Niqab debate at the heart of Canada’s election campaign

Friday 16/10/2015
Opposing the ban. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair speaks at a campaign rally in London, Ontario, on October 4, 2015.

Ottawa - The niqab — the face-cov­ering garment worn by many Muslim women — has become an issue in Canada’s upcoming elec­tions. Some promote the garment as a sign of oppression, while oth­ers see it as a matter of freedom of expression and religion.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Conservative Party leader, has drawn the issue of the niqab into his campaign. He prom­ised to implement a ban on federal civil servants wearing niqabs or burkas if his government is re-elect­ed in the October 19th election.
Harper also said he would create a “barbaric cultural practices hot­line”, a police tip line that has been described by Harper’s critics as a fear-mongering and divisive tactic.
Harper said he wants to follow what the provincial government of Quebec has implemented through Bill 94, which requires women working with the public sector to remove their face coverings.
“The ban is illegal,” said Raja Khouri, president of the Canadian Arab Institute and a commissioner with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. “The human rights laws in this country and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms offer pro­tection for religious observers.”
The niqab debate has been ac­tive in Quebec for some time but it is a relatively new issue for the rest of Canada. In 2011, Jason Kenney, then citizenship and immigration minister, issued a policy that re­quired Muslim women to remove face veils while taking the oath at citizenship ceremonies.
The issue gained national at­tention in 2014 when 29-year-old Mississauga resident Zunera Ishaq challenged the regulation and re­fused to take her niqab off during her citizenship oath.
Ishaq won a legal battle against the Conservative government in 2015. The Federal Court ruled the ban of individuals’ face coverings during the citizenship oath was un­lawful.
Ishaq took her oath of citizen­ship on October 9th while wear­ing a niqab. In an interview with CBC News she said that becoming a Canadian citizen has confirmed her belief in the justice system of Canada. “I was feeling in the oath, that definitely this is the country to whom I have to be loyal,” Ishaq said.
Ishaq, who arrived in Canada from Pakistan in 2008, said no one in her family wore the niqab or the hijab and indicated that wearing the veil was her personal choice. As a new citizen, Ishaq will be able to vote in the October 19th federal election.
Opponents of the niqab argue that women wearing them conceal their identities and are oppressed by their families. Many Muslim women have said they would show their faces to government officials to verify identity but refuse the no­tion that the government should be able to impose a specific dress code on them.
“This is a trend. We’ve seen this happening a lot in Europe. It’s still there and now it is reaching us here in North America,” said Monia Mazigh, a Canadian writer and hu­man rights advocate, who in a 2014 novel, Mirrors and Mirages, high­lights the traditional clothes worn by Muslim women.
“It’s the consequence of the whole international situation that is not only about the niqab but it’s about the demonisation of Mus­lims,” she added. “Stephen Harper saw a political opportunity to do it.”
Results of a taxpayer-funded poll suggest strong public support for the Conservative stance on the niqab during citizenship cer­emonies. The poll, which Harper ordered, indicated that 82% of Ca­nadians asked said they favoured the ban somewhat or strongly, with 15% opposed. Support for the pol­icy was stronger in Quebec, where 93% stated they were in favour of the requirement.
Considering that just 3.2% of the population in Canada is Muslim and very few women wear the niqab it is striking that the issue has raised so much controversy.
The New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberal Party, two major federal parties, oppose the Con­servative stance on the niqab. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair accused Harper of playing “identity poli­tics”, while Liberal leader Justin Trudeau insisted that Harper was trying to use the issue to “distract and deflect from his failures on the economy”.
Khouri said the timing of the election has “sensationalised” the niqab issue, suggesting that it has probably been discussed much more than issues of greater impor­tance, such as climate change and the economy.
“It’s unfortunate that it has be­come a political football,” said Khouri. “It forces a group of Cana­dians who are Muslims or Arabs to become defensive.”