Canadian Politics, Unveiled

Could a Niqab Ban Decide the Election?

Family at a protest in Quebec in 2010. They were protesting a proposed bill that would outlaw Muslim women in Quebec who wear a niqab from accessing any government services. scottmontreal / Flickr

Rezan Mosa is a 22-year-old Vancouver-born Canadian. She is completing a double major in sociology and religious studies at Western University in London, Ontario, and works at the local campus bookstore. Rezan is also a Muslim and, about 18 months ago, she began wearing the face-covering niqab. “It was a decision I made myself and it was very empowering for me,” she says. Although her friends supported her decision, her family was more reluctant. (No other women in her immediate or extended family wear the niqab.) Her father in particular worried about the impact it would have on her life—and how she would be treated in public. His fears have been borne out over the last month and a half. On about three or four occasions, passersby have told her to “Go back to your country” or that “This is Canada.” Rezan had heard these kinds of comments in the past—many Muslim women in Canada have—but she says the frequency has increased ever since the debate over the niqab took center stage in the upcoming federal election.

The niqab debate traces its roots to 2011, when Jason Kenney, who was minister of citizenship and immigration at the time, introduced a ban on wearing the niqab during Canada’s citizenship oath ceremony. Conservative Member of Parliament Wladyslaw Lizon had approached Kenney with the issue after seeing four women wearing Muslim face coverings take the citizenship oath in Mississauga, Ontario, a suburb west of Toronto.

To be sure, other government officials warned Kenney not to introduce the ban, seeking instead reasonable accommodation for women wearing the niqab. They saw Kenney’s ultimate decision as a political move. “My interpretation is that the minister would like this done, regardless of whether there is a legislative base and that he will use his prerogative to make policy change,” reads one internal memo from the Department of Citizenship and Immigration, which was later made public.

The debate somewhat died down until Zunera Ishaq, a Pakistani-born

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