Former Prime Minister Kim Campbell is the butt of jokes for having said during the 1993 Canadian general election, reportedly, that “an election is no time to discuss serious issues.” The debate over the wearing of a Muslim headdress called a niqab illustrates a rare instance in which Campbell’s statement is true.
In 2011, one of the reasons why I nominated the advocacy organization LEAF for the Ontario Bar Association President’s Award was to recognize the tireless efforts of this feminist legal organization in articulating the voice of women in the Canada legal system. Another was the brilliant legal work performed by LEAF’s lawyers in a controversial case involving the right of a woman to wear a face covering as a testifying complainant in a sexual assault trial. LEAF’s argument, summarized in the LEAF Backgrounder, navigated a manifold complexity of ethical values, gender relations and legal process. In the end, LEAF supported the woman’s right to testify and appear in public wearing a garment considered to be a symbol of male oppression. LEAF’s arguments are not hard to understand, but do require quiet consideration. However, while I would be delighted to be proven wrong, any attempt to make this an election issue demonstrates disrespect for both those who defend a woman’s right to wear the headdress and for those who champion her freedom from having to wear it.