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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 resident of Mississauga who came to Canada in 2008 and had been approved for citizenship on December 30, 2013, was for religious reasons not willing to remove her niqab for the public oath. Ishaq was happy to remove her niqab in front of female government employees for identification and security just prior to the ceremony—and indeed this had been the norm in the past. But no such accommodation was made this time and, frustrated, Ishaq challenged the ban in the courts.
On February 6th, 2015 the Ishaq vs. Canada case was brought before the Federal Court of Canada, with Judge Keith Boswell ruling that the niqab ban was “unlawful.” In response, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that wearing the niqab during the citizenship oath was “offensive” and “not how we do things here.” The government appealed the court’s decision, taking total legal costs over $250,000 Canadian (so far). If reelected, the Harper government has vowed to reintroduce legislation within 100 days that would ban the niqab during the oath.
Despite the legal ordeal, the matter may have finally been put to rest last week. On Monday, October 5, the Federal Court of Appeal dismissed the government’s request to stay the decision while the Harper government waits to see if the Supreme Court of Canada will hear an appeal. On October 9, Ishaq took her citizenship oath wearing her niqab—just in time to vote in the election on October 19.
It is strange to think that a two-minute ceremonial oath has become a defining election issue, particularly since the niqab ban has affected only two women so far. For the sake of perspective, more than 680,000 people became Canadian citizens since the ban took effect in 2011.
Canada’s 42nd federal election was already ripe for drama before the niqab issue rose to national prominence. The economy, the environment, aboriginal issues, and Canada’s place in the world are but a few of the matters over which the parties are deeply divided. What’s more, at least at the outset of campaign season, the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) seemed poised to form the government for the first time in the country’s history. That’s no small electoral feat: Since confederation in 1867, only the Conservative and Liberal parties have formed federal governments.
The NDP’s chances of such a victory have waned, though, in part because its opposition to the niqab ban cost it support in Quebec, which had unexpectedly delivered the NDP 59 of its 75 parliamentary seats in the 2011 election, propelling the party into the official opposition. But in staunchly secular Quebec, the NDP’s large polling lead has evaporated.
On the flip side, activists and politicians of many stripes say that Harper is fomenting hate for electoral gain, particularly in Quebec. (The niqab debate may cost the Conservatives Muslim support nationally, but only 12 percent of Muslims voted for the party to begin with in 2011.) Naheed Nenshi, the first Muslim mayor of a major Canadian city (Calgary, home to Harper’s Calgary Southwest parliamentary electoral district), has emerged as a prominent critic of the Harper government’s niqab posturing. “This is disgusting and it is time for us to say ‘stop it,’” he said during one radio program. “If you’re doing it so you can gain a few points somewhere in rural Quebec, well, I expect more from my leadership than that,” he added.
The niqab ban might affect only a tiny number of Canadians, but the debate has been unsettling for the many who view Canada as a tolerant and multicultural society. Rezan says that popular support for the ban is especially worrying: One government poll of 3,000 Canadians last month found that 82 percent supported the niqab ban during the ceremonial oath. The figure climbed to 93 percent among Quebecois.
Further, as the niqab debate unfolded, assaults on Muslim women seem to have risen. In 2013, the last year for which government data are available, hate crimes against Muslims rose by 44 percent but fell for all other religious groups. Amira Elghawaby, communications director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims, thinks that what’s reported is only “the tip of the iceberg.” Just last week, two teenage boys approached one pregnant Muslim woman waiting to pick up her daughter from a school in north Montreal and tried to rip off her headscarf, causing her to fall to the ground. While the vast majority of Muslim Canadian women do not wear the hijab or the niqab, the ones that do are bearing most of the overt discrimination because they are easily identifiable as Muslims. “They are the ones on the front lines,” said Nina Karachi-Khaled, board member at the Canadian Council of Muslim Women. (The absolute number of reported hate crimes still remains low in Canada at 3.3 incidents per 100,000 individuals. Even so, 65 cases were reported against Muslims in 2013 at nearly double the overall rate, or 6.2 per 100,000.)
Critics say that the niqab ban is part of a larger Conservative campaign targeting Muslims. In May, the House of Commons passed the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act, 2015 and, in June, it passed the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act, which grants security officials sweeping powers that rights groups say will single out Muslim Canadians and permit the revocation of citizenship for dual nationals (or those eligible for dual nationality) convicted of certain crimes. Also in June, parliament passed the “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act” and the Harper government promised to set up a hotline for Canadians to report “barbaric” incidents. As Green Party leader Elizabeth May pointed out, “the problem with the bill is the bumper-sticker title” and that the acts referred to—such as polygamy and child marriage—were already banned under the existing Criminal Code. Canadians mocked the bill’s title and created the #BarbaricCulturalPractices hashtag, tweeting sarcastic photos with captions like “Men wearing socks in sandals. Where’s the tip line?”
— Peter Bailey (@Libarbarian) October 2, 2015
Harper has also linked Canadian mosques to the “international jihadist movement,” and has said “Islamicism” is the major threat facing the country today. Internal Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) reports, though, have noted that Islamist extremism trails white supremacist ideology as the principal source of lone-wolf terror attacks worldwide. Other unclassified CSIS documents have also warned the government about the rise of domestic anti-Islam movements. For its part, the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association has said political leaders need to “tone that rhetoric down” as anti-Muslim sentiment grows in Canada. It appears both ideology and electoral considerations are guiding the Harper government’s approach.
The main opposition parties—except the separatist Bloc Quebecois—have struck a different tone than the Conservatives and have called out the Harper government for manufacturing a non-issue and for stoking anti-Muslim sentiment. NDP leader Tom Mulcair has condemned the prime minister for “playing a very divisive game” and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has called Harper’s tactics “nothing less than an attempt to play on people’s fears and foster prejudice, directly toward the Muslim faith.” For her part, May said the niqab issue was a “false debate.”
The media has also criticized Harper’s tactics. The Toronto Star ran a front-page article last week titled “‘I have a right to be here’—this is my country,” in which the paper interviewed Canadian women who wear the niqab, including Rezan. Canada’s two national newspapers, the Globe and Mail and the National Post, ran editorials in late September that were critical of Harper and the debate. The Conservative Post took issue with the demagoguing done at “the expense of an often-targeted and easily exploited religious minority.” And in Quebec, where the question of the niqab is most contentious, the province’s legislature adopted a unanimous motion on Thursday, October 1 denouncing “Islamophobia.”
As for Rezan, she’s confident that the courts will continue to uphold the rights and freedoms of Muslims and Canadians of all backgrounds. She’s thankful for the outpouring of support she’s received, including phone calls and Facebook messages from people she had never met before. “There is a lot of positivity. There are a lot of people standing behind Muslim women. And I am so so grateful for that,” she says.
But Rezan, like many other Canadians, is still disappointed that Harper’s niqab gambit has pushed real policy debates to the wayside. She says she expects more from her government: “This is really unfortunate because we should be talking about things that matter to all Canadians—like the economy, things like that.” Indeed, the same day that the Federal Court of Appeal took up the Ishaq vs. Canada case, the government signed on in principle to the controversial 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would become the largest trade agreement in the country’s history. Yet some Canadians may have missed the news.