Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's edict ordering Muslim women to remove their veils while taking Canada's citizenship oath seems eminently reasonable.
The problem is, the response from Muslim women outraged by the edict seems just as reasonable.
Kenney went public Monday with an order that during the few minutes at ceremonies where new Canadians become citizens of Canada, veils are verboten (as is, presumably, any facial covering.) His rationale was practical and political. Since those assembled are taking an oath, the minister said, their faces must be visible to the whole court and especially to the citizenship judge.
More, he said, the moment of swearing an oath to Canada requires a visible affirmation of the value of equality among all Canadians. In his eyes, and many Canadians would see it similarly, a veiled female face attests to the inequality of the woman who must live her life unseen by her fellow citizens.
Who could argue with that? Errrr . . . Islamic women's groups in Winnipeg, Calgary, and no doubt elsewhere across the country, that's who.
Rather than thanking Kenney for his self-proclaimed liberation of their phizogs, the women demanded to know just who he thought he was interfering with their religious freedom, deciding for them what their faith requires of them and (here's where any husband would have seen the warning light flashing) telling them what to wear to the party.
This is one of those classic cases where the right lies equally with both sides in a balance so delicate it can only be compared to the anvil resting on the very lip of the cliff high above the desert floor where Wile E. Coyote is standing.
Personally, I don't know why anyone—man, woman, or child—would want to wear a veil. Yes, it's true we live in a winter country where people walk into banks in January wearing balaclavas and no one even notices, much less hits the floor. We also live in a country where grown men earn millions of dollars wearing opaque, unbreakable masks to stop their faces being shattered by pucks hitting them at a hundred miles an hour.
Generally, though, we are a barefaced bunch, we Canadians. What perplexes me about women wearing veils in public is the paradox of their modesty actually drawing extra attention. When all you can see of someone on the street is her eyes, well, you notice.
But if I don't understand the wearing of veils, I also don't understand why everyone doesn't love golf, the Montreal Canadians, mustard on popcorn, the Pope, and the Apple iPad as much as I do. Nor do I understand how anyone could cheer for the Toronto Maple Leafs, buy Microsoft products, or be "spiritual but not religious."
It's the old 101 flavours of ice cream view of the world. What moves me from perplexity to nervousness is when the State starts arbitrarily limiting those flavours to suit the tastes even of as capital a fellow, and as exemplary a minister of the Crown, as Jason Kenney.
The State does have the prerogative to forbid the sale of, oh, say, Baby Kitten ice cream—if it's actually made with baby kittens. Canadians don't eat baby kittens. We just don't. End of discussion.
But if the State has a limited power to limit what we eat, does it have equal wherewithal to tell us what to wear? The vast majority of Canadians would say absolutely not. We will wear that goofy looking green and red toque in January if we please.
So, if someone wearing a veil seems to us, for personal, practical, or political reasons to be silly, well, that's the kind of egocentrism mirrors were made to correct.
Kenney, of course, argues that he's not banning veils, only requiring them to be removed for a few moments in the specific setting where the State confers the ultimate gift of citizenship on new Canadians. Again, it seems reasonable unless we accept that the veil is necessary garb of modesty for those who wear it. If I were asked to swear an oath of loyalty in my birthday suit, even by Jason Kenney and even for only a few minutes, I would tell the good minister to put his citizenship where the sun doesn't shine.
And if I can stretch my imagination enough to think how I would respond were I a veil-wearing woman asked to remove my veil to become a citizen, I know that I would find the request absurd. How can I be free to wear a veil the instant after I have become a full citizen, but not be allowed to wear a veil at the instant of becoming a citizen? It makes no sense. Either I am free or I am not. Either we accept veils or we do not.
That is really the anvil balanced on the lip of the cliff. For three generations, we Canadians have gloried in undermining our traditions, our identity, our sense of what we do and do not do. Now we find an existential need to draw the line between who we are and who we are not.
With good reason, the immigration minister is one of those trying to do just that. Wile E. Coyote, looking up from the desert floor, understands the problem.