Political saga of the niqab an expensive, never-ending episode of What Not to Wear
Canadian law does not require women to veil. It also does not require them to take their veils off.
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When I was in Grade 8 — back when the earth was cooling — the girls at our public school staged a revolution against the board of education’s dress code. It forbade us from wearing pants, even when it was freezing cold, even though lots of us hated dresses, even though dresses restricted us (just try to slide into third wearing a dress and not show your underwear).
The school board made strained arguments: girls and women wearing pants were immodest, unattractive, even unhealthy. But times were changing — this was 1970, after all! — and the girls made a huge fuss. Before long, an announcement was made. We could wear pants. Finally, we were free.
Perhaps that’s why, in my own middle-aged, middle-class, secular white-woman cultural bubble, I dislike the idea of niqabs and burkas. They seem an affront to freedom. I, personally, cannot imagine choosing to wear one and I feel a frisson of horror at the idea of being forced to do so. Perhaps I can justify this by observing that there are regimes in this world that restrict women’s freedoms by legislating that they veil completely. But I remind myself that this is Canada. Canadian law does not require women to veil.
It also does not require them to take their veils off.
Despite this, our government has waged a legal war on a woman named Zunera Ishaq, using a quarter-million dollars of taxpayers’ money. They pursued her through the courts, trying to force her to remove her veil when she took her oath of citizenship, arguing her covered face was “disrespectful” — as weak an argument as the ones the school board made. The courts rejected it. Even so, the government won’t give up. It’s taking it to the Supreme Court.
That court has interpreted the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to require that reasonable accommodation be made for Canadians’ religious and cultural garb. No law that violates someone’s rights (as does the provision in the Citizenship Act that requires a woman to unveil in public) is allowed to stand. Instead, she is allowed to remove her veil in private. Harper knows this but he continues to pursue Ishaq, knowing that to many ignorant and fearful voters, he appears to be protecting national security.
In fact, the Charter protects Ishaq — from her own government’s imposition of an unfair law. Veiled women are entitled to the protection of the Charter. Just like us schoolgirls, they are allowed to wear what they want.
Because, after all, it’s a free country.
Diane Baker Mason is a Toronto-based novelist, writer and retired lawyer.