Veiled prejudices: Muslim-Canadian women speak out on niqab debate

“Harper saying when women shouldn’t wear the niqab is as wrong as my country saying that women should cover their hair.”

While other party leaders accuse the Conservatives of dividing Canadians over a minor issue, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is adamant to unveil the truth beyond the niqab and set things straight. He has promised to “look at” extending Quebec’s Bill 62 across the federal bureaucracy – supposedly in the name of fostering neutrality – and forbid civil servants and those accessing government services from wearing face-covering veils. 

Is Harper trying to scare new Canadians into not voting by publicly attacking minority faiths and traditions? If you’re worried about how you look or how you dress, will the desire to mark your ‘x’ on the ballot be stronger? Is Harper’s reference to new/old stock Canadians only one more Conservative strategy to split voters?

Zunera Ishaq went to court to fight and win the right to become a Canadian citizen on her own terms: wearing her niqab during her swearing-in ceremony October 9. And she intends to wear it when she votes October 19. Ishaq considers the niqab a symbol of her religion. It was her choice to start wearing at 15, in Pakistan, against her parents’ wishes. No man ordered her to wear it. So, no man should order her to take it off.  

Nada, a Muslim woman who immigrated to Canada from Syria in 2000 agrees with that sentiment, although she doesn’t view the veil as a religious symbol. “It’s a way of wearing clothes. People are free to wear what they want to wear, the same as they pierce their noses, have tattoos.” 

Dilyana Mincheva of Trent University’s cultural studies department says the Koran doesn’t prescribe that women must cover their faces or their bodies. “Verses of the Curtain” mentions the veil with regard to the Prophet Muhammad’s wives: “Believers, do not enter the houses of the Prophet for a meal without waiting for the proper time, unless you are given leave… If you ask his wives for anything, speak to them from behind a curtain. This is more chaste for your hearts and their hearts.” 

Mincheva emphasizes that, historically, spiritual and legal authorities of Islam have interpreted those passages from the Muslim holy book as strict prescriptions with regard to female dress code. But “in this particular Koranic passage, the Arabic word ‘hijab’ means ‘curtain’ (or physical separation) rather than veiling of the face.” 

Yet, the veiling of women is not an Islamic innovation but a Persian and Byzantine-Christian custom that Islam gradually adopted and adapted, insisting “on Muslim women’s protection and distinction from their Western counterparts.” 

Mincheva explains that it has become a more pronounced religious identity marker only in the 19th-century when colonialism, feminism, and Western modernity deeply penetrated the Arab and the Muslim world and, along with the political changes, triggered self-affirming Islamic responses.

Bahman and his wife Mina know this all too well. They came from Iran in 2003. Mina’s gleaming blonde hair freely falls onto her shoulders. 

But Mina had to wear a hijab in public in Iran, which is mandatory, or risk being arrested, according to a law reinstated in 1983. In 2014, London-based Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad initiated an online movement, My Stealthy Freedom, asking for Iranian women’s right “to choose whether they want hijabinstead of being forced by law

Mina hoped Canada would be different: “Harper saying when women shouldn’t wear the niqab is as wrong as my country saying that women should cover their hair.” 

Halima, a Muslim woman from Sarajevo, describes the debate over niqabs as “idiotic.”

She came to Canada as a refugee during the Yugoslav wars. That country’s former communist regime adopted a law in 1950 banning veiling in the name of liberating women from patriarchy. According to Behar Sadriu, a PhD candidate in international studies at the University of London, many protested the law but 20,000 – 30,000 women were “forced to remove their veils from 1947 to 1950.”   

While niqabs and hijabs (hair coverings) reappeared on the streets of Kosovo after the fall of communism, a new controversy erupted in 2009 when an order of the minister of education at the time banned all “religious symbols” in public schools. The issue came under the spotlight during the 2013 municipal elections in Kosovo when a Muslim girl was expelled from school for wearing a niqab. Sound familiar?  

The Harper government isn’t the first in Canada to take issue with people’s faiths and dress codes. If covering too much makes the Canadian government nervous in 2015, showing too much made it fume more than 50 years ago. During the 1950s and 1960s, Sons of Freedom, a small but radical group of the Russian Doukhobors religious sect in British Columbia, organized nude protests (among other actions) against land seizures by the government and compulsory education in government-run schools. The government responded by banning public nudity. 

Protesters had their children seized by police and schooled in a compound out of reach of their parents. When the survivors demanded an apology and compensation, the BC government needed almost 15 years to issue “a statement of regret.” 

The Doukhobors didn’t vote. They rejected secular governments. But for so-called “new Canadians,” many of them refugees or from countries with dictatorships and where it doesn’t matter whom you vote for, casting a ballot in their adopted country is even more important. 

Nada didn’t vote immediately after she became a Canadian citizen. She felt she still didn’t know enough about Canadian parties or politics. And the information offered during the election campaigns was never enough: “I read mainly [about issues] targeting the people who are born here and know the life here,” she says.

Bahman agrees that new Canadians need to be educated about Canadian politics. 

“I know Muslims who’ll vote for Harper because they fear the others are too liberal. They don’t want a Kathleen Wynne in the federal government.” 

The ethnic press is of little help, Bahman argues. Most newcomers read mainly community magazines in their own languages, which mainly report on their home countries. “These publications,” says Bahman, “should also focus on what’s happening in Canada, the country we chose to live in.”

Bahman doesn’t need any persuading to go to the polls. When he invited his parents to visit from Iran, because there’s no Canadian embassy there, they had to go to Turkey to apply for a visa. There they were fingerprinted. 

“They spent a lot of money and it was very insulting for me … after I lived in Canada for so many years.”

Maria, a Romanian-born professor, is also eager to vote but for different reasons: “As a new Canadian, I must influence the government’s attitude towards immigrants. It’s [becoming] harder and harder to gain citizenship.” 

Indeed, the Conservative government’s Bill C-24, among other measures, extends the period one has to live in Canada to four out of the last six years (instead of the current three years out of four). “Citizenship is not a right it is a privilege,” citizenship and immigration minister Chris Alexander stated at a 2014 news conference.

A “right” that comes with the duty to vote. Don’t let any fabricated debate scare you off. 

Diana Manole, a native of Romania, is a poet, journalist and academic. | @nowtoronto

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