Why are we talking about niqabs?


david koroma

A woman wearing a niqab during her citizenship ceremony has absolutely no bearing on the well-being of a single Canadian voter. And yet, the topic doesn’t seem to go away.

Let’s take a look at how we got here.

In 2011, immigration minister Jason Kenney instructed immigration officials to create a requirement for uncovered faces when new Canadians take the Oath of Citizenship.

In 2013, the Parti Québécois government introduced the Quebec Charter of Values, which looked to prohibit the use of religious clothing for any and all public employees. This policy, combined with renewed calls for Quebec’s separation, led to a majority Liberal government halting the Parti Québécois’s plans a year later.

In 2014, Zunera Ishaq, a Pakistani-born woman living in Ontario since 2008, challenged the uncovered face requirement in court and won. The Ontario courts said that such a restriction was infringing on her religious freedoms.

Ishaq is, however, willing to remove her niqab to identify herself upon entering the citizenship ceremony. But this can be done privately before the Oath of Citizenship is taken.

Stephen Harper decided to appeal the court’s ruling and continues to fight for the government’s right to force a woman out of her niqab before she takes the Oath of Citizenship. He justifies this policy through the lens of gender equality, telling the House of Commons the niqab is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women,” according to a Sept. 28 Maclean’s magazine article.

Skip to Sept. 15, 2015— in the middle of a long election—when the Federal Court of Appeal dismisses the federal government’s appeal of Ishaq’s case. It was a rare same-day decision, and Justice Johanne Trudel stated that this ruling was made quickly so Ishaq could obtain her citizenship in time to vote in October’s election.

Now that the issue is resurfacing during the election, it has become a major issue in Quebec federal politics.

The struggling Bloc Québécois is taking the same extreme stance as the Quebec Charter of Values. This leaves the leading NDP in a tough spot. Their base in Quebec is largely made up of former Bloc Québécois voters who overwhelmingly support the Bloc Québécois’s position, while the rest of their national base tends to err on the side of religious freedom.

The NDP could lose the vote for supporting religious freedoms.

It is an odd non-issue to be discussing this close to Election Day, but it seems to have hit a nerve in Quebec. And the niqab’s impact in Quebec could certainly have national implications on Oct. 19.

David Koroma has experience working in government

and political communications. He is interested in the role citizens

play in creating positive change on the Canadian stage.

Follow David on Twitter @D_A_Koroma.