Not Allowed to Cover your Face and Lower your Gaze: Reflections of a Convert to Islam about the Canadian Citizenship Test

Perhaps I have been somehow naïve to believe that equality, freedom of conscience and belief are at the heart of secular-liberal Western democracies. Anyhow! For some time now my family and I have been applying to become Canadian citizens. After few years of living in Canada, studying, working and having a child born in here my parents finally decided to take this step after 11 years of being in Canada.

The paper work is difficult and, as in any other country, it is a bureaucratic process that is heavily influenced by foreign policies and international relations. However, since Mrs. Harper won a majority in the Canadian Parliament, Peter Mackay got to be in charge of International Affairs and, later on, Defense and Jason Kenney became minister of citizenship and immigration, immigrating  to Canada has not only become a very profiled process but it has also become quite ideological.  

There have been plenty of criticisms about the new citizenship guide for a number of reasons including that it is a political ideology guide rather than an educational piece. The citizenship guide is meant to prepare prospective citizens for the citizenship test (see sample). It talks about history, rights, responsibilities, political system, economy, international relations, etc. The most recent guide was developed by Kenney, who was quite proud of “his” new conservative guide.

 Critics have challenged much of the content in the guide for a number of reasons. First, it seems to reflect a “conservative Canada”. The guide seems to align with particular Conservative values and beliefs of what Canada is (or must be) and what being Canadian means. Some critics complain about the fact that Canada is not longer depicted as a peaceful country; instead, the Kenney made forceful efforts to portray Canada as a military country closely related to the U.S.

In addition, Aboriginal history in interestingly interpreted. I was surprised at the “happy” depiction of First Nations, Métis and Inuit   welcoming the English and the French without any mention of colonialism. Even though the guide somehow tries to acknowledge (in one sentence) the residential school system, it never talks about reserves, land issues, discrimination and the current colonialist practices being endorsed by the Canadian government such as the “Blood Quantum,”   which defines Indian-ness as a “breeding” system despite people’s identities.

Another issue that has come up is LGTBQI2/S rights. The guide devotes a whole sentence (in 61 pages) to say that Lesbian and gay are part of the “multicultural mosaic,” but not mention of their struggles and the rights earned through activism. Moreover, the inclusion of the one line was the result of constant activists’ efforts and a long fight against Kenney’s own biases.

Religion is also an interesting element thrown into the guide. The Liberal version of it tried to avoid issues of “state” religion (Canada does not have an official state religion). However, under Kenney’s guide, it is made very clear that Canada is a Christian country, and a “strongly” Catholic one. The guide says that in addition to that Canada has “Jews, Muslims, Sikhs an atheist” (where are the rest, I wonder?).

Yet, one of the most striking elements of the guide is the value judgment reflected in terms such as “barbaric practices.” A number of sources (here, here and here) question the use of this language and the political rationale of these statements. What is more, these “barbaric cultural practices” seem to target very particular groups of immigrants. By barbaric the guide means honor killings, genital mutilation and gendered violence. In Canada, the media and some public figures have  associated Islam  with these a practices.

I was not surprised to see these things in the guide in part because I had prepared myself psychologically to go through the whole thing without questioning too much and getting upset. This was quite difficult thought with such a content, language and biases! But I was not the only one that felt that way. My mom, a professor and activist in the area of Aboriginal political rights was quite offended by the depiction of aboriginal-government relations in the guide. My step-father, on the other hand, thought that the image of Canada as U.S.’s military “buddy” was outrageous.

Yet, the day of the exam things got worse. The lineup at Canada Place in Edmonton was filled with people from all ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds including Muslims from different countries. Despite acknowledged discrimination from the Canadian government against Muslims after 9/11, people still apply for a number of personal, economic and political reasons. Many of these Muslims were hijab and niqab observing women who were there to present the test.

It is a well-known fact that conservatives, and particularly Minister Kenney, have associated niqabs with Islam and the oppression and women and used those biases in public policy. Even nowadays women are required to remove their niqabs to do the citizenship oath (I wonder if all women in that line up, Muslim and non-Muslim, knew that)… No face no citizenship. Nonetheless, I did not expect it so bluntly in the citizenship exam.

The test itself, on a firsthand experience, is quite biased against anything that is perceived as non-Western (i.e. dictatorships, communism, terrorism, gendered violence, etc.) All these things are depicted as the “other” and as things that come with immigration since they are not originated in the West (of course!).

However, towards the end of the exam I reached the following question:

Which one is not a right of Canadian citizens?

a)      To vote on a federal election

b)      To live and work anywhere in Canada

c)       To force a spouse to cover her face and lower her gaze

d)      To engage in the Canadian military

The question was like a  trick… relating answer “c” to verses 2:30 and 2:31 of the Qur’an, while assuming that a woman who covers her face is forced by a spouse and that “forcefulness” against women is closely related to Muslim’s sacred scriptures. In addition, the next following answer was related to the military, which seemed a strange switch from the other options.

The question left me with, as we say in Spanish, “a bad taste of mouth.” I went out of the room, after 20 minutes, wondering what most Canadians would think about these types of questions and the overall biases shown in the immigration process. As a Muslim I felt targeted (although I don’t wear a niqab), as a woman I felt without agency and as a potential citizen I felt ashamed…

At least I was not the only one… my mom was offended on the test’s approaches to issues of Aboriginal rights, my step-father was upset after half of his test was on the military “achievements” of Canada as a “nation” rather than on its advances in human rights and peace missions.

Perhaps I have been naïve in thinking that liberal democracies and multicultural countries at least tried not to alienate incoming immigrants. Yet, the Canadian government today has a quite different agenda.

6 thoughts on “Not Allowed to Cover your Face and Lower your Gaze: Reflections of a Convert to Islam about the Canadian Citizenship Test

  1. Jana says:

    Salam Alaikum,

    My husband became a Canadian citizen recently I use to practice the test with him and so many of the questions had us laughing while others had us “tsk tsking” our country. Canada is not a democracy, no country really is. Unfortunately right now it’s the popular thing to insult and belittle Muslims, the Chinese faced this, the Japanese had to deal with this, every faith or nationality has faced this (sadly) and no one seems to be able to stand up and so this is wrong….not many people are able to learn from history. Just think now that you are Canadian you can vote Harper out of office, something people should have done last year….erm

  2. LouisaBalata says:

    I didn’t think a country such as Canada could go that way … I still had the “peaceful country” picture in my head. It seems the western countries are all going that way ( France is getting worse everyday ). At least it seems in Canada wearing the niqab is not outlawed … yet ?

  3. Muslim says:

    Good reason why I will never consider moving to Canada. Here in South Africa, despite all its problems, we have a huge degree of religious tolerance guided both by constitutional or legislative means as well as by a largely well-meaning public. Despite endemic racism left over from apartheid, we still enjoy levels of religious tolerance much higher than many Western democracies and most Mulsim countries!

  4. Above Zero says:

    Wow, I just discovered your site and I must say you are a very good writer! I enjoy reading your posts, may God bless all your work! 🙂

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