A few years ago applicants for Canadian citizenship were banned from wearing face coverings like the niqab, during the oath of citizenship. Recently, Zunera Ishaq, a Pakistani woman sued the government for requiring her to remove her niqab during the citizenship oath. The ultimate decision that was made was that Canada’s own citizenship law required that Ishaq and others like her are free to wear the niqab during the citizenship oath, as the citizenship act states that officials must “administer the oath of citizenship with dignity and solemnity, allowing the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization or the solemn affirmation thereof.” When this court decision occurred we saw many people in an uproar over the fact that people would be able to wear the niqab during the oath of citizenship and many arguments have been put forth against the niqab. But, it seems to me that none of arguments that have been put forth in favour of banning women from wearing the niqab during the citizenship oath are successful.
One thing that should be specified at the outset is that the banning of the niqab has nothing to do with ensuring security or safety by forcing people to identify themselves, as Ishaq, like all others who apply for Canadian citizenship, was required to undergo a thorough security check which includes presenting photo identification that disclosed full facial features. Ishaq complied with this security check and only refused to remove the niqab during the citizenship oath itself. I bring up this point as some still seem to think that this issue is one of ensuring that people are who they say they are.
One argument that has been put forth is that in order to properly honour the citizenship ceremony one must uncover one’s face as this shows that one is taking the oath honestly and transparently. According to this argument to take the oath of citizenship in good faith one must make the entirety of one’s face visible. This argument trades on the fact that traditionally in Canadian society not showing one’s face is associated with criminality and a lack of trustworthiness, as the image of the face covered man brings to mind the bank robber and the burglar.
However, this argument seems implausible to me as it relies on stretching the meaning of taking an oath honestly and transparently to mean taking the oath in a way that fits with the norms of Canadian culture. It is true that typically Canadians associate the disclosure of the face with trust and openness, but this fact is a contingent element of Canadian culture, rather than a universal and consequently it seems arbitrary to expect a new Canadian to simply adopt our norms in the citizenship oath. In fact if a person were to remove their niqab while feeling it was inappropriate to do so during the citizenship oath this would be deeply disingenuous and an instance of less openness and freedom as the applicant for citizenship would not be authentically engaging in the oath. So requiring the removal of the niqab for the oath of citizenship is less in the spirit of openness and freedom than allowing it.
One other argument that has been expressed is much more explicit in its demand for homogeneity. According to this argument being a Canadian citizen is a privilege and part of gaining this privilege is adopting Canadian norms such as removing the niqab during the citizenship oath. At its most blunt this argument says if you want to be a Canadian you have to adopt certain customs, and reject others.
There is a sense in which this argument is true in that every society has certain fundamental norms that must be adopted in order to become a citizen of that society. For example, one cannot become a citizen of Canada if one uses violence rather than speech as a way of resolving political conflict. But the norm associated with removing facial coverings seems to be a far more incidental and non-fundamental norm of Canadian culture than the requirement of using speech and persuasion over violence to resolve conflicts. I say this because Canada`s political identity is avowedly liberal and multicultural. Part of Canada`s central identity and norms is the notion that we are allowed to display symbols of our heritage culture in public and that while we all come from diverse backgrounds there are certain fundamental rights that we all agree to and respect including the right to religious expression. This has been enshrined not just in an official policy of multiculturalism, and a charter of rights and freedoms, but also in practises of reasonable accommodation for minorities. For example, allowing Sikh men to be members of the RCMP despite the fact that their turban prevents them from being able to dress exactly as other members of the RCMP do. Thus, it seems that Canada as a nation is far better understood as a nation committed to respecting diverse cultures and the rights of individuals, rather than as a nation that establishes trust through the disclosure of the face. So it seems hardly opposed to Canadian values to wear a niqab during the oath of citizenship. If I wanted to dress up in a spandex unitard during the citizenship oath I would be rejecting the norm of appropriate dress for the citizenship ceremony, but in so doing I would not be rejecting norms that are essential to Canadian citizenship. In this sense there are many kinds of norms and customs within a society, and some of these are more fundamental than others to the society. So, while it is necessary for people to follow those fundamental norms to become a part of the society, it is not necessary to follow more incidental and non-fundamental norms.
Of course someone could make the argument that disclosure of the face during the citizenship oath is such a fundamental norm of Canadian culture, even if it has not been enshrined in law. But, I also find this point unpersuasive as even if there is a sense in which this norm is fundamental it seems to be problematic to enforce this norm through state power as this would be antagonistic to basic freedoms. Requiring a certain form of dress for a citizenship ceremony seems unreasonable as forms of dress have no to little bearing on the conscientiousness with which people take an oath, and thus it seems we are merely requiring conformity and restricting freedom because we are made uncomfortable by the niqab, and this hardly seems like a good reason to restrict freedom.
The last argument that is often put forth notes that the niqab is a symbol of the oppression of women and thus in order to ensure that women are liberated from oppression we must ensure that women do not wear it during the citizenship oath as this would legitimize the oppression of women.
It is certainly arguable whether the niqab is necessarily a symbol of women’s oppression; it seems plausible that for many women who wear it, the niqab is a public marker of their own identity as a Muslim woman, rather than something that they feel they have to wear for fear of punishment from their community. That said, even if the niqab is necessarily a symbol of women’s oppression banning women from wearing this garment during a citizenship oath in Canada seems unreasonable. Firstly, this argument is paternalistic in that it suggests that women, who wear the niqab willingly, do not understand that by wearing this garment they are complicit in their own oppression. While it may be true that these women are under the sway of some kind of “false consciousness” a basic principle of any decent society is that individuals have to be able to decide how they will express themselves through their speech and appearance where this does not violate the rights of others. This is why we do not prevent Cosmopolitan magazine from being published, as while this magazine surely does not contribute to women’s flourishing and probably encourages them to be more complicit in their own oppression we allow people to express themselves freely, even if they do so in a problematic way.
Secondly, from a purely consequentialist perspective we have to ask what good is done by banning women from wearing the niqab during the citizenship oath? On one level it may make some Canadians feel more secure that they are fighting back against the Muslim other that threatens their society. But on the other hand it will probably encourage further alienation of the Muslim community in Canada if their symbols are seen as antagonistic to Canadian values. In addition, if the reason that we are banning the niqab from the citizenship oath is because it represents the oppression of women, how does this directive help to reduce women’s oppression? It seems to do nothing to effectively combat women’s oppression. In fact it seems to merely alienate Muslims and make xenophobes feel a little better about the fact that their civilization is fighting the eastern other. Consequently, due to the ineffectiveness and paternalism of banning the wearing of the niqab during the citizenship oath it seems to me that this last argument is also deeply flawed and unpersuasive. Therefore, it seems that none of the arguments that have been raised in favour of banning women from wearing the niqab during the citizenship oath is successful.