The Conservative government’s banning of veils during citizenship ceremonies is self-defeating and wrongheaded.
There is a lot more to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s policy prohibiting Muslim women from covering their faces during citizenship ceremonies than meets the eye. Since Dec. 12, 2011, when Kenney publicly announced the new policy, a heated debate has emerged in Canada focusing on a variety of pertinent questions: Does the policy violate the right to religious freedom enshrined in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms? Does it promote or deny women’s rights more generally? Does it further marginalize Muslims? Is the policy even necessary? And, finally, does it actually achieve what it aims to? Though all of these questions are important, several key criticisms of the veil policy deserve further attention.
For one thing, the government’s veil policy ignores the complexity of the notion of “choice” with respect to the circumstances under which immigrants and refugees migrate to Canada. Clearly, many groups of immigrants and refugees do not migrate to Canada by choice. Rather, they are forced out of their countries of origin by threats to their safety and lives. In fact, the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees states:
A refugee is a person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.
While most refugees do not choose their country of resettlement, issues of gender inequality within many refugee and migrant families mean that women, in particular, often have no say on where they will migrate. It is therefore unreasonable and counterproductive for the Canadian government to suggest that women who do not feel comfortable taking their veils off should not migrate to Canada. If countering the oppression of women is what the government is after, then requiring women to remove their veils during citizenship ceremonies is self-defeating.
The veil policy also demonstrates the government’s inexcusable ignorance about the diversity of Muslims. In Canada alone, there are Muslims from many different sects and countries, and they have varying belief systems with regard to women’s dress. Some Muslim women have the right to choose their dress based on their belief systems. Others are forced to cover themselves to varying degrees by men in their families and communities. For the latter, Kenney’s policy creates a no-win situation: Men in their families/communities force them to wear the veils, but, according to Kenney’s policy, if they do, they are prevented from becoming Canadian citizens. This makes it even more difficult for them to overcome their oppression because, if they cannot become Canadian citizens, they are denied the complete set of rights, legal protections, access to services, and social support provided by such status. This marginalizes them even further, prevents them from being able to live freely in our country, and potentially threatens their safety.
This kind of discriminatory practice in Canada – sanctioned by, and, in fact, originating from, the government – has real and worrisome implications. Evidence from around the globe indicates that immigrants and refugees who experience racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination are at increased risk of developing mental-health issues and illness. My own extensive research [in collaboration with colleagues] shows that this is especially true for immigrants and refugees who experience systemic discrimination at the hands of the Canadian government. This risk is magnified for those who have already been persecuted by governments in their countries of origin, as they may be re-traumatized by the experience of discrimination in Canada – especially when they reasonably assume that they have fled danger to settle in a safe new home. It is not difficult to understand how the experience of being forced to remove a veil might impact a Muslim woman seeking citizenship in Canada. We know that Muslims face distinct risks in the context of the increasing Islamophobia around the globe since 9/11.
The framework for Canada’s first mental-health strategy, released by the Mental Health Commission of Canada in 2009, recognizes the damaging impact that racism and discrimination have on mental health, and prioritizes addressing these issues to improve mental health in Canada. One of the strategy’s main goals is to establish a “mental health system [that] responds to the diverse needs of all people in Canada,” taking into consideration things like “ethno-cultural background, experience of racism, and migration history; stage of life; language spoken; sex, gender, and sexual orientation; geographical location; different abilities; socio-economic status; and spiritual or religious beliefs.”
In the context of the growing diversity in Canada, our federal government is not only ignoring the global evidence of the (physical and mental) health risks related to the types of systemic discrimination that it is supporting, but is also disregarding the goals, based on extensive research and stakeholder consultation, of a national organization that it funds.
Kenney’s policy is both unacceptable and shameful for a country whose inclusive identity has been globally admired, envied, and aspired to for many years. Rather than acting on its own ideology at the expense of others, the Canadian government should continue to be a global leader in inclusive policy and governance, based not only on the human-rights principles at the core of our identity, but also on the global evidence that reveals the risks associated with exclusion.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.