Zunera Ishaq is a Canadian heroPublished on 30 March 2015 Publications by Senator Mobina Jaffer
We pride ourselves in Canada on our multicultural composition. It is a deeply held Canadian value enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
It is also a deeply held Islamic value enshrined in the Qur’an in the chapter titled The Chambers: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other).”
It is no surprise that it is a strong Muslim woman who is holding our charter to its word when it says it respects the multicultural heritage of all Canadians.
Zunera Ishaq stood for Canadian values by taking the government of Canada to court to defend the rights afforded to her in our Charter. She did it, not only with her interest at heart but for all those people who will come after her and immigrate to our beautiful country. The court sided with her allowing her to take the oath of citizenship while wearing her niqab, a veil worn by some Muslim women which reveals only the eyes.
I cannot imagine the courage she had to summon to stand to the government and defend her rights. Having fought cases in court that invoke our charter rights, I know one can only stand up to power if you have full conviction in what it means to be Canadian. Ishaq certainly has that conviction.
For the past seven years she has lived here, she has immersed herself in Canadian culture and values, organizing a children’s festival, taking part in treeplanting events and helping raise funds for a women’s shelter. She was quoted by the National Post as saying: “If you are here you need to do something (for) the community you are living in. I think all these things should be enough to prove I’m not someone who is a stranger here.” She knows what it means to be Canadian in every sense of the word. The law, introduced in 2011 by the Conservative government, disallowed any facial coverings during the swearing-in part of the citizenship ceremony. The law targeted a subset of Muslim women, those who wear a niqab and take the oath of citizenship account for about 100 women a year. Immigrant women are commonly seen as a more vulnerable sector of our society, yet in this case the government is not standing up for their rights, but rather, trampling them.
This law is harmful on two levels. On one level, Ishaq and hundreds of women like her are made to make a decision akin to Sophie’s choice, forced to choose between two unbearable options. They are needlessly asked to choose between their religion and the country that they love.
It is important to note that before taking her case to court, Ishaq agreed to reveal her face for identification purposes and take the oath unveiled as long as it was in front of a crowd of women and without the presence of the media. It was only after these accommodations were not afforded to her that she took her case to court.
On a second level, the law sends a message to Canadians that the government looks at these women with some level of suspicion, that they cannot be trusted to take the oath while wearing a niqab. The citizenship oath is a symbolic gesture, a formality at the end of a long vetting process
on the path to citizenship. It is at this finish line the government has chosen to cast an incredulous light on these women. Sending the message that even until the last moment, the public should distrust them unless they relinquish their religion and that they will never be full Canadian citizens until they do so.
When the Quebec Charter of Values was under discussion, which would have seen the removal of hijab in public spaces in Quebec, I noted the correlation between the rise of Islamophobia in society and discriminatory government practices. Again the media has highlighted an increase in the mistreatment of Canadian Muslims, most recently a judge who refused to hear a case of Rania El-Alloul because she was wearing a hijab. El-Alloul was quoted CBC as saying that “what happened in court made me feel afraid. I felt I’m not Canadian anymore.” That is the profound effect that mistreatment of minorities can have, it can make them feel as if they do not belong here.
The rhetoric that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has used to defend the law on niqabs in the citizenship ceremony is also extremely divisive for the leader of all Canadians.
In response to the court ruling he stated, “That is not how we do things here.”
Who is the “we” he is speaking about? It is certainly not the hundreds of women who wear a niqab and are full-contributing Canadian citizens. It is likely not the view of their children, their community members, the judge who ruled in Ishaq’s favour, the many upstanding Canadians who have spoken against this law and the countless others who have stood in silent disapproval. As we move toward an election, the government is trying to separate Canadians from one another using the politics of division. In the same sentence he condemned Ishaq’s views, Harper spoke of a “Canadian family.”
In my family I would never expect my children to think and act the same. I recognize they have varying views on everything from their taste in food to their career choices. In a family we are unified by our love for one another regardless of our differences. It is our differences that allow us to broaden our understanding and grow into better people.
Pierre Trudeau once said “There is no such thing as a model or ideal Canadian. What could be more absurd than the concept of an ‘all-Canadian’ boy or girl? A society that emphasizes uniformity is one that creates intolerance and hate.” His words ring as true today as they did decades ago.