On Oct. 2 Canada’s Conservative government announced plans to enact measures aimed at stopping “barbaric cultural practices” if re-elected on Oct. 19. The proposals take aim at “polygamy, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation” and will create new Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) units in major Canadiancities as well as a tip line for citizens to report suspicious activity.
The Conservatives are portraying this initiative as an effort to “defend Canadian values and protect women in Canada and overseas from these heinous crimes.” In reality, the act is just the latest in a series of attempts to score votes by capitalizing off Islamophobia in Canada.
First, the Conservative government’s record does little to suggest they actually care about women’s well being; in fact, the Conservative government has either ignored dangerous and difficult conditions women face, or actively made them worse. More than 1,180 indigenous women in Canada have been murdered or gone missing from 1980 to 2012, and in a December 2014 interview, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the crisis “isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest.” In May 2014 Harper announced funding for safe abortions wouldn’t be included in a globe maternal health initiative because the practice is too divisive, despite the more than 47,000 women who die of unsafe abortions each year.
Harper has also cut universal daycare, stopped funding several women’s groups and shelters, and prevented the Canadian Human Rights Commission from hearing pay-equity complaints. In sum, Harper’s plan to target “barbaric” practices appears to be more of an effort to demonize the communities these women belong to than to help these women themselves.
The Conservatives are quick to point to the 2009 Shafia family murders, in which an Afghan immigrant (as well as his wife and son) were found guilty of killing his three daughters and one of his wives, as an example of why such measures are needed.
This case was largely framed as an “honor killing,” despite the judge simply calling it murder, and used by the conservative establishment to make it appear as though domestic violence is solely, or predominantly, an issue among Muslim communities in Canada. According to Alia Hogben, the executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, media attention made the murders seem like “something exotic, something foreign, as opposed to the fact that this was the murder of four women in Canada. I think it was because that separated us from them. People want to believe it’s other people doing this. Canadians don’t do this.”
The Barbaric Cultural Practices measure effectively reproduces this narrative by focusing disproportionally on domestic violence within one marginalized community. In reality, a woman is killed by her intimate partner every six days in Canada. On an average night, 3,300 women head to emergency shelters to escape domestic violence, and over 200 are turned away due to a lack of space. There are also upwards of 40,000 arrests for domestic violence each year, with only around 22 percent of incidents reported. The vast majority of these cases are committed by people Harper may consider to be “ordinary Canadians” at first glance. For that reason, they receive little attention from the public or the government while ”barbaric practices” get the spotlight despite not being prevalent in Canada. For example, the Conservative press release announcing the new measures references a 2013 study that states that “there is no evidence that any type of FGC [female genital cutting] is practiced in Canada.”
The Conservative’s attempt to demonize Muslim communities is also apparent in the way they imply that domestic violence in Muslim communities is somehow more harmful than among white communities in Canada. Harper’s ministers would never elevate domestic violence to the status of a “cultural practice” if it were routinely committed by white Canadians; in stating there is something inherently and uniquely misogynistic and violent about their culture, they further isolate marginalized citizens and residents.
The Conservative government has put considerable energy into stoking xenophobic fires with ploys such as the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act. The most recent example is the government’s renewed attempt to maintain a ban on niqabs, or full-body veils, during citizenship ceremonies — despite only two of the 680,000 potential citizens since the 2011 ban even wearing one to begin with. The ban was declared illegal by various judges, but the Conservatives are now bringing their appeal all the way to the Supreme Court. The government’s insistence on the ban, according to Harper, is because the niqab is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.” This effort is joined by more fearmongering still: the anti-terror legislation Bill C-51 that makes it easier for the government to surveil and charge suspected terrorists or terrorist sympathizers, comments from Harper specifically citing mosques as incubators for terror, and a string of Islamophobic statements from Conservative candidates.
The incentive for this xenophobic rhetoric is blatantly to gain votes for the upcoming election. For example, a recent poll found that 82 per cent of Canadians support the Conservatives’ view of the niqab. As such, some pollsters have attributed the Conservatives gains in recent election polls to the party’s niqab stance.
The Conservative Party’s tactics may be effective, but they signal the party leadership has irresponsibly bought into popular stereotypes to gain votes. Instead of addressing large-scale challenges women face throughout Canada, the Conservatives have used the rhetoric of women’s rights to provide a guise for demonizing already marginalized communities.