Zunera Ishaq, who challenged ban on niqab, takes citizenship oath wearing it

Zunera Ishaq, the Ontario woman who won court battles affirming her right to wear a niqab while taking the citizenship oath, finally took part in the ceremony on Friday.

Teacher from Pakistan calls all the political heat on her 'sad' and 'disappointing'

Watch: Zunera Ishaq takes her citizenship oath

8 years ago
Duration 2:47
Featured VideoOntario woman who won court battles affirming her right to wear a niqab becomes a Canadian citizen

The Ontario woman who won court battles affirming her right to wear a niqab while taking the citizenship oath finally took part in the ceremony on Friday afternoon.

Zunera Ishaq cried as she took the oath at a government building in Mississauga, Ont., west of Toronto. 

"Thank you so much for honouring me here today," she said.

Zunera Ishaq holds her citizenship certificate after swearing the oath on Friday afternoon. She started wearing a niqab at age 15, against her family's wishes. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

Afterward, in an interview with CBC News, Ishaq said it meant a lot for her to finally get Canadian citizenship.

"It actually confirmed my belief in the justice system of ... Canada," she said. 

During the ceremony, Ishaq said, her affection for her new country caused her to well up.

"I was feeling pretty much that love which I already have in my, within myself for Canada. And you know, the same feelings as I was feeling in the oath, that definitely this is the country to whom I have to be loyal."

Ishaq, 29, came to Canada from Pakistan in 2008 and gained permanent residency, but has been through a long legal fight to be able to take the citizenship oath while wearing a niqab. 

On Monday, the Federal Court of Appeal paved the way for today's ceremony, dismissing a motion by the federal government to suspend a recent ruling that supported Ishaq's legal fight.

The federal government plans to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada, but the Appeal Court cleared the way for her to wear the face-covering veil during the swearing-in, in time to vote in the Oct. 19 general election.

Even so, right before Friday's ceremony, Ishaq showed her face to an official to confirm her identify.

Ishaq first challenged the government's niqab policy, introduced in 2011, when she was scheduled to take the oath last year.

She said she was willing to remove the veil for the purposes of identification, but refused to do the same during the public ceremony, citing religious beliefs.

"It is a religious duty of mine to cover my face in public at all times," she told CBC on Oct. 8 in an interview with Anna Maria Tremonti, host of CBC Radio's The Current.

The legal battle became an issue in the final federal leaders' debate on Oct. 2 and garnered more attention this week when Conservatives Leader Stephen Harper said his government, if re-elected, would examine whether public servants should be forbidden from wearing the niqab.

Ishaq called the Conservatives' political posturing over her niqab "not the respectable way."  

"It is a little sad, as well as a little disappointing for me as well, that this personal choice of mine has nothing to do with anyone, and it ... has been taken to this political game."

Ishaq and her husband, who sponsored her, are raising a family in Mississauga.

In Pakistan, she was a high school teacher. She says she has plans to return to the workforce "very soon," and is preparing for certification from the Ontario College of Teachers.

Asked about Harper's latest comment on the issue, she said it adds to the "negativity" facing a "small group" of people she says are peaceful, open and loyal to Canada.

'I'm feeling a little unsafe'

Tremonti asked Ishaq how she is being treated in public.

"I'm feeling a little unsafe. People are staring at me very keenly and some of the body language is telling me something is wrong," she said.

She said while people around her are generally respectful, she has heard a few negative comments while shopping in the last two weeks, words like "go back to your country" and "ninjas are coming to attack."  She said she has never experienced that before.

"It is very strange for me now," she said.

Ishaq started wearing the niqab at age 15, even though her family did not believe it was necessary to wear either the veil, or the head scarf, known as a hijab.

"My mother and other family members tried to convince me not to wear it at a very young age," she said, adding that some were "irritated" by her decision.

Her father, a professor of economics, told her he would not force her to take it off, but urged her to be "clear about it."

Ishaq celebrates with her husband and lawyers at a Tim Hortons after getting her Canadian citizenship on Friday. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

She was also asked on The Current whether her husband was in favour of her wearing it.

"No, not exactly," she said. He wanted to know how it might affect her ability to "move around" in Canada. "But I told him I will figure it out," and later, she found her community to be "very welcoming."

Ishaq's husband also urged her to think about whether she could remove the niqab for the citizenship ceremony and be willing to take on the legal fight.

She said she is aware there is a difference of opinion among Muslim scholars on the veil, with some arguing there is no religious requirement to wear it.

"I would only say that in my case, it was my personal choice. Nobody has ever forced me," she said, adding that she comes from a background where she has "never been forced to do anything."