From Her Abaya to Her Blue Bra. How Violent Human Rights abuses in Egypt shed some fresh light on Canadian Citizenship Ceremony Laws
In 1999 I spent some time in Gaza. I was a young fresh lawyer with a great opportunity to do some amazing work with the UN. I wasn’t there long. 5 days maybe. It turned into a bit of haze. I had attracted attention that detracted from the task at hand. Nights, and later days, were spent hiding in my room from some very aggressive men close to those in power, some knocking, banging and trying to open my door late into night. The morning prayers would bring more knocking and my ”caretaker” would bring me food and drink if I agreed to kiss him. I had no phone and no way to communicate outside my compound other than through the assistance of these caretakers. Eventually I convinced them that I would like to see Jeruselum and I was escorted out of Gaza (getting in and out of Gaza was a bit of an ordeal - at the time one didn’t just hitch a ride to the border. I did that in South America when I was 18, but this was a whole new kettle of fish). While my description may not sound that horrifying here in print, I will admit that I was horrified. I was a young liberal Canadian lawyer ready to change the world. But I was also a pragmatist. And I knew that if I had been sexually assaulted by the person who was intimidating me the sames laws and protections that I am used to in Canada would be of no relevance. I, for once in my life, felt truly powerless.
I think it is for this reason that when Canada enacted our new law that requiring anyone taking the oath of citizenship to show their face to the Citizenship Judge presiding over the ceremony I felt an explosion of ideological tension arise within me. The result of this law is that women who choose to wear the Niqab (the full facial veil) must remove the veil in public and possibly before men. There is amble reason to believe that this new law may be a violation of religious freedoms as protected under Section 2 in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Government of Canada has taken a very public position on this matter. It could have simply allowed for women who wear the Niqab to show their face only to a female judge in a separate room. But the conservative government is very actively drawing a line in the sand. And it sounds like many of us don’t know which side we belong on.
For many feminists and those who advocate for women’s rights this argument is fraught with tension. Born of the liberal tradition of advancing freedoms – whether it be about race, religion, gender, sexual orientation – I am caught in a place where some of my most deeply help beliefs collide. On the one hand everyone in Canada should be at liberty to practice their religion without discrimination. If wearing the Niqab is a genuine religious expression for a Canadian woman this law could be restricting her protected right to freedom of religious expression in the very moment she is vowing uphold the traditions and laws of her adopted land. This doesn’t really sit very well with me.
To be perfectly honest though, the Niqab doesn’t sit very well with me either. I have deep suspicions that the Niqab is more of a culturally mandated garb whose roots lie in the desire to control and suppress women. Women become anonymous behind the veil and stripped of their individuality. They are no longer “seen” as citizens in their own right but are covered as something to be ashamed of or hidden from the world. I am sure many will tell me I am wrong and that my perspective is a naive western projection of my fear of the unfamiliar or foreign. That wearing the niqab is a conscious choice that some women freely make and that it frees them from the hyper sexualization of the western world and the objectification of women. I suppose a quick glance at Paulina Gretzky’s near stripper pole Twitter feed or Kim Kardashian fame catapult sex tape feeds this argument. What I do fear is giving any breathing room to a cultural argument that will lead to the repression of women’s rights. Most especially here in Canada.
Cultural traditions that repress women must not be tolerated in this country and this message must be heard loud and clear. I long for when we do not have to endure more tragedies such as the drowning deaths of the Shadid sisters at the hands of their father, mother and brother in the Ottawa canal. I have vivid recollections of reading cases in law school where defendants sought more lenient punishment for abuse against women because it was “culturally accepted” to beat ones wife. While the repression of women is a crime shared by almost all societies, some seem to have elevated it to a fine art. A reminder this week from the late Christopher Hitchens, “the only known cure for poverty,…is the empowerment of women”, uttered while savagely discrediting the work of Mother Teresa. Equal opportunity repression….
While we in Canada argue the finer points of irony at our citizenship ceremonies deep tragedy is unfolding from the well of hope that was Arab Spring. As Egypt cast off the cloak of the Mubarak years, another layer of corruption and repression revealed itself in the form of the military that ran the behind the scenes show. As reported by famed columnist and reporter Mona Eltahawy the military junta took the opportunity of Arab Spring to crack down on Egyptian women, subjecting them to “virginity tests” and violent sexual assaults in an attempt to silence and shame some of the most passionate voices of the uprising. Ms. Eltahawy herself was beaten and sexually assaulted by the police in late November 2011, released with two broken arms and stories of savage mistreatment. She was not alone, also sexually assaulted while reporting on the uprisings were French journalist Caroline Sinz and American reporter Lara Logan. These are the women who are willing to stand up and speak of the atrocities they suffered. Imagine the hundreds who suffer alone. This is a systematic attempt to shame, silence and make examples of women who stand up for themselves and their rights.
Women in the Middle East are in a deep entrenched war against cultural traditions that mask themselves as faith. In July of 2011 the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces abolished the women’s quota of seats introduced by Mubarek. The Salafi Parties have been accused of running women candidates in the election without showing their faces on the ballot. Sometimes these candidates were simply represented by a flower. These women later were replaced or euphemistically “spoken for” by their husbands and brothers. As the violence in the streets of Cairo escalates so does my fear that women who once enjoyed many freedoms are being pushed back into a private sphere where their voices are muffled by layers of fabric and walls. Last night I came across this photograph of a female protester being savagely beaten and dragged through the streets of Cairo, her Abaya pulled up over her face and her blue bra exposed signally to the world her gender. Sec. Clinton just committed vast sums of money to Egypt and has said repeatedly that women’s rights are a priority for her. I deeply believe her commitment to this cause and I hope that she and other international leaders repeat the mantra that this type of treatment of women (or anyone) is not acceptable and substantial consequences will flow. 1.3 billion in aid must not be given to SCAF given the type of horrors being unleashed on Egyptian citizens. If this is what they do on the street, can you imagine what happens behind closed doors?
As the images and stories from around the world flood my computer I am reminded of the true bravery and courage of these women and their supporters. They can feel the veil coming down around them. It isn’t about religion. It is about power and control. Religion is simply a tool. In Canada, we still have much work to do. The sad issue of domestic violence robbed us of four bright young lives here in Alberta this week. A young man was not able to find the help he needed to cope with his anger and emotion and a young woman was not able to escape a controlling volatile relationship. We are by no means perfect. I have resolved that I am ok with saying that if you want to take an oath to become a citizen of this great country you can be required show your face to the judge. Can you imagine if a man objected to taking off his face covering before a female justice? To make gender exceptions based on cultural preferences parading as religious expression has no place in Canada. Being a Canadian Citizen is a great privilege and if you want to wear your Niqab any other time you will be allowed to do so. More importantly though, you will never be required to wear it again should you choose not too.