Drawing the line: the complicated process of real debate

Dislike of another’s opinions and beliefs neither justifies our own nor makes us more certain of them: and to transfer the repugnance to the person himself is a mark of a vulgar mind.
– John Lancaster Spalding

The debate around the niqab that has now become a strategic element of the national campaign (how effective an element is, itself, a matter of considerable debate) provides a classic example, for me, of an issue that lends itself well to the oversimplification that I like to spend time decrying. It manages to engender strong, emotional reactions: it has religious implications; it is a “women’s issue”; it can be framed as a personal freedom issue; it potentially raises questions about the nature of Canadian identity. Chances are I’m overlooking some other way of framing the debate that deserves consideration but I’ll stick to these four.

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Certainly freedom of religion and religious practice constitutes one of the commonest defenses of just about any behaviour that might be viewed objectionable or outside the norm (assuming anyone could ever say just exactly what the “norm” is). It would never occur to most people that such things as hairstyle, clothing, assigned days of rest, food choices, modes of address, – all things that have, by some, been claimed as elements of religious conviction – should be challenged. It is only when a claimed religious conviction comes up against competing ideas that are considered of greater and broader significance that objections become significant.

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The most obvious example, recently, would be all things surrounding gender identity whether it be gay marriage, gender reassignment surgery, or other related issues. Certain religions have very strongly held views in opposition to such things (note the county clerk in the U.S. who wouldn’t issue marriage licenses to gay couples because it violated her version of Christianity), but the law, in such cases, increasingly sides with those who see such things as natural and inoffensive.

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Interestingly, to me, the niqab manages to raise even deeper questions in some ways. When it comes to sexual orientation and gender issues, we are, here in Canada and the U.S., on solidly Western grounds. As a civilization, Western culture has been moving inexorably toward secularism at the expense of religiously based “norms” for quite some time now. Yes, a vocal opposition commonly raises objections as the law moves ahead with gay marriage and other LGBT concerns, but that train has left the station and few could imagine turning back.

The niqab comes from a culture outside of the experience of the average Canadian. While I can remember a time when the young girl who got pregnant disappeared for a few months or maybe was moved altogether in order to “protect” all concerned, I have no frame of reference which allows me to evaluate a woman’s desire to continue to wear the niqab. In the case of the young girl who is pregnant, I am glad we have developed sufficiently as a society to accept such things and seek to aid and to assist in whatever manner might be deemed appropriate. Ostracizing is no longer a choice, thankfully.

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But the niqab? For personal, religious reasons a woman asserts that she wants to wear the niqab. Am I correct if I look at the context in which such a practice is common and say that the wearing of the niqab manifests that religion’s subjugation of women? Should I then be able to ban the wearing of that article because it butts up against the higher moral principle of personal freedom and the equality of persons that Canada, as a country, might tend to assert? At the same time, how can I miss the inherent irony of insisting that someone conform to something as proof of their freedom from conformity?

Nevertheless, we do place limitations on immigrant cultural communities whose practices are viewed as “going too far” you might say. When it comes to sharia law, for instance, some have made efforts to allow for sharia law to be applied in parallel to the Canadian Criminal Code, as long as its application was restricted to those who chose to live by those cultural norms. Shouldn’t they have the “right” to do so if they wish? By that logic, honour killings should be allowed as well. As a general rule, the core limit we place on practices we might otherwise defend on the grounds of religious freedom or something else, revolves around how much such a freedom would affect others without their consent.

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In the case of the wearing of a niqab at a citizenship ceremony, the even larger issue of Canadian identity is raised, generally along the lines of “why should anyone conceal themselves at the moment when they are joining the Canadian family?” I could write an entire blog on the manifold assumptions and unstated premises in that question but maybe another day.

As I am repeatedly trying to argue, though, it isn’t simply a matter of saying this side is right and that side is wrong: it’s not a black and white issue. Personally, I’m perfectly at ease with the woman who wants to wear a niqab wearing one. Nothing of what I’ve read suggests to me that she has been coerced or pressured into wearing it. She has made a choice and even if I don’t understand the practice personally, no one is forcing me, or anyone I know, to don any particular article of clothing for any particular reason.

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At the same time, the angst that this issue raises, especially in Quebec it would seem, deserves analysis. In an earlier blog of mine, I mused on the difficulty we have, as Canadians, with a national identity. The complacency that, to my mind, dominated such concerns for many years is proving insufficient to the challenges of our shrinking, connected world. As I said, if it were up to me, wear a niqab or anything else you deem appropriate at your citizenship ceremony, as long as it’s something you choose and we know who you are beforehand. But that’s me, and nothing is so simple that we can simply ignore those who do not agree just because we think our way is both right and obvious.


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