After this country’s most famous niqab-wearing woman, Zunera Ishaq, was finally sworn in as a Canadian citizen, I went to the gym. I found myself sandwiched on the treadmill between a woman wearing a hijab and a young woman sporting blue hair, sleeve tattoos, and stretched earlobes.
No one batted an eye, least of all the hijab-wearing woman, whose “Muslim agenda” — despite panicked xenophobes interpreting Ishaq’s Federal Court win as a sign of soon-to-be-implemented sharia law — looked like my plan for the morning: burn some calories and get in shape.
Both women’s looks were nothing more than decisions taken on how to present themselves in public, based on personal beliefs and preferences, religious or otherwise. As far as images go, full-sleeve tattoos, blue hair, and stretched earlobes are more eye-catching than a beige-coloured hijab coupled with a shirt and yoga pants. The former image, however, doesn’t elicit the same level of pearl clutching and angst.
As unattractive as it may seem to some Canadians, coloured hair and tattoos are seen as personal decisions, while the niqab and hijab have been twisted by the Harper government and reduced to regressive symbols of women’s unequal treatment and harbingers of all we don’t understand and ultimately fear.
Judging by the outrage and the proud groups of misguided potato-sack-wearing “patriots” who showed up at advance polls, you’d think Ishaq tried to circumvent the law and defiantly thumbed her nose at us, when in reality all she did was follow the letter of the law. A Federal Court ruling and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms say so.
In 2012 I watched in utter shame as the Quebec Charter of Values was touted by the Parti Québécois as some sort of solution to the religious accommodation and secularism debate. They tried to sell Quebecers on a plan that targeted vulnerable minorities and their beliefs, while making convenient allowances for what constituted Quebec’s own majority Christian “cultural heritage.”
And the rest of Canada pointed fingers at Quebec’s xenophobic tendencies, while ignoring the national surveys indicating the rest of the country was ripe to be just as easily manipulated.
The PQ gambled with anachronistic notions of the values that constitute Quebec, and it backfired spectacularly. With just a few days left in the longest and probably dirtiest federal electoral campaign this country has seen, I remain optimistic that Canadians will also see through the manipulation and demagoguery.
Political distractions like the niqab work because they are simple and tangible. Manipulating a majority into demonizing a minority is the oldest trick in the book of wedge politics. Later, we look back and wonder how so many were played, and yet we never learn. We sink to the lower rungs of dirty politics and then complain about the stink.
As we head to the polls, the Conservatives have introduced the McCarthy-esque “barbaric cultural practices” snitch line and unleashed a wave of xenophobia and racism across the country. Noam Chomsky’s warning rings true for Canada: “As long as the general population is passive, apathetic, diverted to consumerism or hatred of the vulnerable, then the powerful can do as they please, and those who survive will be left to contemplate the outcome.”
I can only hope that the majority of Canadians see through Harper’s dirty and destructive politics and vote accordingly.