Can the history of veiled women inform an ugly election campaign in Canada? Reflections of Students and Faculty

By M. Blake Bulter, Alissa Cartwright, Paige Fehr, Kaitlin Findlay, Lesley Golding, Liang Han, David Lynch, Ariel Merriam, Stephen Topfer, Lynne Marks, and Jordan Stanger-Ross

The current Canadian federal election campaign has given rise to heated debates over veiling and anti-Muslim attitudes. We asked a group of Canadian graduate students and their professors at the University of Victoria in British Columbia to share their thoughts on Susanna Burghartz’s History Workshop Journal article ‘Covered Women? Veiling in Early Modern Europe’, appearing in our fall issue, which examines the changing and multivalent meanings of veiling in the past. Burghartz’s article is on open access and is free to download here.

The emergence of the niqab as one of the defining issues in the current Canadian federal election shocks many observers, who view Canada as a tolerant, multicultural society. The Conservative government’s efforts to deny niqab-wearing women the right to be veiled at citizenship ceremonies (despite losing two legal appeals on the issue) is linked to a broader package of anti-Muslim wedge politics intended to shore up Conservative core support. This package includes plans to establish a “barbaric cultural practices” tip line that would encourage Canadians to report on neighbours whom they suspect of engaging in practices like honour killings and female circumcision, which are criminalized in Canadian law, and not in need of citizen surveillance mechanisms. It also includes Bill C-24, which strips dual citizens (and those with potential to access dual citizenship) of their status as Canadians, if convicted of terrorism, treason, spying, or being a member of an armed group engaged in conflict with Canada. The Conservatives appear open to adding more crimes to this list, and are also considering prohibiting federal public servants from wearing the niqab.

The satirical tumblr site "niqabs of Canada" gestures with humour at the instability of head-covering as a signifier of otherness.

The satirical tumblr site “niqabs of Canada” gestures with humour at the instability of head-covering as a signifier of otherness.

Since Prime Minister Harper’s campaign against niqab-wearing women reached fever pitch two weeks ago, two women, one wearing a niqab and one a hijab, have been attacked in major Canadian cities, a number of others have reported incidents of verbal abuse to the police, and high profile Muslims report feeling unsafe in their own country. Susanna Burghartz’s fine article “Covered Women”, appearing in the most recent issue of History Workshop Journal and available on special open access, draws parallel European political trends, in which veils have similarly become “deeply controversial signifiers of identity,” into a sweeping and surprising history. (Burghartz 1) Among its virtues, the article points to ways in which historians might yet intervene in the current Canadian political discussion.

We are two Canadian history faculty members and a graduate class of students participating in a public history course. As public historians, we are committed to the constructive use of the past to inform global and national citizenship and critical engagement with structures of inequality and power. With this in mind, we approached the endeavor to historicize the controversy over veiled women collaboratively, encouraging each student to offer specific historical examples that contextualize this topic within the Canadian narrative. Although our individual opinions vary, we share the desire to shed light on this subject by situating it within the context of tensions between Canadian ideals of tolerance and the frequent realities of xenophobia.

Historians have intervened in the current election campaign in Canada by suggesting that the political discourse about the niqab should remind Canadians of a national past where religious and racial discrimination were common.[1] Jews were barred from many Canadian clubs, beaches and resorts in the 1920s and 1930s and prevented from buying property in areas and neighbourhoods across the country. “None is too many” was the infamous response of an influential civil servant to the pleas of those advocating for entry of desperate Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany. Over the nineteenth century and beyond, Catholics, the traditional “other” to the majority Protestant population, faced public violence, job discrimination, and repeated questioning of their patriotism.

This sign in Jackson Ontario suggested "No Jews Wanted" as the "slogan of 1938." Image courtesy of the Ontario Jewish Archives.

This sign in Jackson, Ontario suggested “No Jews Wanted” as the “slogan for 1938.” Image courtesy of the Ontario Jewish Archives.

Canada has a long legal history dating to the eighteenth century of protecting religious freedoms, and freedom from racial and religious discrimination is enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, incorporated into Canada’s current constitution in 1982. Nonetheless, the Canadian commitment to an inclusive and tolerant form of nationhood has been repeatedly compromised. From the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, Canadians participated in what historian Erika Lee coins “hemispheric Orientalism,” with racist legal structures and social practices that discriminated in immigration and employment, segregated schools and neighbourhoods, restricted the right to vote on the basis of race, and encouraged anti-Asian rioting in Vancouver in 1907. Politicians repeatedly mobilized popular sentiments of social, economic, and military insecurity to build their own careers and to reinforce perceptions of these groups as inassimilable aliens. During the 1882 federal election, Sir John A. Macdonald pledged to prevent the immigration and settlement of Chinese and Japanese because they belonged to “an alien race that could not be assimilated into Canada.” (Con 49-50) In 1945, despite some previous efforts to challenge racist political initiatives, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation promised to protect white living standards by preventing Japanese Canadians (uprooted and interned since 1942) from returning to British Columbia: “JOBS NOT JAPS!” proclaimed a campaign advertisement (Japanese Canadians would be prevented from returning to Pacific Canada until 1949). Two years later the Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, assured Canadians that despite the necessity of postwar immigration the government would avoid a “fundamental alteration in the character of our country” by continuing to severely restrict immigration from Asia. (Canada House of Commons Debates, 1 May 1947)

This political cartoon from the Illustrated Canadian (1879) depicts journalist and politician Amor de Cosmos deporting a Chinese immigrant who “can’t or won’t” assimilate. Available online at TC2.

This political cartoon from the Canadian Illustrated News (1879) depicts journalist and politician Amor de Cosmos deporting a Chinese immigrant who “can’t or won’t” assimilate. Available online at TC.

This history includes some of the ironies and fantasies that Burghartz observes in Europe. Women’s habits of dress, in Canada too, could serve as “a screen onto which could be projected . . . senses of strangeness and danger.” (Burghartz 6) In this vein, Ivan Barnet (a little-known civil servant who played a critical role in one of the grave injustices of the Second World War treatment of Japanese Canadians, the forced sale of their property) analyzed the appearance of a Japanese Canadian woman he encountered in 1942:

I am given to understand that she is the wife of a white man, now in the Army . . . she impressed me as an intelligent, well dressed individual. I believe there are other cases in the same category. I have been wondering if these marriages are an attempt . . . towards getting information about our troops and supplies. It is only human nature that the average individual talks shop to a certain extent within the boundaries of his own home.[2]

Here, dressing “well” serves to veil deeper motives. Whereas the “white man” is imagined subject to “human nature” and hence unable to avoid intimacy with his spouse, his “intelligent” wife is eternally and essentially loyal to nation (Japan) and race. As in the Europe, dress that could “connote sound, traditional standards” could also be read as a sign of “lust, disorder, and seduction.” (Burghartz 8)

Japanese Canadian girls skipping rope on girls skipping rope on Alexander Street in Vancouver, 1939. Image courtesy of the Nikkei National Museum [2010.].

Japanese Canadian girls skipping rope on Alexander Street in Vancouver, 1939. Image courtesy of the Nikkei National Museum [2010.].

Immigrants who were admitted to postwar Canada faced the scrutiny of Canadian health and welfare workers who singled-out immigrant and refugee women in an attempt to “Canadianize” them, a project considered particularly urgent in the Cold War context. Immigrant women were stereotyped as backwards, both in their dress (Italian women all in black, with kerchiefs over their heads) and in the food they cooked for their families. Italian women cooking over stone stoves were ridiculed, while social workers attempted to encourage and shame them into introducing their families to modern “nutritious” Canadian foods.

Into this history, Muslim women in Canada have recently and prominently emerged. The concept of a singular “Muslim woman” within the Canadian political debate erases significant differences among Islamic women and their motivations for veiling that have varied according to time, place and social status. Nikkie Keddie’s work demonstrates that historically “there has never been a single category of Muslim women operating under one set of rules.” Practices of veiling and seclusion, developed in the pre-Islamic near east and Mediterranean, served as a marker of status and privilege, but in Islamic society as much as in the Europe that Burghartz describes, the veil has been “subject to repeated processes of recodification and transvaluation.” (Burghartz 29) In some, contexts veiling has been required of women, who protest their lack of choice in this matter. In immigration to Canada, new considerations shape this ongoing process.

Studies of Canadian Muslim women of various ethnicities reveal how considerations of identity, relationship to western culture, and the veil’s potential for empowerment interplay to shape women’s personal attitudes towards veiling. In some cases, veiling is an assertion of faith, self-value and culture, as well as offering a woman respect, dignity, and protection from Western sexualisation of women’s bodies. For some younger Muslim women, as the forthcoming work of Nadia Jones-Gailani will demonstrate, the choice to veil runs counter to the desires of parents, who seek to appear “modern,” to fit into a new culture and to protect their daughters from the discrimination veiled Muslim women face in Canadian society.

Harper’s targeting of women wearing the niqab fans the flames of racial and religious intolerance that have a long and ignoble history in Canada.  His xenophobic attack also ignores the complex meanings behind the veil for many Muslim women today, and shows a profound lack of understanding of the range of ways in which the veil (for both Christian and Muslim women) has been prescribed, proscribed and reviled over the course of Canadian and European history.

Burghartz’s exploration of the “ambivalent coding” of the veil in European history warns against such historical amnesia. Imagining themselves certain of the veil’s meaning today, Europeans and Canadians alike might instead learn from a past in which “ostensibly unambiguous social and moral-political attributes and values . . . turn out to have been anything but stable” and our suspicions of threatening and inscrutable others have given license to our most regrettable mistakes. (Burghartz 29)

[1] For recent critiques of Harper’s policy that use a historical lens see, for example: Lynne Marks and Jordan Stanger-Ross, “Attack on niqab a backward step for Canada”, Mary-Ann Kirkby, “My Hutterite perspective on the niqab”; Timothy Stanley, “Racism Abounds in Election Campaign”; Karen Dubinsky and Franca Iacovetta, “Baba wore a burqua and nona wore a niqab”, and Marie-Danielle Smith, “Echoes of mid-century xenophobia in Harper campaign, say historians.”

[2] Barnet to Murchison, September 29 1942, File v-8-10, part 2, Volume 403, RG 38, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa. Access to this resource is courtesy of the Landscapes of Injustice project.


Lynne Marks is an associate professor of Canadian history, women’s and gender history and the social history of religion at the University of Victoria.

 Jordan Stanger-Ross is an associate professor of history and director of the Landscapes of Injustice project at the University of Victoria.

M. Blake Bulter, Alissa Cartwright, Paige Fehr, Kaitlin Findlay, Lesley Golding, Liang Han, David Lynch, Ariel Merriam, and Stephen Topfer are students in a graduate class in public history at the University of Victoria. Our class explores the interface between scholarly and non-scholarly histories and asks how historians can deepen and empower public connection with the past.


Further reading:

Ken Adachi, The Enemy That Never Was: A History of the Japanese Canadians (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976)

Kevin Anderson, “’The Cockroaches of Canada’: French-Canada, Immigration and Nationalism, Anti-Catholicism in English-Canada, 1905–1929” Journal of Religious History, 39, 1 (March 2015).

Harry Con, From China to Canada: A History of the Chinese Communities in Canada. (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1982)

Julie F. Gilmour, Trouble on Main Street: Mackenzie King, Reason, Race, and the 1907 Vancouver Riots, History of Canada (Toronto: Allan Lane, 2014)

Nikkie R. Keddie, “The Past and Present of Women in the Muslim World,” Journal of World History 1 1 (1990), 85.

Erika Lee, “Orientalisms in the Americas: A Hemispheric Approach to Asian American History,” Journal of Asian American Studies 8, no. 3 (2005): 235–56

Rima Berns McGown. Muslims in the diaspora: The Somali communities of London and Toronto. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999)

Patricia Roy, A White Man’s Province: British Columbia Politicians and Chinese and Japanese Immigrants, 1858-1914 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1989)

Timothy John Stanley, Contesting White Supremacy: School Segregation, Anti-Racism, and the Making of Chinese Canadians (Vancouver ; Toronto: UBC Press, 2011)

Ann Gomer Sunahara, The Politics of Racism: The Uprooting of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War (Toronto: J. Lorimer, 1981)

Ruby Tadassum, Immigrant Muslim Women and the Hijab, Sites of struggle in crafting and negotiating identities in Canada. (Saskatoon: Community-University Institute for Social Research, 2004).

Gerald Tulchinsky, Branching Out: The Transformation of the Canadian Jewish Community, (Toronto: Stoddart, 1998)