I am an immigrant.
When I was 13, my family became Canadian citizens. I have vague memories of a summer afternoon spent in a medium-sized Ontario town’s city hall chambers where we swore an oath to the Queen and Canada in front of an immigration judge. There were several dozen others there also swearing their oaths. Most clearly, I recall shaking hands with several old, white men, who handed me either a pin of the Canadian flag or the city’s symbol, alongside murmured words of congratulations. I am not sure I could recall enough of the oath to repeat it today.
On Monday, December 12th, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced that, effective immediately, anyone swearing the oath must have their face uncovered. The Minster cited concern about the inability of the judges to see lips moving to verify that the oath is, in fact, being recited. The real world implication of this law translates to women being most significantly impacted: specifically women (most often Muslim) who wear full-face coverings such as the niqab or burka. Although exceptions exist, there are few other instances other than religious or cultural practice that would have someone cover their whole face.
A plethora of opinion pieces have appeared online and in print about the damage covering one’s face does to a woman’s worth as a human being with rights as opposed to something that is meant to be hidden; of the less-ness of cultures where women cover their faces, as automatically meaning the devaluation of the worth of women. I have read opinion pieces about citizenship being a privilege and not a right, and about the “freedoms” Canada stands for.
My family is from Iran: an Islamic state with theocratic, authoritarian, and democratic elements. All women, religious or not, citizen or not, must wear the hijab while in public. Full face coverings are not mandatory, though some women choose to cover so. In the two instances during which I have visited Iran, I have been forced to cover my hair while in public. I mention this because it was not my choice to veil, as the freedom to choose while in the public sphere does not exist for women in Iran.
That freedom does exist in Canada.
Do I believe that women should be forced to cover up? No. Do I believe that women should have the choice to cover up? Yes. Do I believe this legislation violates that choice? YES.
Why must those taking the oath unveil? The act of swearing an oath requires vocal chords: the process is about speaking and hearing the words, not the witnessing of mouths moving. Why can’t the judges presiding over such ceremonies use microphones to amplify the vocals? One could easily move their lips and not say anything. Plus, if it’s such an issue for officials to see people’s lips moving while they recite their citizenship oaths, I wonder how immigrants who have limitations regarding listening to and repeating oaths (such as Deaf or hard-of-hearing folks) are accommodated?
If we are to go down a path that requires one’s face to be exposed, we must ensure that those who choose to wear a face covering are treated with respect. Perhaps women who are made to unveil should be allowed to take the oath in a more private setting - in the presence of only women - so their religious convictions are not violated. The supposed “desired outcome” of fighting “dishonesty” during the ceremony must be balanced with the privacy needs of and respect for those who would be impacted by such legislation. We must ensure that no one is violated or forced into compromising situations.
Part of the cultural mythology of Canada is a perception of our country as one of religious freedom and of cultural tolerance. And yet, at a key moment when new Canadians are being sworn in, some may face a violation of their core beliefs. Carissima Mathen, a University of Ottawa law professor, has noted that it is not about whether or not a religion such as Islam requires full veiling; rather, it is the belief of a woman in veiling that must be protected by our courts under grounds of religious conviction.
The history of an oath aside, is unveiling a crucial component in the process of speaking the citizenship oath? I don’t believe so. After all, to me, it is about saying the oath, rather than the act of seeing someone’s face that is the important component of the process.