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As a Muslim, I Am Embarrassed For Canadians Falling for Stephen Harper’s Niqab Ploy

You can't stoke existing xenophobic sentiment for political gain and expect no negative impact.

by Sadiya Ansari
Oct 9 2015, 6:36pm

A woman in Quebec protests Bill-91. Photo via Flickr user scottmontreal.

"I just don't like it."

A light conversation with a (white male) friend quickly turned sour when the subject of the niqab came up.

I was taken aback by his passionate opposition. Had someone asked him to "like" it? I asked him if he had ever tried to understand why someone would wear a niqab, talked to someone who wore a niqab, or recognized that a woman can choose to wear a symbol typically associated with oppression. Well, no, he hadn't really thought about that.

This was last fall. This fall, I can't even stand to have a conversation about it. The niqab isn't a new subject for the Tories, but Stephen Harper has now made going after this minuscule minority within a minority of Canadians a top election issue. All for the crusade for women's rights, of course. Meanwhile, Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch has announced she's pro-life, and Harper continues to show no interest in taking action on the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, most recently saying that most of the murders "are in fact solved."

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Two women have refused to take the citizenship oath without their niqabs—two out of more than 680,000 people who have taken the oath since Harper instituted the niqab ban during these ceremonies in 2011. Despite having this ban overturned by the courts, Harper is now considering banning niqab in the public service. And two major federal public service unions say they don't think a single one of their members wear niqab. But Harper's reasoning seems to be: Quebec wants to do it and you know what, I think Quebec is on to something.

Even more troubling are the laws the Tories have passed that are seemingly inspired by the same xenophobia as the niqab ban. The difference is these laws impact many more people and, taken together, have transformed Canada into a less welcoming place at an alarming rate.

Stripping citizenship from Canadians convicted of "treason" is one example, and as Neil Macdonald points out, so far, the Tories have only attempted to use this law against Muslim offenders. Bill C-51 gives CSIS more power without more oversight. Most bizarre of all is the Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, which includes many things that are already illegal like polygamy and "honour killings." And of course, there's the election promise of a dedicated tip line for reporting such acts.

Sheema Khan said it best in a Globe and Mail column: "The sheer brazenness of the Conservatives leaves one speechless."

The Tories are pandering to racists. And it appears to be working as the Conservatives enjoy a surge in the polls while the NDP's numbers have been slipping, losing ground in...you guessed it, Quebec.

As a Muslim Canadian, this has stirred many feelings within me but above all, I'm embarrassed and fearful.

I'm embarrassed by Canadians who are falling for this, that the people I live among would just forget being Muslim is a single identity in a multitude that also includes "Canadian." That there appears to be little understanding that not all Muslims are first generation immigrants and most of those who are were not welcomed out of some grand benevolence, but because their skills were required for the Canadian economy to grow.

I'm also embarrassed by how little Canadians know about Muslims. There are, in fact, one million of us who live among you. My friend Aisha Jamal is a filmmaker and, like many of us, is tired of being forced into uninformed conversations about issues like the niqab and above all is tired of "small-minded questions."

"I'm Afghan... I feel like I'm always talking about headscarves and the Taliban," she tells me.

But at the same time, Muslims feel obliged to answer every question—no matter how banal or personal—to appear open and non-threatening, proving we are "normal."

I'm worried that this need to constantly explain ourselves means we aren't seen as real Canadians. You know, of the "old stock" variety. Beyond being hurtful to people who were born here, spent the majority of their lives here, or invested their lives to be here, that sentiment is dangerous.

You can't stoke existing xenophobic sentiment for political gain and expect no negative impact. This political rhetoric has emboldened the hateful and translated into real threats on Muslims—there have been multiple reports from across the country on Muslim women being verbally harassed, having their hijabs ripped off, and, in the case of one woman who wears the niqab, being physically assaulted.

As Charles P. Pierce notes in his recent assessment of Canada forEsquire: "Once uncorked, xenophobia rarely stays in the bottle."

The caricature of the snarling bearded Muslim man and oppressed, veiled Muslim woman seems so entrenched, I'm often told: "Well, you're not really Muslim."

That worries me. That because someone feels they relate to me, I couldn't possibly be part of this "other" mysterious, foreign, incompatible group.

This isn't just about "people like me"—it's about the erosion of rights writ large. And everyone should be worried about that.

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