A Canadian court has reversed the ban on niqabs or face veils worn by women taking Canadian citizenship oaths. The ban on the niqab was introduced in 2011 and had attracted much controversy with critics calling it “unlawful” as it restricted one’s freedom of religion and was against Canadian values.
In January last year Zunera Ishaq from Pakistan challenged the ban and refused to remove her niqab, saying it violated her religious beliefs. “[The] policy required her to unveil in public when there was truly no need, simply because the niqab did not please the [former Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney],” said Naseem Misthoowani, the lawyer representing Ishaq. “My client feels very strongly that this set a dangerous precedent and the Canadian government has no role in dictating to women what is, or is not, a morally acceptable dress code.”
In the recent ruling, the court said that the government had gone too far by implementing the ban on wearing face veils during citizenship oath ceremonies, and said the ban hindered the citizenship judge’s legal obligation to make sure that the “greatest possible freedom” is given to people taking the Canadian oath of citizenship.
The veil or niqab is a garment worn by some Muslim women and covers the entire face barring the eyes. The government believes that it obstructed judges from recognizing people taking the citizenship oaths, and the ban was an attempt to make the new citizens follow Canadian norms. The government had even refused to consider holding separate ceremonies for women wearing the niqab so that they could unveil only in front of a female judge. “While the government of Canada values the diversity that people of all origins bring to the country, it is reasonable to expect citizenship candidates attending a public civil ceremony to show their faces while reciting the oath,” read a statement issued by the Citizenship and Immigration Ministry.
However critics of the ban say that it reflected “contempt for Canadian values”. Many believed that instead of encouraging integration, the ban created more division amongst people and was likely to make people less likely to “want to belong to a society or to a community that doesn’t accept them”.
According to Audrey Macklin, a law professor from University of Toronto, the verdict is “a nice reminder that actually the status quo in our law was to respect people’s religions, and what the government would have to do then [to implement the ban] is change our law to remove that respect.”
Canada’s Muslim community, however, is divided on the issue of banning the niqab. The ban was supported by the Director of the Muslim Canadian Congress, Munir Pervaiz, who says that Islam does not require women to wear the burqa or niqab. He believes that wearing niqabs could create “exclusion within an inclusive society and we believe that it is wrong.”
On the other hand women who wear niqabs feel that such bans encourage discrimination against them. They say that while it is reasonable to ask women to unveil during identification checks, it was not required during oath ceremonies. “So as long as the woman is not harming anybody or anything by her actions I don’t think that it should be banned, she should be allowed to dress as she sees fit,” says Farhana Lakhi, a resident of Toronto, who wears the niqab.
The Canadian government is appealing the ruling.