The Sunday Magazine

Why Zunera Ishaq should be allowed to wear her niqab when becoming a Canadian - Michael's essay

Why Zunera Ishaq should be allowed to wear the niqab, when being sworn in as a new Canadian citizen.
A woman wears a niqab as she walks Monday, September 9, 2013 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz (The Canadian Press)

In May 2007, after waiting an hour in line, a Sikh man was told he could not enter a restaurant/bar in Richmond Hill, Ontario because he was wearing a turban. The restaurant, it turned out, had a no-headgear policy. 

No toques, no baseball caps, no turbans.

The Sikh tried to explain the religious significance of his turban. Didn’t matter. He and his friend were turned away. 

This happened 17 years after Sikh Mounties were allowed to wear the turban. It happened 14 years after be-turbaned Sikhs were permitted to partake of the delights of Royal Canadian Legion halls.

We seem to have a problem with headgear in this country.

Every couple of decades or so, some argument or other about above-the-collarbone apparel touches off some kind of squabble.

In 2013, a soccer kid in Quebec was told by the Quebec Soccer Federation that he couldn’t play because he wears a small turban. The entire silliness machine kicked into high gear.

The kid’s family was outraged, the media jumped all over it,officials said they would study the matter, the soccer people backed down after international outrage rained down on their contumaciously pointy little heads -- and six months later, nobody had any idea what the fuss was about.

Bravo for good old, invaluable Canadian apathy.

The current hoo-hah involves the wearing by some, not all, Muslim women of the niqab, the face veil.

At the centre of the heated discussion about Canadian values and accommodation and inclusion is a former high school teacher from Pakistan named Zunera Ishaq of Mississauga, Ontario. 

Eleven-year-old Negar Fakhraee, of Iran, takes the oath to become a Canadian citizen during a citizenship ceremony in Vancouver on July 13, 2009. ((Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press))
She is fully qualified for Canadian citizenship, but there is this little sartorial roadblock.

The Conservative government passed a law ordering women to remove the niqab during the swearing-in part of the citizenship ceremony.

She wants to wear her niqab proudly as she becomes a Canadian.

An Ontario judge threw out the law and said Ms. Ishaq could keep her face covering.

Now Prime Minister Stephen Harper has vowed to appeal the judge’s decision and force Ms. Ishaq to relinquish the niqab.

And why? Saith Mr. Harper: “It is not how we do things here.” He all but accused Ms. Ishaq of trying “to hide her identity.”

Disputants have lined up on both sides of the debate.

Those who don’t observe certain religious practices cannot dictate to those who do. That’s the Canadian way.- Haroon Siddiqui i, Toronto Star

Is it really a fight between religious liberty on one side and the duties and responsibilities of citizenship on the other?

Clifford Orwin is a pretty smart cookie, smart cookie being the technical term for a tenured university professor who often embraces controversial views. 

He calls Mr. Harper’s ban on the niqab an attack on individual religious freedom.

But hold fast, Professor. Does it matter if Islam requires the wearing of the niqab as part of its religious practice? Or doesn’t it?

“This is none of a liberal state’s business,” writes Professor Orwin. “This is nobody’s call but Ms. Ishaq’s.”

'This is none of a liberal state’s business. This is nobody's call but Ms. Ishaq's." - Prof. Clifford Orwin

He is echoed in that  by Toronto Star columnist Haroon Siddiqui who points out, ”The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that a religious practice is what a believer sincerely believes it to be.” 

He goes on: “Those who don’t observe certain religious practices cannot dictate to those who do. That’s the Canadian way.”

Personally I don’t like the niqab in the same way I don’t like to see a woman walking several paces behind her husband out of deference.

I don’t like the fact that the Catholic Church won’t even discuss a female priesthood and I don’t like ultra-orthodox Jews who scream at women in slacks in the Mea Shearim neighbourhood of Jerusalem.

New Canadians take the oath of citizenship at a ceremony in Dartmouth on Tuesday, October 14, 2014. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)
On my office wall, I have a poster of the pioneering RCMP Staff Sergeant Baltej Singh Dhillon, looking pretty nifty in his dress scarlet and turban, pretty nifty being the technical term for Mounties and other cops who wear the turban.

Zunera Ishaq sounds like the kind of immigrant this country desperately needs. She should be allowed to wear whatever she wants.






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