Laughter, the Canadian election and the niqab debate

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Let me begin by clarifying: I’m not talking about laughing at the niqab, but at the niqab debate (or #niqabdebate) as it has become known in Canada in the last six weeks. The niqab debate that loomed so large in the 2015 federal election, a record 78-day campaign that reached its finale Monday night, and that may (arguably) have precipitated the collapse of the social democratic alternative (arguably) in Canada. The debate provoked by Conservative race-baiting in an impressively cynical bid to profit from the seldom-acknowledged but very real prejudice of white Canadians. The bullshit niqab debate.

Let me back up a bit.

In 2011, the Canadian federal government banned the wearing of face-covering garments during the swearing of citizenship oaths. This, it was said, was to ensure that the oath was actually said – that is, that the prospective citizen’s lips were moving – a problem that could be solved by standing within earshot. It served no purpose for identification either, as all candidates for citizenship have, by the time they reach the point of swearing an oath, already braved a gauntlet of background checks, paperwork, regulation photos, and meetings with officials. They also reveal their faces to an official for identification purposes immediately prior to the ceremony. More to the point, as journalist Justin Ling so aptly said only a few weeks ago, “All would-be citizens are required to actually sign the oath of citizenship, which is the legal part of becoming a citizen. For the oral exam part of the ceremony, you may as well be reciting ‘Hypnotize’ by Notorious B.I.G.”

So one woman, Zunera Ishaq, put her citizenship ceremony on hold last year to challenge the ban in court. The case and its implications rapidly became an election issue, with Harper himself calling the niqab “offensive” and “not how we do things here.” The nationalist Bloc Québécois capitalised on it, showing television ads that depicted niqab-wearing Muslim women as threatening foreigners. Candidates from the New Democratic Party, Canada’s putative social democratic alternative, broke ranks to declare their opposition to the niqab. The issue featured in leadership debates and seemed poised to tip the election, though in which direction remained not entirely clear.

A campaign sign for NDP candidate Hélène Laverdière in Montreal, showing anti-niqab graffiti as the NDP fell in the polls.

A campaign sign for NDP candidate Hélène Laverdière in Montreal, showing anti-niqab graffiti as the NDP fell in the polls.

But Ishaq won her case – twice, in fact, as the government appealed her first victory. The niqab ban no longer stands. And the election is over now. It was decisively and precipitously won by a man who claims he will not contest the court’s decision, saying of the Conservatives’ efforts, “It’s irresponsible and dangerous and not worthy of the office of a prime minister.”

It’s over. Canadians can go back to their deluded claims to multiculturalism.

Is it safe to laugh now?

Let me back up a bit further.

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A few weeks before the election, I was scrolling through my social media feeds (as one does in lieu of working) and came across a response to one of my posts celebrating Ishaq’s victory: “Your opinion, not mine. If they don’t like it, go live in a Muslim country.” I took the bait and a back-and-forth ensued.

(“Just drop it,” my partner said. “You’re not going to change his mind.” He was right, as he often is.)

There was nothing I could do or say: this acquaintance of mine simply replied to everything I said that his opinion stood. Leave aside the ominous question of who counts as ‘us’ and who ‘them’ in this equation. Leave aside the distressing and ironic nativism rearing its head in a settler-colonial society with indigenous blood on its hands. Leave aside the fact that the niqab ban only ever prevented two women from taking their oaths of citizenship – clearly not a widespread ‘problem’. This isn’t a debate we’re going to win by drawing on reserves of compassion, solidarity, or righteousness. So I laughed. I laughed and I laughed and I laughed.

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A political cartoon that appeared on iPolitics.ca

Now I’m wondering if it’s safe to laugh loudly and proudly at the niqab debate. Is it safe to laugh when Law C-51, which increases powers of preventive detention and surveillance, still stands – and the new governing party supported it? When Law C-24 allows dual nationals to be stripped of their Canadian citizenship? When Law C-36 puts sex workers at risk and does nothing to address violence against women and girls – or the 1200 missing and murdered indigenous women? (See below an attempt to capitalize on the absurdity of fretting about the niqab while indigenous women disappear.)

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Ridicule could have dangerous consequences, right? After all, various polls have shown that Canadians (between 67% and 82%, depending who you ask) agree that the niqab should be banned for citizenship ceremonies. And sure enough, reports of violence against niqab-wearing women began to appear as the issue topped the news cycle. None of that has changed after the election. How can we laugh when the safety and humanity of a marginalised group of women beset by racist misogyny is threatened around us?

What is more, the niqab debate seemed to go some way toward the felling of the NDP in what Macleans is calling the “Orange Crash.” Tom Mulcair, the NDP leader, never outright laughed, but he did say that he couldn’t support a ban “with a straight face and his personal integrity intact.”

Now, though, I wonder if that’s all that any of us, so-called progressives in a so-called progressive country, should do in response to this kind of flagrant, unabashed, and almost reassuringly unreflective racism: laugh. What is the political utility of laughter?

A picture from the Tumblr “Niqabs of Canada”, showing former Minister of Defense Peter McKay and former Prime Minister Stephen Harper surrounded by Canadian soldiers with their faces covered.

Laughter can help us to build solidarity in the face of frustration and bigotry. It can be movement building and cathartic. Sara Ahmed writes that, “When we catch with words a logic that is often reproduced by not being put into words it can be such a relief. We recognised that each other recognized the logic. Laughter, peals of it; our bodies catching that logic, too.” Laughter, facing the brick wall of obstinate prejudice, can be a kind of care for ourselves and our allies. And we all know about self-care: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Saara Särmä discusses laughter in her work as well, arguing that “[t]aking laughter and humour seriously and examining their complex relations with power can increase our understanding of structures of inequalities and how they are produced, reproduced and maintained.” She also quotes John Carty and Yasmine Musharbash, who show us that laughter can “erupt out of the fissures of colonial facades, and are never far from the question of discrimination, domination and power imbalances.” Other ideas, like Jack Halberstam’s gaga feminism and Marysia Zalewski’s exquisite corpse, draw on reserves of laughter, childishness, and silliness – not just as an embrace of satire but as a tool, a stance toward the world.

Laughter draws out the absurd. It shows up the flaws in our pretensions, stratagems, and self-flattering claims to egalitarianism and multiculturalism, making them impossible to ignore. Maybe laughter can jar in a way that will reach beyond what measured, compassionate, and well-reasoned political discourse can do. (See also this piece proposing a ban on mullets at citizenship ceremonies.) And laughter might be the best response to entrenched racism in a country that so often believes itself free of racist histories (ahem) not to mention racist presents and futures. Laughter might be the response the niqab debate deserves.

So… is there anything to be gained in laughing at the stupid, racist, sexist, bullshit niqab debate? Or is it just too depressing, desperate, dangerous? I honestly don’t know.


Edited to add screenshots of the two tweets, because apparently I’m incapable of successfully embedding them from Twitter.

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5 thoughts on “Laughter, the Canadian election and the niqab debate

  1. I fondly remember my own Cdn citizenship ceremony, including the oral part. The 70 year-old citizenship judge, who began the session by self-identifying as Afro-Jamaican-Canadian, urged all us to try and sing our new national anthem in in both official languages, underlying the word try with a wink. Got everyone in the room laughing–save for one francophone family that happened to be partaking in the ceremony, that is.

    You’re right to say that laughter is a commonplace tool for wielding the so-called power of the weak–it can help one deal with all kinds of institutionalized hypocrisies and fantasies, notably including assorted “liberal” approaches multiculturalism, post-racialism, bilingualism etc. But as you note, there are major problems with this. On the one hand, Canada’s latest (ie. not last) niqab “debate” was subjected to liberal laughter so well that some of the pictures you posted here made news around the world (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34551951), offering valuable teachable moments (and helped maintain the country’s brand as truly open, savvy, tolerant etc). On the other hand, how can one laugh at racist misogyny as such? Call me a killjoy, but I’d call for a moratorium on laughter in this case. For one thing, even if this were a “merely” wicked problem of liberal policy (see Adam Gopnik in the latest New Yorker, for example) rather than a question of violence, it would still be hard to laugh at from a liberal/progressive perspective (Am imperfect Canadian counterfactual to the niqab issue is the constitutional right to freedom of expression related to various bylaws, bills, and legal challenges to the prohibition of mask-wearing during protests, for example). For another thing, liberal laughter can be seen as a performance of difference and superiority in identity terms. By laughing at electoral race-baiting, bilingualism, multiculturalism, etc., aren’t liberals legitimizing all kinds of superior positions for themselves (usually but not exclusively those related to white middle class privileges & protections)? I don’t think it’s controversial to point out that this particular identity formation sometimes clashes with at least some aspects of the decolonial project or some other progressive project. And so, to answer your question, while I see the danger of infinite regress here (“identity politics”!), I think that this is a case and both-and rather than either-or: laughter can and does have multiple socio-political functions such that self-preservation (solidarity, resistance, etc) for some can be exclusion (hierarchy, insecurity) for others.

    While I am still waiting to have a political philosopher explain all political-ethical considerations related to this particular type of laughter, this blog, now defunct, offers some interesting thoughts: http://usesofhumor.blogspot.ca/2008_09_01_archive.html (Full disclosure: not driven by my interest in “American women writers.” I discovered it by following a mindless keyword search on Hobbes and laughter, which was inspired by something Skinner wrote on the same subject. It may have also been inspired by that one scene in The Name of the Rose when Father Jorge and Sean Connery discuss laughter and the Devil prior to burning the library down).

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    • It’s that ‘performance of difference and superiority’ bit that worries me the most. Alienating and ridiculing people who, quite frankly, are working from knee-jerk reactions, thoughtlessness, or ignorance is not my goal — ethically or practically, i.e. in the ‘hearts and minds’ sense.

      I was talking to someone last night who said she thought one of Tom Mulcair’s big mistakes was that he didn’t pander enough to anti-niqab sentiment. That is, while he took a principled stand and stuck to it that a ban was wrong, he also could have made more hay from 1) the fact that niqab-wearing women’s identities have always been verified in private before the ceremonies, so this was never about identification or security, and 2) the paltry number of people who had ever been affected by the ban, demonstrating that it was never the all-consuming, headline issue that it was made out to be. Take from that what you will.

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      • Yeah, this is one of the theories on why Mulcair lost (or “lost Quebec”, as the English language media likes to specify) going around. Principles make for bad politics. But I blame Duverger’s Law above all : )

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