On Chris Alexander's 'hijab' reference

Defending the federal government's position against face coverings being worn during citizenship oaths, a key minister uses the term 'hijab' in an odd way

Justin Tang/CP

Justin Tang/CP

There can hardly be a more sensitive matter (as we all learned back in 2013 when the Parti Québécois put forward its ill-conceived “Charter of Values” in Quebec) than any government proposing to impose restrictions on the wearing of religious clothing or symbols.

So when Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided to appeal a recent federal court ruling that would allow Muslim women to cover their faces while taking the oath of citizenship, you might have expected his government to be scrupulously cautious and precise in explaining what was bound to be a controversial position.

Based on today’s evidence, you would have been wrong. News that the Conservatives sent out a fundraising email on the topic led to a question from Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland in the House. She focused specifically on how the Tory email mentioned that the government was appealing a judge’s ruling “allowing people to wear the hijab while taking the oath.”

The odd thing about that phrase, which Freeland zeroed in on, is that the word “hijab,” at least in Canada, almost always refers to a Muslim woman’s head scarf that covers only the hair, unlike the “niqab,” which also covers much of the face. Directing her question at Citizenship Minister Chris Alexander, a former diplomat who served in Muslim countries, including Afghanistan, Freeland said, “Surely the minister, of all people, ought to know the difference between a niqab and a hijab.”

But Alexander defended his terminology. He alluded to his experiences “living in a majority-Muslim country, where the hijab has been used to cover the face of women, just as the niqab and just as the burka has been used under the terrible influence of the Taliban, and other obscure entities, in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

I took that to suggest the government might mean to allow the hijab during the citizenship oath, so long as it wasn’t somehow used to cover the face. To be certain I understood properly, I emailed Alexander’s office for a clarification. The first response said Alexander was referring to “the actual covering of the face during the oath.” Just to be certain, I followed up by asking if, in that case, the hijab would be permitted, if it didn’t cover the face.

Instead of answering that question directly, Alexander’s office forwarded me this statement: “As the Prime Minister said, it is offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family. We are opposed to anything that hides someone’s face when reciting the Oath of Citizenship. We believe the oath should be taken freely, openly and proudly for everyone to hear.”

I don’t think that directly answers my question about the hijab. In fact, I remain puzzled about why Alexander injected such a precise term as “hijab” at all into this already fraught debate. Having used it, though, he should now explain in plain language exactly how he means to be understood.

I assume he means it in a different way than Defence Minister Jason Kenney did, back when he was citizenship minister in 2013, and the Quebec Charter of Values debate was roiling, and he tweeted: “A child is no less Canadian because she or he wears a kippa, turban, cross, or hijab to school.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.