Canada has global recognition for its leadership on human rights, diversity and tolerance. Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom was opened in 2013, promising to ‘oppose religious hatred and intolerance.’ In their view, being able to worship in peace and safety is a basic human right.
Following two World Wars, Canada moved to provide a greater protection for basic freedoms, including the freedom of religion. A series of legislations were drawn up, beginning in 1947 with the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights, and ending in 1982 with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which included ‘freedom of conscience and religion’.
The recent events in the Islamic Middle East have apparently driven these Canadian values from the minds of some people, including the head of the Canadian Conservative Party, Stephen Harper. When Pakistani-born teacher Zunera Ishaq received her citizenship, after following her husband to Canada in 2008, Harper’s government decided that she could not receive her citizenship while wearing her niqab.
The niqab is a facial covering worn by many Muslim women, as a symbol of modesty, and faithfulness to her husband. Many are under the impression that Ishaq’s husband forced her into wearing it in public, but this is far from the truth. She says she decided to wear it, as her sisters did, aged 15, before she met her husband. He has never pressured her into wearing it, but she simply feels more comfortable. Most Muslim women who wear it believe they are following God’s injunction, not their husbands.
Discussions around this issue seem to be rife in the West in recent times. The French banned the burqua (full body and facial covering) and niqab as part of its ‘act prohibiting concealment of the face in public’, in 2010. Hundreds of Muslims in Pakistan protested, and many in France were angry. It came to be seen, as with the Ishaq situation, as an obsession with Muslim practices, and an act of fear against Islam.
A major argument against these bans and laws is of course from a feminist perspective. Why is it OK to show mostly naked women on billboards and televisions throughout the country, but not OK for a woman to want to show modesty and cover herself in public? And why are there laws dictating what women can and cannot wear? In some ways this issue has nothing to do with religion: it should be a basic human right for a woman to be allowed to wear whatever she wants in public, free of judgement and harassment.
A case in Australia announced a law that in Federal Parliament, women wearing niqabs would be forced to sit in glass enclosures, rather than public galleries. Miriam Veiszadeh says: ‘’There’s a distinct irony in the suggestion that women who are allegedly forced to wear a facial covering, should be forced not to wear it.’’ Indeed.
The ban on wearing the niqab whilst receiving citizenship was ‘dictated’ by ex-immigration officer Jason Kenney, driven by his own ideology of Canadian values. In December 2011 he brought in the ban in an operation manual, rather than through new legislation. He said ‘’cultural tradition… reflects a certain view about women that we don’t accept in Canada.’’ He says that Canada should make sure that women are full and equal members of society and the citizenship oath is a good place to start.
Canada’s federal court had already ruled that the 29 year old Ishaq, a teacher and mother of four children, can wear the niqab when she takes her oath of citizenship. To everyone’s astonishment, Harper’s government decided to appeal against the ruling. The appeal was turned down, but the government then announced that it would take it all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court. What Harper didn’t bank on was Ishaq’s fighting spirit. She had already fought her university teachers in her native Lahore for the right to wear a veil, and she was discriminated against in examinations for her insistence on wearing her niqab in front of her male teachers.
When the original bill was brought in in 2011, Conservative Party spokesperson Stephen Lecce “We believe that covering your face during a citizenship ceremony – at the very moment that you are welcomed into the Canadian family – is contrary to the Canadian values of openness and equality”. Ishaq states that she is happy to uncover her face in front of an official to confirm her identity, so this issue is unclear. Surely refusing religious or cultural freedom is much more ‘’contrary to Canadian values of openness and equality.’’
Ishaq is convinced that the government are using this issue to gain political success, thinking the country will back anything that is against Islam. She says ‘’I have nothing to do with it.’’ Harper’s government had a mean response to the Muslim refugee crisis in Europe, and many are convinced that this campaign against Ishaq is another attempt to make people feel insecure around Islam. Perhaps the government should spend time and effort on helping the refugee crisis, rather than on trying to refuse a woman who has already gained Canadian citizenship, from claiming that citizenship.
Ishaq mounted a legal challenge in 2012, arguing that the ban was discriminating against her and her religious beliefs. The trial ‘’Face-Coverings and the Canadian Citizenship Oath: The Federal Court of Appeal Decides Ishaq v Canada’’ begins.
Boswell stated that one cannot ‘’determine what degree of freedom is possible if they instead… ensure that candidates for citizenship have been seen, face uncovered, taking the oath.’’ His stance was not on whether her rights have been violated, but on the legality of the ban. Courts will use the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a last resort, and will aim to resolve any issue without using it. Boswell aimed for focus on whether the government had violated its own law- The Citizenship Act.
The Citizenship Act states that a citizenship judge shall ‘’administer the oath of citizenship with dignity and solemnity, allowing the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization.’’ Kenney’s policy manual that banned the wearing of the niqab while taking the oath contradicted this statement. He gave a hypothetical example of a monk who had taken a vow of silence, and someone who is mute. Should the monk be forced to betray his vow, while another is physically incapable of speaking?
The judge states that by trying to trump the act, the minister himself is acting unlawfully. Government lawyers replied that there was no contradiction between the act and the minister’s policy manual. The banning of veils was not mandatory, but more of a guideline, that could be disregarded by citizenship judges. Which begs the question: then what is all the fuss about?
The Conservative party appealed the court’s decision, but the unanimous bench upheld Boswell’s decision. Boswell says that the policy manual makes it perfectly clear that banning veils was not a suggestion or ‘guideline’ at all, but says that if face-coverings are not removed, the certificate ‘’is NOT to be presented.’’
The decision was appealed again, and the trial brought before Canada’s highest court. It touches a deeply political issue, which elicited responses from many government officials, political commentators and activists, in Canada and abroad. Ishaq found herself the face of a political election issue. Harper promised that if he was elected, the niqab ban would stand. A Liberal spokesperson says it divides people over an unnecessary issue.
After three years of trials and appeals, the Appeal Court cleared the way for Ishaq to wear her niqab during the citizenship oath on 9th October, in time for her to vote in the general elections on the 19th. She says the decision confirmed her belief in the justice system of Canada, and that she has an overwhelming affection for her new country. Ishaq took her oath wearing a pink and white veil, amid much media attention.
In spite of her love for Canada, Ishaq says that the media attention has meant that she is receiving unwanted attention in public. People staring and making comments such as ‘’go back to your country’’, are becoming common. Despite some people making her feel unsafe, she has found her community to be ‘very welcoming’, and knows she will work out how to integrate into citizenship life in Canada.
Harper is still on a rampage against the niqab, saying that if he is ever re-elected, the ban will re-instated. Apparently the niqab-ban case had cost the government upwards of $257,000. Would this money not have been better spent helping Syrian refugees in Europe, or even on improving lives of immigrants within Canada?