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We Talked to the Harvard Instructor Behind the Niqabs of Canada Tumblr

Vivek Krishnamurthy explains why the debate over face coverings in Canada is such BS.

by Allison Tierney
15 October 2015, 5:00am

A Calgary cyclist sports a niqab. Photo via Tumblr

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

While it's pretty clear that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper created the niqab "debate" to distract voters from more pressing issues in this election, it hasn't stopped pretty much every person you know from announcing via social media their rationale for supporting either side, occasionally with accompanying casual racism.

Niqabs of/du Canada has become a twisted solace for some in these dark times, a Tumblr stream of photos showing Canadians concealing their faces in a niqab-like fashion during everyday activities: a plastic mask worn by a hockey goalie, the scarf and hat necessary for tromping through a proper blizzard, the thin fabric covering surgeons wear. VICE found the person behind the page, Vivek Krishnamurthy, and talked to him over the phone from Massachusetts, where he lives and works as a cyberlaw instructor at Harvard University, to find out what he thinks about the niqab debate and Canadian politics.

VICE: What inspired you to start the Niqabs of/du Canada Tumblr in the first place?
Vivek Krishnamurthy: I had been rather dismayed by the entire debate about the niqab issue, which I think is a non-issue for several reasons we can talk about. But it just struck me as I was looking at the photos that the comparison between the niqab and the way that Canadians often dress during the cold seem to be obvious. I was just surprised that no one had raised that fact. I thought that it was a wonderful way of demonstrating that in our public sphere in Canada, just because of the exigency of weather, we end up covering ourselves a lot, and this is completely non-controversial. So if for six months of the year people have to cover themselves for utilitarian reasons, what's the big deal about some other people choosing to do so 12 months of the year when they walk down the street? Why is this such a major political issue? It just seems so ripe for satire, which is why I decided to start the Tumblr.

Even though you live in the US right now, you're Canadian, correct? Where in Canada are you from?
Yes, I've sort of lived all over Canada. I was born in Calgary, grew up in Montreal and Ottawa, and then Toronto most recently is home. I was actually up there for the long weekend for Canadian Thanksgiving. My parents live in Toronto. So I have very strong ties to Canada even though I happen to live and work in the United States. I've been in the US for about five years.

What do you think about the niqab being made into an election issue in Canada?
I find it really ironic for a few reasons. It's really a debate about this one woman, Zunera Ishaq. The entire thing, as I understand it, was really about her wanting to wear a niqab while taking the oath of citizenship. One of the things that really resonated for me was that in the midst of an election campaign, we're having a debate about one woman's apparel choices precisely when she chose to become a citizen of Canada—she had qualified for it completely with all the requirements. This is about taking the oath in a niqab or not, and the effect of the government's decision was to disenfranchise her by going through the courts and trying to claim that she should not be allowed to wear a niqab while taking the oath of citizenship. She couldn't vote; she was denied the right to participate in the very election in which it became an issue.

It wasn't until this weekend, as I understand it, that a private ceremony was held for her that she was able to take the vow of citizenship and can now register and vote. But she was denied the right to take the oath of citizenship in the way that every other naturalized Canadian has, which is in a public ceremony where people affirm their loyalty, patriotism, and love of the country. And that is something that resonated for me in particular because I've also been disenfranchised by this government. I'm a Canadian who's lived outside of Canada for five years, and under the Orwellian-named Fair Elections Act, for the first time in my life, I have been deprived the right to vote. So this really struck a chord with me, the fact that this individual's right to vote was being deprived at the eleventh hour by a government that was changing the rules was something that I felt required a strong statement.

I'm very heartened to see that it looks like the issue has kind of fizzled out almost everywhere except Quebec because I think Canadians are basically a tolerant people who don't just passively put up with difference, but, you know, celebrate that. That's part of what makes Canada, in my view, the greatest country in the world: that we really embrace people of different backgrounds and traditions and allow them to have the fullest commitment of prolific expression of their culture in our country. That's why we do not have the same kinds of problems that people have in Europe or, frankly, here in the United States, with integrating immigrant communities.

Even medical professionals have started covering their faces. Wow. Incredible. Photo via Tumblr

I'm curious what you think are the differences in how racism is presented in Canadian versus American society since you've lived in both.
Let's face it: Both countries have deeply troubled histories, and histories where, in Canada, one group of people, and in the United States, two groups of people, have learned the brunt of racial oppression. In Canada, it's our Aboriginal people; in the United States, Native Americans and African-Americans have suffered tremendous systemic disadvantages for years. What I think is different in Canada is that there's much more of a willingness to acknowledge the wrong of the past and to have a public conversation about that. We see that with regard to Aboriginal people, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal people, the Royal Commission on residential schools—public apology for what has happened to Aboriginal peoples, which we've never seen in the United States. No one has engaged in similar soul-searching with the effects of the ways Native American people have been treated.

What do you think about the fact that Harper has chosen to have such a strong stance on the niqab, which is something that affects Canadian women, but not to be concerned with the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada?
Well that does speak to the hypocrisy and the sort of flagrant dog-whistle politics that he's engaging in. What could be a more barbaric cultural practice than all of Canadian society not giving enough about all these missing Aboriginal women? There's nothing more barbaric in my books than women from a disadvantaged minority disappearing, probably being killed, and also society doing nothing. Why has the prime minister decided to make such an issue about women's form of dress, which is her free choice? Perhaps there is a rationale for our public authorities to get involved if someone is being forced by their family to dress in a way that they don't want to. But if you're prioritizing what scarce government resources, and this is a government that claims to be a careful steward of the public purse, why is the government spending millions in legal fees to challenge this one woman's decision to wear a niqab to three levels of courts? Couldn't that money be better spent on investigating what's happened to missing Aboriginal women?

Niqabs everywhere! Photo via Tumblr

What do you think of National Post columnist Barbara Kay's recent statement in an article in which she compared the wearing a niqab in public as being as "indecent" as being naked in public?
What's interesting about her statement is that if nudity is her standard of indecency, that's something that we in Canada accept. In the early 90s, there was a campaign by a number of women who wanted to appear topless in public to get public obscenity laws overturned, and they basically went topless all over the place at Parliament Hill, Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto, etc., and they were all charged by police and taken away. Charter challenges were brought to the indecency laws, and the indecency laws were struck down. So if she thinks that's obscene, then that's her view, and she's certainly entitled to it, but the law is the law, and the law is clear that people have choices. We can't simply legislate the values of the majority in a multicultural society that's ruled by law. We have objective standards by which the government can act when there's a real harm to society. One columnist's opinion about what's obscene or one politician's opinion should not be controlling.

What has the response been to Niqabs of/du Canada?
It's certainly shone a light on the issue, and I hope it's made light that this is really unimportant. This issue does not deserve the kind of attention and debate that it has in the election campaign when there are many, many bigger issues that are important to all Canadians like the ones we've discussed.

What's next for your Tumblr?
I think at this point I've made the point. If I get any more particularly amusing photos, I might put them up, but I think it's had its 15 minutes of social media fame, and I'm always looking for opportunities to put up another Tumblr about something else that deserves a satirical poke in the eye.

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