Canada’s niqab ban at citizenship ceremonies ruled unlawful

In a blow to Stephen Harper’s government, the Federal Court of Appeal found a ban on wearing niqabs at citizenship ceremonies unlawful.

Three justices wanted to rule now so Zunera Ishaq could take her citizenship oath and vote in the elections that will decide Canada’s next parliament on October 19.

Ishaq, 29, moved to Ontario in 2008 to be with her husband. She had agreed to remove her niqab for an official before completing her citizenship test in 2013. But objected to removing it during a public ceremony, as required under a 2011 rule change.

“The government of Canada will seek leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada in the Ishaq case,” Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said in a one-line statement.

Paul Daly, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Law at the Université de Montréal tweeted:

Judge Keith Boswell argued that citizenship judges must allow for religious freedom when administering the oath.

Boswell questioned the practicalities of a policy that asks individuals to ‘violate’ or ‘renounce’ tenets of their religion.

The judgement brought tears of relief to Ishaq, her family, and supporters. Ishaq later spoke of her pride and desire to vote in the upcoming election.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who faces a tight campaign to get re-elected, argued that the niqab derives from an ‘anti-woman’ culture. The opposition Liberals and New Democrats argued the 2011 ban stokes anti-Muslim sentiment. Harper argued that the niqab is antithetic to Canadian values. To prove this point, the niqab ban became a campaign issue.

A subsequent campaign email that promoted the petition confused the niqab with the hijab (a non-face veil).

In a heated debate in the House of Commons back in March, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau had questioned why Prime Minister Stephen Harper seemed to suggest that Islam is ‘anti-women’. Harper responded that a majority of Canadians, including moderate Muslims, favoured a ban.

New Democrats Leader Tom Mulcair criticised both Trudeau and Harper’s inflammatory rhetoric. Mulcair remarked that ‘it’s undignified from a Canadian prime minister‘ to suggest that Islamic culture is ‘anti-women’.

Some women used the hashtag #DressCodePM to ask if their own clothing choices would gain Harper’s approval.

During an earlier debate on Canada’s counter-terrorism legislation, Harper noted on the topic of radicalisation that “It doesn’t matter what the age of the person is, or whether they’re in a basement, or whether they’re in a mosque or somewhere else”. Mulcair then responded “It was irresponsible of the prime minister to throw the mosques into his comments. It was a form of Islamophobia and it was wrong.” A  spokesman dismissed the accusation in an email to CBC.

Anxieties towards the niqab reflect how some attach broader and negative attitudes more broadly associated with Muslims with a desire to veil. The decision to wear (or remove) a veil presents  complexities beyond simplistic assumptions.

In an op-ed for the Toronto Star, Zunera Ishaq wrote, ‘I have taken my niqab off for security and identity reasons in every case where that’s been required of me’. A decision to wear the niqab, she argued, had  religious and non-religious aspects. The latter created a sense of empowerment through a concentration on the inner self.

In spite of the defeat, the Conservatives intend to introduce legislation to ban niqabs at citizenship ceremonies in “the days ahead.”