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The Niqab Debate: Let’s talk with women, not for women

Posted in: Canada
    Thursday, October 15, 2015 - 09:10

    by Sharmila Setaram, President, Amnesty International Canada

    Today I publicly stand in common cause with over 500 other Canadian women – leaders from such widely differing worlds as law, politics, civil society, Indigenous women’s groups, religion, labour, academia, the arts, international affairs and business.  Our viewpoints, politics and life experiences vary tremendously.

    " But we have spoken out together because whatever our differences may be, we are all deeply troubled by the divisive and poisonous debate that has erupted in Canada over the past few weeks about the niqab.  And we have joined our voices in a common statement calling for a renewed commitment to human rights, women’s equality and respect."

    I could not be more proud to be in such company and to be taking such a strong position for human rights. As a human rights leader I have never had difficulty in knowing where I stand with respect to government laws and policies that seek to govern what women can or cannot wear.  It is absolutely wrong for a government to force women to conform to any particular dress code, be it rooted in religion, culture or tradition.  It is equally wrong for a government to ban women from dressing as they wish, be it for religious reasons or simple personal style and preference.

    Not surprisingly that is why the Courts have, without hesitation, ruled against the government’s recent effort to ban the niqab from citizenship ceremonies.  Often overlooked in the throes of inflamed debate is that identity and security concerns are adequately addressed before the ceremony.  With that out of the way, prohibiting the niqab during the actual proceedings therefore is a human rights violation, plain and simple. The Federal Court and Federal Court of Appeal rulings in the case of Zunera Ishaq have been such a powerful reminder of the crucial role that our courts play in ensuring that fundamental rights, especially of a marginalized minority, will be fully respected and upheld.

    I am of course aware that people have a range of different opinions, often very strongly felt, about women who wear the niqab, ranging from discomfort to puzzlement to respect.  That is certainly of interest, but at the end of the day it is irrelevant when considering whether or not this is a human right issue.  I am also aware that the motivation and feelings of women who wear the niqab vary a great deal, from a sense of duty, to religious devotion, to a sense of freedom and even empowerment.  That is where the human rights side of this debate becomes very real.

    What has particularly troubled me in recent weeks and what I found so important in our joint statement is what is being overlooked in the midst of this toxic and stigmatizing debate.

    First, it is heartbreaking to compare how much media attention, time in leaders’ debates and campaign advertising resources have been devoted to the issue of the niqab; as opposed to the many other pressing and very serious human rights concerns that directly impact millions of Canadian women and girls.  For instance, it proved impossible to arrange a dedicated debate among party leaders focused on those issues; something Amnesty International in concert with many close partners had repeatedly urged.  If only there was a comparable level of discussion about the decades-old scandal of violence against Indigenous women and girls in our country.

    Second, I am dismayed and frustrated that there has been so little effort to ensure that the voices and perspective of women who actually do wear the niqab are given prominence in this debate.  The loudest voices have, in fact, not even been women; they have been men. 

    Our joint statement closes with a powerful call for a discussion about equality that is grounded in talking with women, not for women.  That is so very important to me and is at the heart of Amnesty International’s approach to this or any other human rights issue.

    - Sharmila