Monday, 12 October 2015

NIQABS: How far should they be restricted?

On September 25, 2015, I wrote an article in my blog about Zunera Hisaq, a Muslim woman in Canada who refused to remove her hiqab (a veil that covers her face accept her forehead and eyes) during the citizenship ceremony she was attending with other people. She was denied citizenship. She appealed and the matter ended up in the Canadian Federal Court. The decision of that court was that she could wear her naqab at the citizenship ceremony. The government appealed that decision and the matter ended up in the federal court of appeal. The appeal was in the form of a motion to stay the decision of the lower court. The decision in the federal court was heard by one judge.

The Federal Court declared the policy of insisting that the faces of applicants not be partially covered to be unlawful, finding it to be mandatory in nature and inconsistent with the Citizenship Act. The ban was first introduced to little fanfare in January, 2011, just three months before the last election. At the time, the then-immigration minister, Jason Kenney had called it “frankly bizarre” that women had previously been allowed to don niqabs and burkas during the citizenship ceremony.

It was that decision that the government was appealing. The Federal Court judge exercised his discretion not to decide the Charter issues, as it was unnecessary to do so. However, the request for the stay of the previous court’s decision was as follows;

By providing guidance to citizenship judges who must ensure that the oath, the last statutory requirement to become a citizen, is taken, the policy at issue enhances the integrity of obtaining citizenship and promotes the broader objective of having the oath recited publicly, openly and in community with others. These are important Canadian values and an integral part of becoming a Canadian citizen. Irreparable harm to the public interest in these values would result from the policy being subject to a declaration of invalidity pending the appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. Regarding the balance of inconvenience, the irreparable harm to the public interest represented by the Minister if the stay is not granted exceeds the harm to the Respondent (Zunera Hisaq) if the stay is granted.

The judge in the court of appeal said; “I chose not to pronounce myself on whether or not there is a serious issue to be determined. I am of the respectful view that this is a question better left for the Supreme Court of Canada.” unquote                                                                                                   

It would have been nice if he got into the issues instead of pawning it off to the Supreme Court of Canada where it will invariably end up when the government brings the application to that higher court. The government has refused to back down, saying the issue will now be heard before the Supreme Court of Canada.

The judge finally stated; “I find that the appellant (government) has not demonstrated that refusing its application for stay would result in irreparable harm to the public interest. This suffices to dispose of the appellant’s motion for stay.”  

Conservative Party Leader Stephen Harper (the current prime minister) said his party plans to ban federal civil servants from wearing niqabs. Security measures already exist that requires the removal of all face coverings for identification of anyone visiting parliamentarians or their staff.

Harper says that his political party is examining Quebec’s Bill 94, which requires Muslim women or others who wear face coverings to remove them if they want to work in the public sector or do business with government officials or receives government services.  Of course his wishes may become academic after October 19th of October 2015 if his party loses the election.

I take issue with Harper’s proposal that any woman wearing a hiqab will not receive government services. I don’t take issue with the ban if he really means that any woman meeting with government officials will not be served if they wear a niqab.  The two other political parties, the NDP and the Liberals will refuse to back a niqab ban. If that is so, the Harper will not get the ban approved by parliament.

Ishaq subsequently took her citizenship oath before a female citizenship judge and she said that she will vote on October 19th. Her oath is the same given to others which is; “I swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second Queen of Canada, her heirs and successors.” Aside from the smartphones of family and friends, only a CBC video camera captured the scene without her face being shown to the camera. If the ban later becomes law, women who wear the niqab or the burka can take the oath administered by a female citizenship judge.

shaq began wearing the niqab when she was 15. Her parents in Pakistan didn’t approve of her decision but she was determined. She said that to her, it was a symbol of her faith and her religion—a statement that she was a devout Muslim. She continued to wear the niqab when she moved to Canada in 2008 after she was sponsored by her husband. And when it came to taking her citizenship oath in 2012 she was equally adamant that she would wear her niqab while taking the oath.

I can’t help but wonder if the real reason she wears her niqab in public is because when she lived in Pakistan, many of the adult women wore niqabs in public and she wanted to feel like she too was an adult and not a child anymore.  If that is so, she may simply been so used to wearing her niqab, she is content with wearing it in public.

She said that it was her religious obligation to wear her niqab while in public. If you read my previous article on this issue you will understand that the wearing of a niqab in public is in no way a religious obligation since that obligation (according to the Qur’an) only applied to Mohamed’s wives and no other women.

Her husband thought perhaps she should make some kind of accommodation in taking her oath. But Ishaq didn’t believe that was the right thing to do. She chose to fight it in court that would otherwise be an expensive battle that was taken on, but for the most part the lawyer’s service was pro bono (for free) by her lawyers.

She said that for her, it was a matter of principle—protecting the right of women to choose what they wish to wear. Further, she rejects the rhetoric used by the Conservatives that the niqab somehow oppresses Muslim women and is a symbol of their inequality.

She is wrong in both of her statements. Women when in public are required to dress respectively. For example, In Canada, they can’t walk naked down a public street although they can walk bare breasted if that is their wish however I have never seen any woman walking about on public streets with their bare breasts showing accept when a mother was nursing her baby.

I don’t know why she feels that all the Muslim woman wearing a niqab in public aren’t to some degree suffering equality from non-Muslim woman. Some of these unfortunate women are forced to wear the niqab, because their menfolk don’t want any other man gazing at their wives’ faces. In fact some of these men insist that their wives wear burkas tocover every part of their bodies with clothing so that no other man in public can see any part of their bodies. If they are forced to dress in this manner, they are certainly being treated unequally from non-Muslim women who are under no such restraints about what they wear in public.

She says that the battle with the federal government has left her with a somewhat tarnished vision of Canada. That is an insult to all Canadians since Canada is very conscious of the rights of its citizens.

She said that her fight with the government has also inspired her to one day seek political office. In my opinion, I seriously doubt that she would get elected unless the electorates in her riding are all Muslims who approve of Muslim women covering their faces and/or bodies when in public—which is highly unlikely.

She also said that Muslims are being singled out and put into a situation where people are feeling negative and have some form of hatred for them. That is not so. Admittedly, there are many non-Muslims who feel towards some Muslims in a negative way but from what I have learned over the years, is that most non-Muslims are indifferent to the Muslims around them and accept them as fellow citizens.

She actually had the audacity to say that she wants to return Canada to a place that values multiculturalism and diversity—the kind of Canada she imagined she was adopting as her homeland when she first moved to Canada. That statement on her part is unadulterated hogwash. Canada is proud of its reputation of being a multicultural and divers community of people from every nation in the world. Immigrants, be they Muslims or others are welcomed and treated equally providing that they don’t push their customs in the faces of others and abide by Canada’s laws.

Quebec (a province in Canada) has a law that prohibits women wearing niqabs if they are employed by the government. I don’t think that would apply to women who work out of sight of the public but it certainly should if they are dealing with members of the public. The ban also applies to any woman who is personally dealing with anyone in the government on a face- t0-face basis. I support such bans.

The concern I have is that if people’s customs begin to infringe on the other people in Canada, others will bring into Canada even greater demands that will have a detrimental effect on the well-being and fraternization of all the citizens of Canada.

Picture this is you can. We don’t permit someone to walk into a bank wearing a ski mask as it will alarm not only the staff but also the customers. But suppose someone claims that he or she wears a ski mask because it is part of that person’s religious belief. What would the courts decide if they are convinced that such people really believe that it is their religious belief to wear a ski mask in public even if it is preposterous. As you can see, despite what Ishaq thinks about our laws, she has to accept the fact that our laws are written and enforced for the common good of everyone in Canada. And admittedly, some of our laws are restrictive but if the common good is the ultimate result of such laws, then we have to accept them.

We as citizens of Canada have to make sacrifices for the common good of others. However, there can be instances when our sacrifices may fly in the face of human rights. As an example, everyone is entitled to work for a living but companies who have only women working in their factories for decades can refuse to hire a man to work alongside of them and visa versa. And yet in Canada, a convicted rapist who has been released from prison cannot be refused employment by a factory that has some women working in the factory.

Immigrants who come to Canada to live have to accept our laws but they don’t have to accept the customs of others. At the same time,  their customs cannot be in conflict with our laws and governmental procedures nor can they conflict with the customs of others.

As I said earlier, women in Canada can wear anything they want providing it doesn’t conflict with our sense of decency nor create concerns about our security.

If Muslim women who choose to wear niqabs or burkas in public wish to do so, that is their right to do so. However, they cannot wear them if they drive a motor vehicle or ride a scooter or a bicycle on any public street. It is for their safety and the safety of others. They should be able to receive government benefits but when they are dealing directly with government officials and those officials are men, if all possible, a female official should be substituted. If none is available, then she must remove the veil when asked. I don’t know what should be done for women who wear burkas when dealing with men who are officials and there are no female substitutes available. If a Muslim woman wearing a niqab and is a witness at a trial, she must remove her niqab. If she is wearing a burka, she should give her testimony in another room via video in which only the judge, prosecutor, defence lawyer and a jury will see her face.  This can also be available to women wearing the niqab if they don’t wish to remove it in open court. Women wearing the niqab or burkas and are giving the citizenship oath, should be able to do so in front of a woman judge privately. If they wish to vote, they must show their face for identity purposes but in front of a female electoral officer.  

Muslim women who wear niqabs and burkas when in public have to make some concessions just as government officials will make some concessions in favor of these women.  

UPDATE: November 17, 2015. The new government of Canada decided not to appeal the decision of the Federal Court of Appeal. Muslim women can cover their faces during citizenship ceremonies.

UPDATE: May 2, 2016.  In Latvia, there are only three Muslim women wearing face veils in public and that country's Ministry of Justice claims that three is too many so they are proposing that there be a complete ban against women wearing a niqab or a burqa when in public. I will let you know what the final decision will be in that country. 

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