by Khadijah Ali (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 44, No. 2, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1436)
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has taken on a single niqabi woman to launch his crusade against Muslims. With the economy under his watch tanking, he has resorted to fear-mongering but not all Canadians are buying his hate-filled message.
Stephen Harper is on a crusade against Canadian Muslims. Whether it is the “jihadi extremists” that he alleges are being radicalized by masjids in Canada or the choice of one woman to wear the niqab at her citizenship swearing-in ceremony, the Canadian prime minister is determined to save Canadians from this latest threat. Harper and his rightwing minions are clearly suffering from “white men rescuing brown women from the oppression of brown men” syndrome.
Zunera Ishaq, a university-educated mother of three (and a former high school teacher) from Mississauga, Ontario wears the niqab and wanted to wear it at her citizenship swearing-in ceremony in 2013. The department of Citizenship and Immigration would not let her take the oath in niqab. She challenged the government and took the matter to court. Federal Court Judge Keith Boswell ruled in early February that there is no law banning the niqab during citizenship swearing-in ceremony. Harper is hell-bent on denying this Muslim mother her legal right and is challenging the ruling.
Harper and his ministers have levelled outlandish allegations against Zunera. While the subject of debate and her name has even been mentioned in the House of Commons, not once has Harper or any of his band of rightwing zealots bothered to talk to her to inquire whether she is forced to wear the niqab or this is her choice? He has appointed himself authority on Islamic law and has taken to issuing “fatwas.” He is assisted in his crusade by a band of opportunistic Muslims — no more than five or six individuals that would do anything to curry favour with the powers that be — and declared that the niqab reflects a culture that is “anti-woman”. In one broad sweep, Harper has condemned 1.6 billion or more Muslims worldwide.
Let us dispense with some basic facts first. According to some Muslim scholars, perhaps a majority, the niqab is not mandatory for Muslim women; hijab is. Others, however, interpret the Qura’nic injunction to mean that niqab is mandatory using the understanding of the verse in Surah al-Ahzab (33:6) that addresses the dress code for the Prophet’s (pbuh) wives.
The question, however, is not whether it is or it is not mandatory under Islamic law. The real issue is that of a woman’s choice. She should be free to wear what she chooses. That is her basic right under Canadian law. If women are allowed to go topless in public — and it happened at the University of Western Ontario in July 1991 when then student Gwen Jacob did just that and the court ruled that it was her right to do so — why can’t a woman wear the niqab?
The niqab controversy was deliberately created in 2011 by then immigration minister Jason Kenney when he unilaterally imposed a ban on niqab during oath-taking ceremony for citizenship. Until then, Muslim women could wear the niqab or other face-coverings. What was Kenney’s rationale for this bizarre decision? “It is a matter of deep principle that goes to the heart of our identity and our values of openness and equality,” he pontificated. Such “openness and equality” were not to be extended to niqab-wearing women as far as Kenney was concerned. He argued that “the citizenship oath is a quintessentially public act. It is a public declaration that you are joining the Canadian family and it must be taken freely and openly.”
The Federal Court of Canada disagreed with Kenney’s assertion and struck down the ban in its February 2015 ruling. Justice Boswell noted the contradiction between the notion of “freely” taking the oath and the unilateral ban on specific religious garb during oath-taking ceremony imposed by Kenney. “To the extent that the policy interferes with a citizenship judge’s duty to allow candidates for citizenship the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization or the solemn affirmation of the oath” wrote the honourable Justice, “it is unlawful.”
In rejecting the niqab ban, Justice Boswell did not resort to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom except in passing. Instead, he looked at the law as it stands and offered two hypothetical scenarios: a monk who had taken a vow of silence and a person who is mute. Justice Boswell asked whether a judge would be affording a monk the “greatest possible freedom” by forcing him to betray his vow? And what if a person is physically incapable of saying the oath and cannot be heard taking it? He pointed out that the Citizenship Act is a law passed by Parliament and the policy manual is a directive from a cabinet minister; the act naturally trumps the policy manual.
When necessary, Muslim women have taken off the niqab for identification purposes. Thus, they have done so for security reasons at airport screening points and for driver’s license photo. They have also done so while testifying in court to allow the defendant to face his or her accuser. But what practical consideration is involved in oath-taking ceremony when the person has already gone through the process of citizenship exam and faced a judge to answer questions without her face covering? The ban is motivated by malevolent intent.
“The minister is not authorized to make law. He doesn’t have that power,” says Audrey Macklin, Professor and Chair of Human Rights Law at the University of Toronto in an interview with the CBC (March 16, 2015). “And if he purports to make law or make a rule or command a citizenship judge to do something that takes away from the citizenship judge’s discretion, and even more, commands the judge to do something that is directly contradictory [to what] the law says, then the minister himself is acting unlawfully.” Government lawyers tried to wriggle out of the legal logjam they had placed themselves in by claiming that the ban was not actually a ban, merely a suggestion that the citizenship judges could apply at their discretion. Justice Boswell dismissed this argument.
The rightwing zealots that are hell-bent on tearing off the veil from Muslim women’s faces argue that such women are oppressed. If they had only bothered to talk to any of these women, they would not make such ludicrous statements. Zunera Ishaq penned an opinion column in the Toronto Star (March 16, 2015) in which she outlined her passions: she believes in saving the environment so she joins campaigns to plant trees; she loves to play with her boys in the snow; she even shovels snow (in Canada this is a full-time job in winter!) and also volunteers her time at women’s shelter, for political candidates and at school.
“I also wear a niqab,” she wrote in her opinion column. “And according to my prime minister, that is all you need to know about me to know that I am oppressed.” She went on, “It’s precisely because I won’t listen to how other people want me to live my life that I wear a niqab. Some of my own family members have asked me to remove it. I have told them that I prefer to think for myself.”
Does this sound like a woman who is oppressed? Zunera Ishaq further wrote, “My desire to live on my own terms is also why I have chosen to challenge the government’s decision to deny me citizenship unless I take off my niqab at my oath ceremony… I will not take my niqab off at that same ceremony for the sole reason that someone else doesn’t like it, even if that person happens to be Stephen Harper.”
Her courageous stand against the hysteria Harper and his cronies have deliberately tried to whip up has garnered her support from unexpected quarters. For the first time, most mainstream media outlets reached out to niqabi women to find out the reasons behind their decision. In addition to the Toronto Star, the CBC’s radio program, “The Current” also interviewed several niqabi women. They spoke eloquently and laid to rest many of the stereotypical assumptions about them. Even the rightwing Muslim-baiting National Post came out in her favour.
In its editorial on February 11, 2015, the Post wrote, “To be sure, Canadian society is predicated on the concept of equality for all — regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation and so forth — and it’s difficult to reconcile that fundamental value with the custom of members of one sex obscuring their faces in public. Nevertheless, Muslim women in Canada are free to wear — or not to wear — a niqab while shopping at the grocery store, teaching a lecture or simply walking down the street. To prohibit them from wearing a face covering during a citizenship oath is as illiberal in its way as requiring them to wear one. It is an arbitrary application of a pointless ban, and the court was right to strike it down.”
Has the Post finally seen the light? We cannot be sure but the fact is Harper’s stand is so outlandish that it has forced many of his traditional supporters also to distance themselves from him. He has also been widely derided in the foreign media including the Independent of Britain (March 22). Given that Canada seldom gets a mention in any foreign media, Harper’s stand has attracted the kind of negative comment abroad that Canadians could well do without.
Most niqabi women — and there are only a handful of them — say that prior to Harper’s derision of their dress and making it an issue, they had encountered few problems. Zunera Ishaq recounted one episode on a bus ride when a woman sitting next to her asked if she remained covered at home as well. When she replied in the negative, the woman then asked if she had difficulty breathing. She assured the woman she could breathe just fine!
Harper’s anti-niqab diatribes have emboldened racists and bigots inside and outside his party to come out openly against immigrants in general and Muslims in particular. Larry Miller, a Conservative backbench MP from rural Ontario, told a radio station, Muslim women should “stay the hell where they came from” if they wish to keep their faces covered during citizenship ceremony! When his remarks caused a storm, Miller apologised but it was clear he was only going through the motions for damage control reasons. The conservative backbencher appeared not to be familiar with the Citizenship Act but that is not surprising since most racists have a reputation for being ignorant.
The latest Canada-wide study of public opinion conducted for Abacusdata by Bruce Anderson & David Coletto included questions about the rights of Muslim women to wear the hijab or the niqab. They also showed respondents pictures of both garments, and asked separate questions about each. They found some interesting responses. We reproduce a sampling of these findings to get a better sense of how people perceive these issues:
• 51% “feel uncomfortable around women wearing” a niqab — 22% in the case of a hijab;
• Over half (56%) “prefer if women in Canada did not wear the niqab in public places”; 33% feel that way about the hijab;
• Still, in answer to another question, more than half (55%) found themselves agreeing that “it should be a matter of personal choice in Canada if a woman wishes to wear” a niqab; 73% say that about a hijab. The only subgroup where the majority feels otherwise about the niqab is among Bloc Quebecois voters;
• Even more — 64% — agreed, “regardless of whether I like the niqab, it’s not really my place to say what others should or shouldn’t wear.” 77% said the same about the hijab;
• 38% believe “all women who wear a niqab do so because they are forced to by men”, and 28% feel that way about the hijab. The majority feel that some women who wear a hijab (71%) or niqab (58%) “do so as a matter of their own personal choice”;
• 62% agree that they “the Muslim faith is in some ways ‘anti-women.’ However the same proportion (61%) agreed, “I think many religions could be described as somewhat ‘anti women.’” (Bruce Anderson & David Coletto, Niqabs, Hijabs, Anxiety and Accommodation, http://abacusdata.ca/niqabs-hijabs-anxiety-and-accommodation/ — March 25, 2015).
The responses clearly show a confused population. Even while feeling “uncomfortable” around niqabi and hijabi women (will they bite them?), and while a clear majority (56%) preferred they not wear the niqab in public, the same percentage (55%) agreed, “it should be a matter of personal choice in Canada if a woman wishes to wear [a niqab].” An even greater percentage (73% say) that about the hijab. What is equally revealing is that 64% of respondents agreed, “regardless of whether I like the niqab, it’s not really my place to say what others should or shouldn’t wear.” The response to the right to don the hijab was even higher: 77%.
What the survey indicates is how Harper and his minions have poisoned the atmosphere in Canada. Muslims have been presented as “outsiders” by fear-mongering and spreading hate.
Given the controversy her courageous stand has generated, it would be appropriate to give Sister Zunera Ishaq the last word. She wrote in her opinion piece in the Toronto Star (March 16), “I am not looking for Mr. Harper to approve my life choices or dress. I am certainly not looking for him to speak on my behalf and “save” me from oppression, without even ever having bothered to reach out to me and speak with me.”
She is still willing to join the conversation about herself when she offered, “And now that Mr. Harper is so busy speaking about me in public, I am looking for him to include me in the discussion.” She should not expect a phone call from Harper or any of his minions anytime soon. They are neither interested in speaking to her or deal with her in a fair and decent manner. They deliberately instigated the controversy to play on people’s ignorance and unfounded fears.
What Canadians need to do — and there is a clear majority of them as was evident from the massive numbers that came out across Canada against Bill C-51 on March 14 and almost every speaker at those rallies spoke against Harper’s Islamophobic agenda — is to turf out this government in the next election. Canadians can do without the politics of division and hate. They certainly deserve better.