New Canadian citizenship ceremony practices continue to cause a stir

Opinions continue to differ in regards to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s Dec. 12 decision to introduce new rules that require new Canadians to uncover their faces while obtaining their citizenship. The new rules are directly aimed at Muslim women.

Aasim Rashid, director of Religion and Islamic Education for the BC Muslim Association, says that not many in the Muslim community have much of a problem with the rule change itself, but rather with the fact that Kenney seems to have based his decision on speculation and personal opinion.

“There are Muslim women that wear veils all around the world, and whenever there is some sort of legal or official requirement for ID purposes, they regularly take off their veils, just like they would for passport pictures or driver’s license pictures.”, Rashid says. “Islam definitely accommodates such necessities.”

Rashid also says that there isn’t any religious issue that most Muslims would have with taking off the veil in such a situation.

He says that the real issue here is one of tone. He says that Kenney didn’t just change the rules; he demonized Muslim women for choosing to wear veils at all.

Photo by Jean-louis Potier, Flickr
Veils are once again a point of contention in immigration politics Photo by Jean-louis Potier, Flickr

“The concern for all of us is that this matter was dealt with in a very insensitive fashion. No research, or consultation took place, and the decision was based entirely on speculation and personal opinion” he explains. Also at issue are Kenney’s claims that women who do the haji to Mecca as part of their Koranic obligation of pilgrimage to the holy sites are not required to wear a veil, and that the veil itself “reflects a certain view about women that we don’t accept in Canada. We want women to be full and equal members of Canadian society and certainly when they’re taking the citizenship oath, that’s the right place to start.’’

“It’s not for them to speculate about what view of women the veil presents”, says Rashid. “Did he ask the women who wear veils why they wear it, and what view of it that it presents to themselves? Or did he ask practicing Muslim men what their view of women is? It’s for us to say what the veil means, not for him to say.”
Minister Kenney’s new rules stated that everyone taking their Canadian citizenship exams would need to uncover their faces and remove any burqa or niqab that they may be wearing, for purposes of photography and identification. They would also need to have their faces uncovered for the actual swearing in part of the ceremony, so that officials could verify that they in fact had recited the federally mandated loyalty oath.

While the new rules seem to have received a favourable response from many in the media and in the Conservative base, there are some who object to the way that the new rules were laid out. Not only did Kenny specifically mention that the new rules were specifically designed for Muslim women, he also seemed to be objecting to the practice of Muslim women wearing a veil at all, and seemed to be attempting to use Islam itself to justify this fairly antagonistic stance against a practice that’s been common among Muslim women for hundreds of years.

The timing of the new rules is surprising. After a hard-fought federal election where Kenney’s courting of immigrants was seen as part of the Conservative’s success, the feeling among some Muslim and immigrant groups is that Kenney may be biting the hand that feeds him.

While the Ministry of Immigration did not respond to our requests for an interview, local activist and foreign affairs expert Chris Preston sees their side.

“There’s a large part of their (the Conservative party) base that looks at immigrant policy as a lynch-pin issue, and feels that protecting Canadian culture is a pivotal thing. The Conservatives are antagonizing specific groups, but even within the immigrant vote, Muslims are only a small part of it, and there’s a lot of immigrant groups that identify themselves as conservative that don’t see a problem with it.”

Preston says that Kenney’s recent actions shouldn’t be surprising.

“Like everything they (the Conservatives) do, part of this is to put their stamp on everything they touch, and they’re very calculating on how they do that,” he says.

They don’t like the controversy necessarily, but they do see it as a black and white thing, and that they’re protecting Canadian’s identity and values,” says Preston. “They’ve obviously looked to Europe who has led the way on a lot of this stuff, so it’s not unprecedented.”

While that may be true, the real worry for Rashid and for other Muslim groups is the concern that this may only the beginning of a new wave of government interference with Muslim religious practices.