Gender, Race and the Burqa Ban

A young woman protest France's ban on wearing full-face veils in public in front of Notre Dame in Paris on April 11, 2011.

On Dec. 12, Canada's Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney issued a ban that prohibits Muslim women from wearing the burqa and niqab while taking the oath of citizenship. He provided two reasons for this. The first rests on a technicality that citizenship judges must be able to see one take the oath. Rightly fearing that this could be easily accommodated without the need to remove the garments in question, he added a second reason: an appeal to "deep principle" that requires an open public display of "loyalty to Canada."

Kenney's ban is not without precedent. It is part of a larger pattern of Islamophobia. From France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy has disapproved of the burqa as "a sign of subservience" and where women are legally prohibited from wearing the full veil in schools and hospitals, to Barcelona, Spain, which outright bans it in public places, Muslims are brought into the spotlight only to be erased. In this struggle over identity and the right to cultural expression, women's bodies have become a battlefield for right-wing political parties, feminists and antiracists alike. It therefore makes sense to consider Kenney's latest move by taking account of its gender and racial implications.

Preventing Muslim women from covering their faces is a necessary move, maintains Kenney, in order to welcome them into the Canadian way of life. It is allegedly about preserving what Canada is really about—tolerance and openness—while extending freedoms to women who have yet to enjoy them, and perhaps who do not fully understand them.

But the desire to unveil Muslim women is not about a technicality, or even about Canadian values—whatever these might be—it is, rather, a racist desire born of the urge to reject the traditions and cultural symbols of a certain group. We should even go so far as to admit that it is about rejecting that group from public life. The ban is, in other words, the very opposite of what Kenney alleges it is about. It is about telling Muslim women who cover their faces that they have no place here, and that if they want to interact with the state, they must do so by discarding their former selves.

Kenney is certainly not alone in arguing that the burqa symbolizes and enforces Islamic patriarchy. Muslims feminists, such as Mona Eltahawy and Fatiha Amara, have on separate occasions, despite Sarkozy's anti-Muslim bias, supported his ban on the burqa. In opposing the burqa and niqab on the grounds that such a practice disempowers women by obliterating their public identities, Eltahawy, Amara and Kenney seem to be on common ground. The veils, they argue, symbolically remove women's public identity, and at this level they preserve patriarchal gender norms that give men a monopoly over public space.

In light of this, the acceptable solution is to banish such veils from public view in order to secure the liberal notion of public space, which we are often told is about transparency and face-to-face dealings. Although, to be fair, Kenney seems to distinguish himself here from Sarkozy, by claiming that unlike Sarkozy he does not wish to go all the way and ban the burqa from public institutions. He has, nevertheless, certainly taken the necessary first step. Kenney does not hesitate to say that on this occasion the burqa should stay at home.

But the advice to "keep it private," as many Canadians who support the ban suggest, is dangerous. It performs a double erasure that removes the woman already removed. The ban isolates the potentially marginalized burqa- and niqab-clad woman even further than she may already be isolated due to her garments. Rather than granting her citizenship rights, which could function as a basis for asserting her political voice, Kenney and his supporters have made up her mind for her: You don't deserve citizenship as a face-concealing Muslim.

The insistence that the ban itself is not necessarily racist or discriminatory is also problematic. Certainly, as supporters of Kenney's ban have pointed out, similar bans have been made in Canada against religious communities. On Nov. 23, the B.C. Supreme Courtdeclared the Mormon practice of polygamous marriage illegal. And yet, while the ban against polygamy was discriminatory, the ban against the burqa or niqab is both, discriminatory and racist.

This is so because Mormons and Muslims occupy a different racial status in Canadian society. Muslim women, unlike their Mormon counterparts, are currently perceived by their fellow Canadians, to use the U.N.-condemned phrase, as "visible minorities." That is, they are not-white, or not-so-white, while no one would dare to question the whiteness of Mormon women.

Mormons benefit from white privilege and cannot, as such, be made the special targets of a racist directive as long as whiteness accrues higher incomes, more political representation and greater social prestige. On the other hand, by targeting the cultural symbols of women who do not benefit from white privilege—that is, Muslim women who are racialized as women who cannot or should not participate in public space–Kenney's decision helps to further stigmatize a population that knows all too well what it is like to be Muslim at the airport, to have a Muslim name appear on a resume, or to appear as a Muslim in the court of law.

Given the current climate of Islamophobia, it helps to learn to see the ban in the context of race and racism itself. Islam continues to haunt the imagination of Western racists—just as once did the child-stealing "gypsy" and the money-mad Jew—but perhaps now with greater passion and intensity than ever before. With the weakening of some of the older targets of racism, the Muslim today has stepped in to replace the Oriental despot, the crime-prone Italian, the degenerate and unassimilable Slav, and other all-too-real figures that have in the past caused Canadians real racial anxiety. Canada, just like other post-colonial, capitalist nations, has always needed a racial target—from the indigenous to the Chinese, Ukrainian, Japanese and the various nationalities from the global South, including Arab/Middle Eastern today.

Let's also consider Kenney's political contributions in the context of the racial dynamics that characterize the current context. Kenney is no friend of immigrants or racialized minorities. He has, along with the conservatives, done what he can to stigmatize, deport and delegitimize immigrants. Kenney and the conservative party have reduced family-class immigration (as of November, Ottawa is not accepting sponsorships of parents and grandparents); led workplace raids that target vulnerable, non-permanent workers; limited the number of resettled refuges; limited citizenship by descent outside of Canada to just one generation; and reintroduced bill C-4—an anti-migrant and refugee bill that, according to the Canadian Council for Refugees, creates a two-tiered refugee system—while claiming that burqa and niqab create two classes of citizens. These achievements, it must be noted, while aimed at immigrants, refugees and migrants in general, mostly hurt those who fall outside of the protective circle of white privilege.

Considering the historical context and current climate, the conservative ban on Muslim attire made in the name of, as Kenney unabashedly tells us, "Canada's commitment to openness, equality and social cohesion" can be seen only as deeply ironic, if not outright disingenuous. That Kenney should appeal to feminism, while telling women what they can or cannot wear, is of course ironic. But that he should appeal to openness, equality and cohesion is to push irony to a dangerous point. The ban gives Muslim women a choice between exclusion (keeping it private) and assimilation (being like us). As such, Kenney is actually destroying the very basis of what might be called a Western tradition of cultural tolerance and pluralism, while championing himself as its hero.

As troubling as some feminists, antiracists and even Muslims might find the burqa and niqab, it is not up to us to "liberate" women from the alleged patriarchy of Muslim men. The patriarchal trappings of the burqa and niqab cannot be opposed in the way Kenney would have it—that is, by exercising state power in order to manage supposed incompatible cultural differences. Kenney is only invoking feminism and the idea of a transparent public space in order to further his own anti-immigrant agenda. We should therefore not speak the same political language as Kenney and Sarkozy when they seek to banish burqas in the name of gender equality and public space. While the burqa might conceal the darkness in the hearts of those Muslim men who demand it, the very desire to police fashion has to be seen as deeply antithetical to anything that might be called feminism, or as an invocation of public reason.

The danger in supporting Kenney in order to oppose patriarchy is to contribute to the myth of the "bad immigrant." Critical leftists must realize that by supporting the ban they are also supporting the idea that Muslim immigrants are "ruining" the West simply by threatening its public spaces with their presence. This is not the case anymore than it is the case that Jewish bankers ruined pre-WWII Germany. Rather, the real threat to the Judeo-Christian West is to be found precisely in politicians like Kenney and his ban.

Jakub Burkowicz is a sociology PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada, whose research focus areas are race and racism, immigration, and Canada. He has worked as an activist with No One Is Illegal.