There are a few things Zunera Ishaq wants to set straight about the veil she wears in public.
Nobody is forcing her to cover up, she says. It is a “personal choice” and a way to assert her identity and show her devotion to her Muslim faith.
There is nothing oppressive, either, about wearing a niqab. If anything, it is a “symbol of empowerment.”
This conviction emboldened the former high school teacher from Pakistan to postpone attending her citizenship ceremony last year and go toe-to-toe with the Harper government over its policy forbidding the wearing of facial coverings during the swearing-in part of the ceremony.
“I gathered the courage and decided to speak out,” said the 29-year-old Mississauga, Ont., resident in an extended conversation with the National Post this weekend. “I decided to raise my voice so that I can challenge this policy, which was a personal attack on me and Muslim women like me.”
Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled that the policy — introduced in 2011 by then-immigration minister Jason Kenney — was unlawful. But Stephen Harper vowed to appeal the ruling, saying it was “offensive” that someone would “hide their identity” at the point they are being sworn in. “It is not how we do things here,” he said.
Ms. Ishaq, who has made it clear she has no problem unveiling herself in a private room to confirm her identity, said she was shocked and upset over the prime minister’s remarks.
She said she is determined to keep fighting the policy because she worries it could lead to restrictions on other “distinguishing cultural practices,” such as forcing Sikhs to remove their turbans. It is not just a matter of religious freedom but basic human rights, she said.
“This is the beautiful part of Canada — every person here is free to live in a way in which he or she feels it is right or not,” she said. “It’s my personal faith so let me do what I wish to do.”
Ms. Ishaq says she and her husband were drawn to Canada in 2008 by its diversity and safe neighbourhoods.
While Ms. Ishaq knows some Muslim women who stopped wearing veils after moving to Canada, she said she saw no need to stop the practice. She acknowledges that some wives and daughters are forced by their families to wear a niqab, but it has always been a personal decision for her going back to when she was 15.
“It is obligatory to cover myself when I’m going out,” she said.
The question of whether wearing a niqab is religiously mandated has been debated by Muslim scholars for centuries. According to a study released last year by the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, niqab-wearing women in Canada constitute a very small sub-culture sustained by “determined individuals.”
Their reasons for wearing one are highly personal and individual, the study reported, but “religious obligation” and “expression of Muslim identity” were cited most often. Many women wear a niqab against family wishes, the study noted.
Ms. Ishaq says there is often a perception that niqab-wearing women are uneducated or unable to talk. She says she happily engages curious strangers in conversation.
One time, a woman sitting next to her on a bus asked if she remained covered at home. She told her that she did not. The woman then asked if she had difficulty breathing. She assured her she could breathe just fine.
“When she left, she shook hands with me,” Ms. Ishaq recalled.
Not all encounters end that way. One niqab-wearing woman told the study that she was at a grocery store when a lady came up to her and tugged at her niqab. “She says to me, ‘How can you breathe?’ And I said, ‘Come on, I can breathe, which is why I am walking here freely. I can see you, my hands are free, my eyes can see, I can hear everything.’ The woman was very rude.”
Another study participant reported standing in line at the store when an older man approached and said, “You’re in Canada now, you don’t have to do it, haven’t you learned something?”
“He was an old man, so I didn’t want to disrespect him or be rude. But I said, ‘I know that I’m in Canada, please learn something from me.’”
For the past seven years, Ms. Ishaq says she has strived to immerse herself in Canadian culture while caring for her three young sons. She’s helped organize a children’s festival, taken part in tree-planting events and helped raise funds for a women’s shelter.
“If you are here you have to do something [for] the community you are living in,” she said. “I think all these things should be enough to prove that I’m not someone who is a stranger here.”
Some of Ms. Ishaq’s relatives wish she would just accept the government’s policy and get her citizenship. But she says her parents taught her and her siblings to be independent thinkers.
When citizenship officials offered to place her at the front or back of the ceremony to limit the number of eyes that could fall on her, she immediately rejected it. After checking out YouTube videos of past ceremonies, she knew photographers could be in the room. Why put herself through such a “traumatic situation?” she said.
In a recent interview with the CBC, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said he worries that those who defend the idea of keeping women behind a niqab are also those who say that we don’t need to protect women from violence and abuse.
The government seems to be sending mixed messages — depicting niqab-wearing women as victims who are forced to wear a veil and as aggressors who can’t be trusted to say the oath of citizenship, said Natasha Bakht, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.
Ms. Bakht, whose research focuses on religious freedom and women’s equality, said she is troubled that women who wear bikinis or undergo cosmetic surgery are assumed to be making those choices freely. Yet, when women wear niqabs, it is assumed they’ve been “duped” and don’t have the capacity to make their own choices.
Ms. Bakht accused the government of perpetuating a “moral panic” over the niqab issue, and says its stance runs contrary to Canada’s values of accommodation and diversity. “The government should never be in the business of telling women what to wear,” she said.