Last week after the Federal Court of Appeal quashed the Harper government’s attempt to ban face coverings at citizenship ceremonies there were many conservative South Asians and Muslims who were thrilled with the ‘victory’. The woman at the heart of the controversy is Zunera Ishaq, a Pakistani immigrant who came over in 2008. She refuses to take off her niqab at the citizenship swearing as it is a religious and cultural requirement of her faith, furthermore she believes it is her right to wear the niqab and would not be comfortable exposing her face at the ceremony.
Back on 24th July, three sisters, Alysha Mohamed and her two sisters, Tameera and Nadia, also of Pakistani origin
were out cycling topless in Kitchener when they a male police officer informed them that being topless was illegal and they needed to cover up. The girls protested, It was their right to go topless. Hundreds came out in their support on August 1st at a Bare With Us Rally.
Back in 1991, Gwen Jacob of Guelph, Ontario was feeling really hot so she removed her shirt and was promptly charged with indecency. The matter was settled by the Ontario Court of Appeal in 1996 and women have the right to go out in public topless. Having won that landmark right, when was the last time you saw a woman topless walking down Hurontario Street or in Malton? As a man I have to say with a heavy heart that even I don’t think it would be good for women or society to have women parading around topless. So fighting for such a right may be okay in principle but not in practice.
Democracy is a wonderful thing and many immigrants in particular who’ve come from countries where rights is an alien concept, fighting for rights and claiming discrimination is a novelty.
Zunera Ishaq and dozens of others women may be able to take their citizenship oaths without having to remove their niqabs, but to me this so-called victory is actually a public relations disaster. Canadians overwhelmingly either strongly disapprove or have mixed feelings about the niqab which incidentally isn’t a religious requirement like say the Sikh Turban. Furthermore many people feel uncomfortable seeing a woman’s face covered, it would be just as uncomfortable if one is confronted with a topless woman. Imagine a woman who decides to take her Canadian citizenship oath without her shirt. With rights come responsibility.
It also must be remembered that Canadians right across the political spectrum are opposed to immigrants being allowed to wear facial coverings during the citizenship ceremony, according to the latest results from Vote Compass, CBC’s online voter engagement survey.
I’ve spoken to a couple of liberated Muslim women who believe that Zunera Ishaq should have relented on the issue of removing her niqab at a citizenship swearing. It would be a gesture of good faith and consistent with what is expected here in Canada. It isn’t that her right to wearing niqab in public was being taken away. Such needless battles only ends up hurting the cause of ethnic minorities.
By fighting and winning battles that are mostly of symbolic value, the real issues rarely get the attention they deserve. So much time and effort is put into fighting for religious and cultural rights that really important issues like ending discriminatory hiring practices or so much institutionalized racism gets pushed to the back burners.
Winning battles in court is often a lot easier than winning the hearts and minds of people.