A few years ago – fifteen, if I’m being honest – Molson Canadian released its “I am Canadian” advertisement, paving the way for nationalist rants from across this geographical space called Canada.
But, as the case of Zunera Ishaq demonstrates, it’s becoming increasingly clear that only some people qualify for true membership in this community called Canada. Politicians wax poetic about what they perceive to be “Canadian” values. Freedom. Equality. Patriotism. And all that typical rah-rah, put your hand over your heart stuff. But when it comes right down to it, they aren’t really that keen to extend those values to all of us.
Zunera Ishaq is Muslim. She’s also done everything to become Canadian except for her citizenship ceremony. And that’s because she wants to wear her niqab. The government isn’t happy about this. For this particular government, the niqab is necessarily a symbol of oppression and as such, contrary to what they call “Canadian values.” Trumpeting values of transparency, openness and equality (hollow words, especially from this government which has been a. less than transparent and open, and b. done much to undermine gender equality), they suggest that Ishaq cannot be a full Canadian unless she adheres to these values. Islam, they argue – and particularly that branch that requires women to wear niqab – is fundamentally anti-woman and, as a government interested in women’s rights (?!), they need to save women from this nightmare. Gayatri Spivak had it right in her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak”: it really is about “white men saving brown women from brown men.”
The problem is that women like Zunera Ishaq are unruly. They won’t play their proper role. They won’t perform the oppressed woman. They’ve thought long and hard about their faith and about what it means to wear a niqab. They contribute actively to public life, engaging as citizens in this grant experiment called Canada. They want to speak for themselves and on their own terms. They’re not interested in having the government speak for, about, or on behalf of them.
How on earth is a government supposed to “save” them if they refuse to be saved?
Here’s Zunera Ishaq in her own words:
My desire to live on my own terms is also why I have chosen to challenge the government’s decision to deny me citizenship unless I take off my niqab at my oath ceremony. I have taken my niqab off for security and identity reasons in every case where that’s been required of me, such as when I have taken a driver’s license photo or gone through airport security. I will take my niqab off again before the oath ceremony without protest so I can be properly identified. I will not take my niqab off at that same ceremony for the sole reason that someone else doesn’t like it, even if that person happens to be Stephen Harper.
I am not looking for Mr. Harper to approve my life choices or dress. I am certainly not looking for him to speak on my behalf and “save” me from oppression, without even ever having bothered to reach out to me and speak with me.
And by the way, if he had bothered to ask me why I wear a niqab instead of making assumptions, I would have told him that it was a decision I took very seriously after I had looked into the matter thoroughly. I would tell him that aside from the religious aspect, I like how it makes me feel: like people have to look beyond what I look like to get to know me. That I don’t have to worry about my physical appearance and can concentrate on my inner self. That it empowers me in this regard.
You can read the rest of her statement here.