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Behind the veil: Zunera Ishaq on her controversial niqab

The woman whose niqab has become an election issue wonders how she became quite this divisive


 
Zunera Ishaq, the woman who launched the legal challenge against Ottawa's niqab ban at citizenship oath-taking ceremony poses for pictures in her home. (Vince Talotta/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

Zunera Ishaq, the woman who launched the legal challenge against Ottawa’s niqab ban at citizenship oath-taking ceremony poses for pictures in her home. (Vince Talotta/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

Zunera Ishaq suggests her case is a distraction. “I can’t understand why the state is making it a big issue and such a political environment, when so many other things need to be taken care of,” she says. And yet her case is now a matter for the federal election campaign.

Ishaq is the Toronto woman who, in 2014, challenged the government’s policy that those attempting to complete their application for citizenship be required to fully display their faces when swearing the citizenship oath. Ishaq, originally from Pakistan and a permanent resident of Canada since 2008, has worn a niqab since she was 15 as a matter of her Muslim faith. Although she says she is willing to lift her veil to confirm her identity, she refuses to do so during the public citizenship ceremony. The government’s policy dates to 2011, when then-immigration minister Jason Kenney announced a new rule that would ban face coverings during citizenship ceremonies, both to ensure that new citizens were saying the oath and because saying the oath is a “quintessentially public act” that must be taken “freely and openly.”

That this has become a prominent election issue is, in part, a matter of timing. A Federal Court judge struck down the government’s policy in March. The government appealed that ruling, but, last week, the Federal Court of Appeal heard arguments and quickly upheld the earlier result. The federal government then announced it would be asking the Supreme Court to take up the case.

Though Ishaq asserts that being forced to unveil would violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the judges have not actually had to rule on the Charter to dismiss the government’s case. Rather, Justice Keith Boswell ruled that the ban contradicted a regulation requiring citizenship judges to “administer the oath of citizenship with dignity and solemnity, allowing the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization or the solemn affirmation thereof.” The government has, unsuccessfully, tried to argue that the ban is not absolute, and that citizenship judges retain the authority to make allowances for anyone who insists on covering her face.

Even if the Supreme Court upholds Boswell’s ruling, the Conservatives have vowed that they will, if they remain in government, move forward with legislation to confirm a ban. “As the Prime Minister has said, most Canadians find it offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family,” Conservative Denis Lebel said in announcing the government’s appeal. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said he would not continue with an appeal if he becomes prime minister. “Any time a government or a leader is in a position to choose to limit minority rights of any type, there has to be a very good justification—a clear and compelling reason to do so,” he said last week. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of playing a “very divisive game” with the issue and that the “courts have spoken in this case.”

Public opinion surveys do show a high degree of support for banning the niqab during the oath; 72 per cent of respondents to a Vote Compass survey this month disagreed with the suggestion that “immigrants should be allowed to cover their faces for religious reasons while swearing the oath of citizenship.” But Ishaq says those who support a ban are poorly informed and don’t understand that identification is not the issue: She has agreed to identify herself to female officials in relative privacy in other situations. And if the concern is ensuring that Ishaq says the oath out loud, she says an official could simply stand near enough to hear her say it.

Ishaq says her wearing of the niqab is not a matter of oppression, but of personal choice. “If they want to know whether or not the niqab is a sign of oppression, or if they want to know whether or not this niqab is the wrong thing,” she says of those who oppose the niqab, “what they need to do is just come close to us people, the niqabi people, and we just need to get to know each other. And they will be convinced.”

She figures the Conservatives are playing politics with the matter and wonders why the Prime Minister would bother himself with it. “Why is it so important to him to continue playing with this issue? It is only an individual’s right—or you can say an individual’s opinion—that he or she wants to dress up in a certain way,” she says when asked if she’d like to talk to government ministers about the matter. “The state’s business is not to describe the guidelines for the people how they should dress up. The business of the government or the state is much more than that. Why don’t they actually mind their own business and let me dress up in a way in which I want to?”

 


 

Behind the veil: Zunera Ishaq on her controversial niqab

  1. Do you realize that in Ontario you can now vote in a niqab covered face, and a bare bosom?

  2. OK so either (a) the restriction on Zunera is illegal, as determined twice by the Federal Court, or (b) the restriction is not mandatory, as argued by lawyers for and on behalf of the Harper Conservative government. In both cases, Zunera should be allowed to take the oath with the niqab on. I fail to see how the government, having argued that it is not mandatory that she take off her niqab, should then ask for a stay to prevent Zunera from taking the oath with her niqab on pending appeal to the Supreme Court. Talk about sucking and blowing at the same time! This government should stop wasting the court’s time and citizens’ money and find something useful to focus on. On second thought, just keep the nonsense going, Stephen, so people remember why they need to get out and vote against you.

    • Don’t kid yourself – Harper knows full weel they haven’t a snowball’s chance in hell of winning at the courts on this. However, with a significant majority of Canadians (shamefully) agreeing with him on this, he’s hoping it helps at the polls. Dogwhistle politics, like his “old stock” reference.

      I also noticed that the latest CPC ad is 100% white – not a brown-skinned person to be seen. I don’t think that’s accidental, either.

  3. She says her wearing of the niqab is a matter of personal choice, not oppression. This reminds me of the women who defend mysogenistic or oppressive policies and say, “I’m a woman, if I’m ok with it you should be too”, as though women can’t hold discriminatory or oppressive positions about issues affecting women. It comes down to how we have been socialized. Ms Ishaq has been socialized in a culture where oppression of women is normal. Of course she has no problem with it. There are women from Pakistan or India who might defend honour killing in the case of wayward daughters. There are women in Kenya who support female gentital mutilation. Is it oppressive to women if they are ok with it? Of course. Banning the niqab at citizenship ceremonies is our way of stating that whatever oppressive practice your culture brings to Canada, we condemn it. If you can’t start your new life here in your most public Canadian moment by shedding your adherence to an oppressive policy, that speaks volumes about your commitment to your new country.

  4. Everywhere muslims go, they always agitate governments to advance their barbaric sharia nonsense. This is a matter or self preservation, and as Canadians we have to be vigilant not to give in to political demands of this islamic ideology/”religion”.

    Consider the case at York University, or the Halifax Aikido class, etc. They are exclusionary acts, separating women and men. This clearly violates human rights and dignity. They’re aren’t many cases thus far, but look into what’s happening all across Europe and it’s obvious the political climate is intense.

    You can’t be a good muslim and be passive on pushing sharia onto your host country because it’s their duty to push for it! This is a stunt, much like the Ahmed clock thing in the states was a hoax.

    taqiyya – deception of non-believers to advance islam

    And if Islam is the religion of peace, why do their rallies call for the death of _______?

  5. Ms. Ishaq,
    Please answer a question that has been bothering me for a long time. If you say no-one has the right to tell you how to dress, then I assume your husband is okay with you going out without your burka or niqab. Am I right? And if even experts on the Muslim religion (including prominent Muslims) say the niqab or burka is not a religious requirement, then how can you refuse to remove it for a citizenship ceremony? You cannot have it both ways. What is your reason for wearing it? Modesty? Again, this is not a legitimate reason to wear it in a citizenship ceremony. I think Canadians generally believe that a Muslim woman wears a niqab because her husband will not let her go out without it.

  6. Zunera Ishaq is employed by the ICNA Sisters, a branch of the ICNA and is listed as a member of Jamaat-e-Islami.

    Among the guests at the ICNA affiliated Al Falah Institute (“liked” by Zunera Ishaq) has been Khalid Yasin, who says AIDS was created in America and used by Christian missionaries to infect Africans.

    ISNA had its charitable status revoked by the Canada Revenue Agency for funding Jamaat-e-Islami, because it is recognized as an officially designated terrorist entity by our government.

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