Barbara Kay: Zunera Ishaq does a disservice to women forced to wear the veil


National Post - Tuesday February 17th, 2015

J.P. Moczulski for National Post
Zunera Ishaq, who wants to be allowed to wear her Niqab during the Canadian citizenship ceremony, poses near home home in Mississauga, Ont. on Monday.

Zunera Ishaq, the Pakistani woman who won’t back down on her right to wear the niqab in her citizenship ceremony, is proving to be a feisty spokesperson for her side of the debate. In an interview with the National Post, she has framed herself as someone merely wishing to follow her faith, and depicts the government’s position forbidding face cover during the swearing-in part of the ceremony as “a personal attack on me and Muslim women like me.” An equally feisty Prime Minister Harper, speaking for the government, forthrightly declares that hiding one’s identity at such a time is “offensive” and “not how we do things here.” Whose feist will win the day?

I believe Ms Ishaq when she says she wears the niqab by choice, but she admits that other girls and women are forced to wear it by their families. So we are not getting a balanced public picture. The sophisticated, empowered niqab-wearers like Ms Ishaq have their public say, boasting about their empowerment to the media. The ones who are forced to wear it would never dream of complaining to the media – if they were allowed to, a fanciful notion. If one were brave enough to do so, I suspect we would see a more muted version of the support Ms Ishaq is finding amongst “progressive” and libertarian pundits.

Although we have been over this ground many times before, I must once again protest the superficiality of the arguments I hear in favour of the niqab.

The “religious faith” argument simply does not hold water. The niqab is worn in some devoutly Muslim regions and not in others. Some Islamic countries ban the niqab in voting, others do not. Virtually all Islamic scholars have noted that Sharia does not demand face cover, and that it is usually a regional custom or a diktat by a country’s rulers. Even if it were a religious demand, there are some religious demands that are incompatible with democratic principles of social reciprocity, and this is one of them.

Freedoms are not absolute in any domain. Ms Ishaq quite disingenuously suggests she is speaking for others’ “distinguishing cultural practices,” pointing to the Sikh turban as the possible next area of restriction. But we already “did” the turban during the debate over whether Sikh RCMP members would be allowed to wear them, and that debate is over. In any case, a turban does not cover the face. It’s all about the face.

Which renders completely irrelevant any attempt to parallel the niqab with the wimple of a nun, or the wigs and long skirts that Orthodox Jewish women wear. I personally find it sad that young girls in the Orthodox community wear full body coverage at all times; when I see them on hot summer days, with their brothers gamboling about in shorts and short-sleeved shirts, I feel very sorry for them. But I would never demand the government proscribe body coverage. Is it not clear that there is a world of difference between body coverage and face coverage?

Then there is Natasha Bakht, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, who compares the niqab to western women wearing bikinis and getting cosmetic surgery, as though the niqab were an aesthetic or a fashion choice. Seriously, Ms Bakht? Is there anywhere in the world where women are forced to wear bikinis or get nose jobs and are whipped or have acid thrown in their face if they refuse? Please. Such an argument is an insult to the intelligence.

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But Ms Bakht’s specious parallel has the virtue that it can be turned against its perpetrator. If a woman were to turn up at her citizenship swearing-in ceremony in a bikini, would she be allowed to? I think not. And rightly so. Bikinis on a beach are one thing – in a solemn ceremony quite another. Indecency swings both ways. Face cover is also indecent in certain situations, such as the swearing-in of a woman to citizenship in a democratic country based on, amongst other principles, gender equality. (I consider the niqab indecent in all getting and giving of government services. If the federal government would pass a law requiring the face be uncovered in these areas, as Quebec soon will, Canadians would approve en masse.)

Perhaps Ms Ishaq might give some thought to the reality that thousands upon thousands of Pakistani people wish to become citizens of Canada, but one does not see Canadians flocking to Pakistan to live. There are reasons for that. One of those reasons is that women here are equal to men, and nobody can tell a woman here that she must cover her face. One might think that Ms Ishaq would wish to honour that right, on behalf of her sisters who are forced to wear the niqab, by taking hers off for the five minutes it will take to accept the gift of great value our government wishes to confer on her.

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