Elections in Canada, Inclusive or Exclusive?
When the Hijab Exposes the Racist Electoral System
By Shannon Bundock
An indignant Stephen Harper was quoted by CBC news on September 9th stating that he "profoundly disagrees" with a recent decision by Elections Canada to allow Muslim women to vote with their faces covered by burkas or niqabs. He went on to claim that this contravened a law passed in June 2007, Bill C-31, which according to Harper is “a law designed to have the visual identification of voters.” Interestingly, however, the law Harper refers to has no requirement for visual identification, and in fact allows a person to vote with 2 pieces of non-photo ID or if another voter vouches for their identity.
Now, this is really only a fragment of the long and drawn out dispute that has been stirred up by a collection of politicians. Through this they have effectively put into question the right of Muslim women to vote in Canada. As such, they have re-opened an aspect of a most fundamental right in the struggle for women’s equality - the right for women to vote.
The Nature of the Attack
After Elections Canada confirmed that there is no barrier to voting with a niqab or burka in Canada, a flood of protest came from a range of political parties. Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan, who is the minister responsible for the country’s electoral laws called on “…all parties to form a united front and ask Elections Canada to reverse this decision.”
Along with the comments made by Stephen Harper, on October 26th his government introduced “An Act to Amend the Canada Elections Act (visual identification of voters)” which “expressly mandates that voters be required to have their faces uncovered when being identified to vote”. Commonly in the media, this is referred to as the “show-your-face” bill.
The issue was already hot in Quebec before it hit the federal playing field. During Quebec elections in March, Quebec’s chief election officer ruled that Muslim women wearing niqabs or burkas had to show their faces when voting. Quebec Premier Jean Charest insisted that this policy should be applied across the board in Canada.
On November 27th NDP MP Yvon Godin stated that his party will support the “show-your-face” bill proposed by the Conservatives. With NDP support the government will have enough votes to pass the bill through the House of Commons.
The Bloc Quebecois has forwarded concerns, but not in sympathy with the rights of Muslim women. Rather they think the law is too accommodating. According to a Globe and Mail article on November 28th, “the Bloc Québécois MPs told Mr. Van Loan they disapprove of one section in the bill that would allow veiled Muslim women to show their faces only to female electoral officers. Bloc MP Michel Guimond argued that in small communities, it is possible that only males will be available.”
As far as the Liberals are concerned, they initially supported the demand that Muslim women be required to remove their face coverings in order to vote. As the debate got a little hotter however, on November 30th, Liberal Party leader Stephane Dion turned back on his words and stated that the Liberals had “over-reacted” and now in fact would not be supporting the Conservatives’ bill. No further explanation has come out as to why this change.
Effectively, however, the damage is already done. According to Conservative House leader Van Loan, there were 70 instances in the September federal by-elections in Quebec of voters showing up at the polls wearing face masks. Each of these cases was an apparent “protest” to the fact that currently Muslim women are not forced to remove their face coverings. This begs the question: would this have ever been an issue had it not been conjured up by the ruling parties in Canada? In commenting on this self-created crisis Van Loan then used the masked protests as round-about reasoning that the issue of face coverings in elections must be addressed. "When people start to ridicule the rules that are in place for an election, that starts to erode public confidence in our system and I don't think we as parliamentarians can stand by and allow this to continue," said Van Loan.
Punching Holes in the Islamophobic Arguments
Despite the fact that there has been a very heavy campaign launched behind the “show-your-face” bill, there has also been serious criticism. The Toronto Star published an editorial on November 4th tearing apart the bill and pointing out “… there is not one shred of evidence that such a problem existed in the first place. Even Harper's Conservative government has admitted ‘there was no apparent case of fraud’ in three federal by-elections that were held in September in Quebec, when unjustified hysteria over veiled Muslim women first boiled over.” The editorial went on to conclude that “Harper has tried to dress up the bill as a means to ‘enhance public confidence in the democratic process.’ But it has nothing to do with electoral integrity and everything to do with pandering to narrow-minded fears about minorities.”
In September, Muslim journalist Yvonne Ridley responded to the controversy, stating, "the niqab is being used as a distraction here...The person in charge of a polling station cannot know every single voter by looking at them."
Commenting on the subject, Montreal activist Samaa Elibyari pointed out, "Muslims are criticized for not engaging in democratic issues ... yet here is a group of women who want to engage in a democratic process and are being criticized for their style of dress."
In more than one instance it has been pointed out that on the question of “visual-identification”, shouldn’t politicians in Canada be more concerned with the some 80,000 votes coming in via mail rather than a few Muslim women who would like to exercise their right to participate in Canada’s elections?
The following comment posted on an online forum on the issue also raised some more very interesting points: “I am stunned that so many care about what I choose to wear when there are so many other important issues simply devastating the country… through poverty, homelessness, war, the ever increasing amount of fallen soldiers, declining health care and the end of the world, the hot topic in Ottawa is if I reveal my face or choose to keep it covered when I go to vote in the upcoming election.”
In order to really smash the arguments in support of this bill, one must dig into the issue a little deeper to understand not only the baselessness of the attack, but why this attack was cooked up in the first place.
Digging Up the Roots of Attacks on Oppressed People
First of all, let’s take an example. In Quebec there are an estimated 50 Muslim women who wear a niqab or face covering. According to Sarah Elgazzar, a spokeswoman with the Council on American Islamic Relations Canada, Muslim women in Canada have not asked that this issue be raised. And there was no veil-voting incident that preceded this political uproar. Now the question that really looms is how did this non-issue suddenly become front and center? And why? To understand this better, perhaps we should examine a few other cases where attacks on the Muslim community hit the news headlines.
A campaign emerged in Canada in 2004 and 2005 to stop the so-called “threat” of Sharia law in Canada. Since 1991 in Ontario it was legal for certain civil disputes to be settled through voluntary “faith-based-arbitration”. This was not regarding any particular faith and in no way superceded Canadian law. In 2004 a review of the Arbitration Act was held in Ontario and one recommendation was that “The Arbitration Act should continue to allow disputes to be arbitrated using religious law, if the safeguards currently prescribed and recommended by this review are observed.” Since it was instituted, Jews, Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses and Mennonites had in some cases used faith-based arbitration to settle family or civil disputes. In 2003, however, the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice said it wanted to set up its own faith-based arbitration panels under the Arbitration Act.
Don’t Attack Islam
After nearly 15 years on the books, a flood of fear-mongering hype rolled in. In November 2003, an inflammatory article was published on WorldNetDaily entitled “Canada prepares to enforce Islamic law”. Articles filled the news wires, threatening that Canada would be plunged into the dark ages by “backwards, anti-woman Muslim law”. The impact of the hype added fuel to the Islamophobic campaign that was already raging throughout Europe and North America. “The Threat of the Muslim World” was not only a justification for attacking Islamic countries in the Middle East, it was also the justification for suppressing Muslims at home. And in the end this stirred up more prejudice, more fear, and more hatred against Muslim people.
This hype and spin grew until finally in September 2005, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said he was concerned religious family courts could "threaten our common ground". He went on to announce "there will be no Sharia law in Ontario. There will be no religious arbitration in Ontario. There will be one law for all Ontarians."
Similarly, in January 2006 an Islamophobic attack shook the world. Among others, a cartoon emerged in Denmark depicting the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb drawn onto his head. These racist and Islamophobic cartoons were published at a time when an intensive anti-Muslim campaign was, and still is, being engineered by the strategists of imperialist countries. The campaign to demonize Muslims acts as a part of the strategy in the imperialist war drive aimed to plunder the wealth of the Middle East.
Islamophobic attacks are meant to further drag down, humiliate and dehumanize Muslims in the Middle East and throughout the world. More importantly, however, such attacks are fuel for the growth of Islamophobia and racism amongst oppressed people outside of the Middle East. By ridiculing and generating suspicion, hatred and division against Muslims, it makes it much easier for the leaders of war mongering countries to bomb and kill Muslim people, without a word of protest from the primarily non-Muslim populations residing in their own countries.
As such, the hype and fear mongering being drummed up with the “show-your-face” bill, is an equally vicious attack. It intends to foster anti-Muslim sentiment among non-Muslims in Canada and place the Muslim population in conflict with the rest of so-called “Canadian” society. As such it contributes to hammering a wedge between Muslims in Canada and the non-Muslim population. It plays upon the ignorance of non-Muslims in Canada and encourages them to be suspicious and fearful of their Muslim neighbors.
Islamophobia, The War At Home and The War Abroad
The fact is that right now the Middle East is the most critical and strategic region for imperialist countries to gain control over. The countries under attack, Iraq, Afghanistan… Iran, all have majority Muslim populations. To make the murders of Muslim people more “bearable” to people in the imperialist countries, they demonize and dehumanize Muslims by any means necessary. The formula is not new. Millions of crimes have been perpetrated against oppressed people by cutting them off from their potential allies and leaving them isolated, persecuted and less able to fight back. During WWII this method was used to make the internment of Japanese people generally “acceptable” to the non-Japanese population.
With the campaign of Islamophobia, the government of Canada is also looking for one of two things. Either they want a cheerleading squad on their side supporting the destruction and devastation of Afghanistan, or they want people to be confused, silenced and useless in opposing war and occupation. Moreover, they want to maintain a low to moderate level of hostility among working and oppressed people. They are attempting to make Muslim people “the enemy” in order to keep the spot light off of their criminal actions and reduce the threat of any effective opposition to their criminal war in Afghanistan.
If people in Canada overcome the divisions of race, religion etc and collectively see people in Afghanistan as our brothers and sisters, if we build solidarity and sympathy, there will be no way the occupation of Afghanistan can continue one more day. Likewise, if the people in the US feel that Iraqis are their own flesh and blood, the US war drive would have been over before it began.
At their core, Islamophobic attacks are the expression of the “war at home” and must be opposed by all peace-loving people in Canada. In the case of the “show-your-face” bill, people in Canada must outright reject it as part of the racist, fear mongering campaign of Islamophobia being waged by the ruling class of Canada. Poor and working people must reject the division of “Muslim-vs-non-Muslim” and embrace our brothers and sisters regardless of religion, race or manner of dress. We must defend the most basic democratic rights of Muslim women (and all women for that matter!) to participate in elections regardless of the clothing they are wearing. Defending the democratic rights of the most oppressed layers of society puts all poor and working people in a better position to defend and expand our rights further.
Additionally, it is through overcoming divisions and building unity that we have the potential to build a broad, effective antiwar movement that confronts the real issues facing poor, working and oppressed people in Canada and Afghanistan. At the top of that list is the Canadian war drive in Afghanistan, which is draining money from social services to pump up the military budget and bomb Afghanistan to dust.
No to Islamophobic attacks!
No the “show-your-face” bill!
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