The current heated debate about Canadian values and religious freedom centers on Zunera Ishaq, a former school teacher from Pakistan now living in Ontario.
Ishaq is fully eligible for Canadian citizenship, and wants to wear her niqab with pride as she becomes a citizen of Canada.
Her religious convictions led her to postpone attending her citizenship ceremony last year and challenge the Harper government over its policy of not allowing facial coverings while being sworn-in at the citizenship ceremony.
Now that a Ontario judge has ruled that this policy is unlawful, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has vowed to appeal the ruling, saying that “it is not how we do things here”.
“I believe, and I think most Canadians believe that it is — it is offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family,” he said.
“This is a society that is transparent, open and where people are equal, and that is just, I think we find that offensive; that is not acceptable to Canadians and we will proceed with action on that.”
However, critics argue that Harper’s comments run contrary to the government’s much-publicized stance on religious freedom and religious diversity, pointing out that it was this government that started the Office of Religious Freedom, an organization whose sole purpose is to protect the right to the freedom of religion or belief of minorities around the world.
The current furor around the issue stems from the feeling that the government’s official position of backing religious freedom doesn’t extend to the personal decisions of devout Muslim women. As Ishaq clearly pointed out, her decision to wear the niqab is her own, and it is not because of family pressure. Moreover, Ishaq is willing to remove her niqab prior to the citizenship ceremony to allow verification of her identity.
The government would be hard pressed to prove any conflict between Ishaq’s beliefs and the aim of the citizenship ceremony. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states, “Everyone has… freedom of conscience and religion.” Even though these freedoms are subject to “such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”, the government would find it next to impossible to prove that its policy of forbidding religious face coverings in citizenship ceremonies is reasonable or justifiable in a free and democratic society.
The lack of a sound legal footing was emphasized by Justice Keith Boswell in his ruling overturning the ban, with Justice Boswell pointing out that the government’s own regulations require the oath be administered with “dignity and solemnity, allowing the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization or the solemn affirmation thereof.”
The Prime Minister’s insistence on sticking to his guns on this issue is seen by many as regressive, with the policy not only being unfair and undemocratic, but also putting the government on shaky legal footing while lowering Canada’s moral standing.
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.
Jason Kenney, the immigration minister in 2011, had banned niqabs during swearing-in ceremonies. Before this ban, wearing a niqab on such occasions had been perfectly acceptable. According to his argument (which he gave in an interview in 2012), taking the citizenship oath is “a declaration of your membership in the community and you do that in front of your fellow citizens in public.”
Kenney recently tweeted his support for this policy when a woman took his government to court on the grounds that banning her right to wear a niqab violates her rights under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Kenney’s stance is complicated since it was him who had last year supported the rights of women to wear niqabs at work after a debate had ensued on whether women who are caregivers to children should be allowed to wear a veil.
Many Canadians had argued that people caring for other people’s children should not wear conspicuous religious clothing, especially something that covers their faces. However majority supported women’s decision. Kenny had at that time made the statement, “We believe that freedom of religion and conscience are universal values.”
Many Canadians like Kenney seem to believe that while it is ok for a woman in Canada to live and work while wearing a niqab, it is inappropriate to do so during a citizenship swearing-in ceremony. Their argument is that since Canada is a multicultural country that protects citizens’ religious freedoms, it is not too much to ask for Muslim women to set these freedoms aside for a occasion as important as taking an oath of citizenship. They say that Muslim women should respect Canada’s request with the same openness and spirit of accommodation with which Canada is willing to respect their religious freedoms.
However on the other side, the critics of the ban believe that a religious freedom is a religious freedom and not something that one practices only for the convenience of the wider society. The critics say that Canadian courts have recognized that it might be vital to ask Muslim women to remove their niqabs while testifying in criminal court cases if doing otherwise might jeopardize a fair trial. However, they point out, the oath ceremony of citizenship is hardly as critical to impose such a ban.
Source: Globe & Mail