Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Niqab ban has no place in free society: Douglas Instructor

Graeme Bowbrick

By Graeme Bowbrick

The Conservative government’s announcement last week that it intends to ban niqabs at citizenship swearing-in ceremonies should serve to remind us of three things: first, the importance of freedom in a liberal democracy; second, that a basic litmus test for action by legislators should be whether there is a problem that needs fixing; and third, that for the Harper government politics so frequently trumps all else.

A cornerstone of a liberal democracy is freedom, and particularly freedom from unjustified state intrusions into our private lives. Generally speaking, we expect that the state should have nothing to say about what we wear, apart from a general requirement that we refrain from wearing nothing at all (in public). Otherwise, we expect to be free to dress as we wish, for whatever reasons we wish.

The suggestion that a woman not be permitted to wear a niqab at a swearing-in ceremony offends against our general expectation of liberty. There will be some who may support this new requirement on the basis that it promotes another important value in a liberal democracy: equality (gender equality in particular). But do individual women really need the state to dictate what they wear in order to promote the equality of those same women? How do we achieve equality by chipping away at the autonomy of women in this respect?

And what of the idea that legislators should generally only legislate when something needs to be fixed? Has there been an epidemic of niqab-wearing women failing to recite their oaths of citizenship that we haven’t heard about? Have there even been one or two who have done this?

According to media reports, the government’s stated justification for this new policy is that if a citizenship judge can’t see a woman’s face, the judge can’t see if she is indeed reciting the oath. Indeed. And what shall we do about any lip-synchers in the group being sworn in? If the government is serious about ensuring that all new citizens actually recite their oaths, then perhaps it ought to move to an individual swearing-in model rather than group ceremonies. But they won’t do that – because verifying the taking of the oath isn’t what this is about at all.

And this brings us to what this is really about: politics. There isn’t a public policy justification for this niqab ban, but it sure is good Conservative politics. The government is stoking its conservative base, keeping them happy.

This government is clever, though (never underestimate those you disagree with). In the face of criticism that this new policy is less than generous, and has no place in a free society, watch for the government to cloak itself in the rhetoric of women’s equality (see above).

So we are left to decide for ourselves: good public policy aimed at a genuine problem and simultaneously striking a blow for women’s equality, or just base politics?
  • Graeme Bowbrick, Q.C., is the Legal Studies program Coordinator at Douglas College and former Attorney General of British Columbia.
Opinions expressed in this story are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Douglas College. Want to write a piece for doug? See our writer's guidelines.