Progressive Rhetoric For Regressive Ends (2)

An earlier post reviewed an example of progressive rhetoric in the service of non-progressive ends. Perhaps the most striking cases of this strategy are those in which the rhetoric of women’s rights is invoked to justify precisely actions taken against women themselves. In 2011 (with Jason Kenney as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), Canada banned the wearing of the niqab during the citizenship oath-swearing ceremony. (“Frankly, I found it bizarre that the rules allowed people to take the oath with a veil on,” Kenney explained.) When a federal court overturned that law last month, ruling that new Canadian Zunera Ishaq had the right to wear her otherwise perfectly legal religious garments during her swearing-in, the Prime Minister of Canada himself weighed in to impugn her choice. “That is not the way we do things,” Stephen Harper pronounced.

In Harper’s case the argument was initially couched in terms of an appeal to fear of secretive foreigners: “This is a society that is transparent, open and where people are equal, and I think we find that offensive. I believe, and I think most Canadians believe that it is — it is offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family.” But the appeal to equality surfaced in there too, and sure enough, now even Harper’s What are you hiding? remarks are being spun as defenses of gender equality.

The optics of a group of powerful men, lawmakers and representatives, telling a woman how she may dress for a public event are already awful. They take on a jaw-slackening character when those men go on to preen for having burnished their feminist credentials so wonderfully. How could legislation forcing women of some religions or ethnicities to partially disrobe in public ceremonies, against their explicit wishes, be depicted as a blow struck for women’s rights? One answer is that respect for women’s choices has practically nothing to do with the rationale for such a law. A likelier aim is just to blow the dogwhistles harder, while hoping to confound those critics sensitive to the genuinely fraught intersectionality of practices for which considerations of culture, religion, gender, and individual choice may pull in different directions.

This is not mere conjecture; the Conservative government is convicted by its own supporting rhetoric. Current Immigration Minister Chris Alexander recently tweeted in response to the Zunera Ishaq case that the hijab – a headscarf not typically understood as covering the face – also ought not be permitted during oath-taking. Remarks like these indicate that the purpose of such a law and such rhetoric is based neither on “transparency” nor on equality, but on simple negativity towards anything identifiably Islamic. The citizenship oath becomes a ritual of compulsory renunciation and humiliation for people of different languages, cultures, religions and practices. In the way of dogwhistles more generally, dropped hints like Alexander’s are kept rare enough to avoid alienating somewhat moderate voters, but are nevertheless fodder to energize the more extremist base without whose votes, money and voluntarism the Party would be disadvantaged. Again the appeal to gender equality functions as a preemptive defense against criticisms of such calculated religious and ethnic bigotry.

7 thoughts on “Progressive Rhetoric For Regressive Ends (2)

  1. Must admit I’m in two minds (or more) about this one. Is the head/face covering really a religious garment or a requirement of a patriarchal society? If it is the latter, it should be questioned as the person enters a different society. I’m not in favor of forcing a woman to either wear the head/face covering or not. She should understand the choice, however. Furthermore, if a woman was formally entering a society in which women were expected to cover themselves in public, would that society not expect her to conform even if the gesture had no religious or cultural meaning for her? And that would be feminist how?
    Politicians can be tone deaf to social and cultural cues as we all know. In this case I think their hearts are in the right place.

  2. The above rhetoric on the part of Prime Minister Harper stepped up in just the past few months, and not coincidentally, his party is facing an election in the coming year. I expect the next six months to include more unctuousness from the patriarch regarding who belongs in the Canadian family.

  3. It seems to me there are several directions of bad news around the niqab controversy. It’s clear that Stephen Harper’s “feminism” in this case is racist and opportunistic, of course. And the idea that sartorial liberation is best accomplished by extra laws about what not to wear is farcical, even if one were to take a strictly gender neutral position on the matter.

    However, I will admit to a certain amount of teeth grinding in the face of leftist men who seem to really relish an opportunity to voice their support for niqab wearing as an important example of “women’s rights”. It prickles the same sensors that go off when I encounter white leftist men who know one thing about bell hooks and one thing about Audre Lorde — it’s always the same thing, that they wanted white feminists to shut up! — and are blank about anything else either woman ever wrote or said, can’t name a second book, essay, or utterance in either’s oeuvre, etc.

  4. Thanks, Jennifer Jarratt. I think that the progressive audience’s being of two minds is really the intended effect of rhetoric like this. That’s my first response too. On the other hand, I think these politicians’ hearts are exactly where they say they are: focused on associating entire cultures and religions with the bizarre, with concealment, with threats, with offensiveness, and with “barbarism“.

    “Religious garment” and “requirement of a patriarchal society” are consistent; these clothing practices can fall partly into both categories. But why focus on these particular expressions of a patriarchal culture, and why take the choice to participate in such practices as having some unique problem of potential false consciousness or deformed desires? If these were white women moving to Canada from the United States, but showing up to their oath-taking in uncomfortable high heels or a crop top, no law-making, political haymaking, or public controversy would result. These too are clothing practices widely thought to reflect a patriarchal culture, yet there would no compulsion to settle the question of whether such women genuinely understood their choices to participate in those practices, or were displaying a problematic subordination to patriarchal society at the very moment they “joined the Canadian family.” Virtually nobody would countenance a law compelling them to remove or change their clothing. The difference in visceral reactions to such cases renders the familiar cases invisible and unfamiliar ones egregious and alarming. What underlying attitudes facilitate that difference in reactions? Those underlying attitudes, I suggest, are what these politicians are exploiting and fanning.

  5. laternerouge: the comparison to high heels or crop tops is absurd and even disingenuous. Neither one’s feet nor one’s torso are considered to be the seat of one’s individuality. The purpose of niqabs and other face coverings is to obliterate that individuality: to transform a woman into an interchangeable, anonymous, literally faceless instance of the collective Woman (think about the other people who cover their faces – riot police, burglars. The implications aren’t good). This is so contrary to Canadian values – at least I hope it is – that I can accept people questioning a woman choosing to wear this garb to a citizenship ceremony. Superficially she may be adhering to the value of ‘freedom of dressing’ and no doubt this is how she rationalises it; it is certainly how leftists rationalise it. But on a deeper level is she not rejecting the very values she is supposed to be swearing an oath to? If muslim men also wore niqabs she, and you, might have a case. But they don’t, so you don’t.

  6. Thanks, photondancer. Again, I suggest that if face veiling didn’t have troubling, problematic features, it would have been a poor choice for a campaign intended to excite bigotry while minimizing effective push-back. I’m not sure what you mean when you say you “can accept people questioning a woman choosing to wear this garb to a citizenship ceremony.” The post was not about questioning that choice; it’s about laws making that choice illegal, in the context of a wider demonization and intolerance campaign.

    “Frankly, if you’re not willing to show your face in a ceremony that you’re joining the best country in the world, then frankly, if you don’t like that or don’t want to do that, stay the hell where you came from, and I think most Canadians feel the same.”

    That campaign isn’t a defense of gender equality; it’s a display of bigotry, timed to mobilize a voting base.

  7. photondancer, I don’t think it is fair to impose our own interpretations of the gesture on the women wearing it. In fact, instead of making assumptions about these women and conclude that they are oppressed, maybe we could actually listen to them? There are several editorials in which women who wear the hijab or niqab contradict what you say. But I’ll let Zunera Ishaq speak for herself:

    “I like how it makes me feel: like people have to look beyond what I look like to get to know me. That I don’t have to worry about my physical appearance and can concentrate on my inner self. That it empowers me in this regard.” – “Why I intend to wear a niqab at my citizenship ceremony”

    This is precisely NOT about the erasure of her individuality. She is asserting it separately from beauty standards. Naheed Mustafa echos this:

    “In the Western world, the hijab has come to symbolize either forced silence or radical, unconscionable militancy. Actually, it’s neither. It is simply a woman’s assertion that judgment of her physical person is to play no role whatsoever in social interaction.

    Wearing the hijab has given me freedom from constant attention to my physical self. Because my appearance is not subjected to public scrutiny, my beauty, or perhaps lack of it, has been removed from the realm of what can legitimately be discussed … Women are not going to achieve equality with the right to bear their breasts in public, as some people would like to have you believe. That would only make us party to our own objectification. True equality will be had only when women don’t need to display themselves to get attention and won’t need to defend their decision to keep their bodies to themselves. ”

    Why do we get to define these women’s actions and call them oppressed? And the comparison to crop tops under this understanding is not disingenuous. Displaying more of the body can be a symbol of attempting to objectify herself for men and erasing her individuality by making herself purely into a body or an object.

    Both Mustafa and Ishaq are educated women, and both have given a lot of thought to this. It is unfair, presumptuous, and ignorant to call their reasoning “superficial” and posit a “deeper” reason for their attire.

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