly, there may also be women that belong to other cultures that simply desire to work out in a female-only environment, but that’s entirely preference, not ingrained culture or tradition.

So what we end up with is a situation where change would offer a minor benefit to a very small few, and a detriment to many. It seems an obvious choice. Things change a bit when you consider something like swimming times, where it’s clearly impossible for women to wear culturally-appropriate attire, which is why I don’t take issue with McGill’s existing policy for female-only hours at the pool. However, it seems pretty clear that the proposed change to gym hours and policies is poor value for the cost.
The problem is that we aren’t stopping for careful, logical consideration of cost and value when we run into these sorts of issues. Instead, we have knee-jerk reactions that may ultimately cost us some of the freedoms we take for granted as Canadians. I offer for example Bill C-51, which is currently making its way through the federal legislative process—with limited debate, consultation, and testimony by experts. All of these normal checks and balances are being manipulated and minimized by a government that claims the majority of Canadians support its actions, while at the same time building support and soliciting funding through deliberate fear-mongering—something that smells and feels distinctly Orwellian.

Also Orwellian are the contents of the bill itself, which limits free speech and protesting, while giving authorities much more power to deal with people that may do things—because “thoughtcrime” may be punishable, and it may start with a 7-day detainment without any need for charges or oversight from the court system. Upon application of a cost/value evaluation, it seems pretty clear that there is a significant cost to freedom involved, the extent of which we may never even realize without further analysis, debate, and expert testimony. The value is equally unclear. I’m not sure that there’s anything law enforcement will be able to accomplish with this bill in place that they can’t do now without being in direct violation of Charter rights.

So what can we do about any of this? Certainly, there’s something to be said for the voice of the people—messages delivered to government and media making it clear that the public does not support actions like the niqab ban or forcing through a bill that may fundamentally change our rights and freedoms. However, I would suggest that the most useful action is also the easiest: stop, think, and discuss. Don’t give in to fear of the unknown and respond with the expected knee-jerk. As Red Green said: “[like it or not,] we’re all in this together.”


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