Saturday, September 15, 2007

Veiled intolerance?

Women wearing the niqab in Turkey, a longtime stable and democratic country. 99% of Turkey's population is Muslim.

Elections Canada has decided to allow women who wear the niqab or burqa to vote in federal elections without first showing their face to Elections Canada personnel. In response, politicians from the four major federal parties criticized the move and banded together to demand that the decision be reversed. In the end, a motion supported by all parties in the House was passed urging Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand to "adapt" the act to force all voters "to show their faces before being permitted to vote."

Does no one else see the double-standard inherent in our elected leaders' response?

First of all, forcing prospective voters to show their faces before being allowed to vote is only useful so far as a representative of Elections Canada is there to compare each person's facial features with those on their photo identification. Otherwise, of what use is looking at a person's face? Interestingly, of the many times I've voted in a federal election, never once did I have to present ID in order to vote.

The big hole in the critique of Election Canada's decision is that some voters vote by mail. Why are Muslim women who wear the niqab or burqa being targeted for not showing their faces when mail-in voters are not? And are we to expect that prospective voters who show up at the polling booth wearing dark sunglasses, facial bandages, or concealing hats will also be subject to the same scrutiny? I certainly doubt it. Finally, if a prospective voter's appearance is somewhat different from that shown on their photo ID, will they be turned away? Are the politicians arguing that a process be established to outline the minimum degree of congruence between a person's appearance and their photo ID that is needed before a ballot is issued?

This isn't the first time that Canadians have had to consider what their increasingly multicultural make-up means for their traditonal practices -- in 1990, an often ugly debate occurred over whether the RCMP should
allow its Sikh officers to wear a turban. In the end, our Charter prevailed and the country moved on.

So, what about this case? The double-standard is glaring. Are our politicians simply pandering to intolerance or fear? Here's what I think:

First off, if you're Stephen Harper, inflaming the controversy provided a perfect opportunity to
distract Canadians from allegations of illegally exceeding election spending limits. So much for "Canada's new government."

Other than Harper, many of those on the right of the political spectrum fear facing security issues of the level seen in the U.S. and Israel and, furthermore, fear moving away from our largely Judeo-Christian-based traditions and institutions. Rules are rules and traditions are traditions and these should not be negotiable. For conservatives, then, a stand against voting by veiled Muslim women is really a knee-jerk proxy for their rejection of terrorism, Islamic orthodoxy and institutional change.

Meanwhile, many of those on the left of the political spectrum fear seeing more women in patriarchal, oppressive relationships and, related to that, fear seeing our largely secular society embrace the sort of religious orthodoxy that seems to conflict with open-mindedness, egalitarian and communitarian values, and acceptance of others. Progress has been achieved in our society through decades of hard-fought battles and defending many of these gains has dominated the left's efforts for the past twenty or so years. For the left, then, a stand against voting by veiled Muslim women is again a knee-jerk proxy, this time for the rejection of patriarchy and oppression and parochialism.

I'm making generalities of course, but I think they go to the heart of why people appear so quick to oppose voting by veiled women. Putting aside our fears and considering the practicality and fairness of the situation, however, means accepting that sky will not fall when burqa- and niqab-wearing citizens cast their ballots, as is their right.