New Canadian Media

By: Manaal Farooqi in Toronto, ON

One in every five Canadian women is born outside of the country. However, despite diverse ethnic backgrounds, many communities face discriminatory hurdles others may never witness in their lifetimes. This notion is only amplified in the case of Muslim immigrant women, who can experience challenges springing from multiple biases.

"Gendered Islamophobia" affects them in ways that are often left out of the wider conversation about the immigrant experience.

Whereas Islamophobia is defined as an irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against Islam or people who practice Islam, gendered Islamophobia dissects the issue a step further by diving into more pointed signs of inequity. Muslim women may be victims of both sexism and Islamophobia, disadvantaging them as they navigate through schooling, employment and other public spaces.

But, ultimately, it could play a huge role in their overall sense of safety.

Muslim women, specifically those identifiable through religious headgear or prayer routines practiced in public, can be more prone to being victims due to their "visible" status. This has led to cases of assault as well as blatant displays of anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Greater scrutiny

Aima, a Pakistani Canadian Muslim woman who dons the niqab, has dealt with discrimination in both public spaces and at university as well. She would find herself consistently ignored in classrooms when she attempted to answer or ask a question during lectures; and when she was able to speak in class she found her answers were met with greater scrutiny, even when they were correct.

Other comments directed towards her included unwelcome discussions on forced marriage along with the fact that she’s been repeatedly told that she “[enjoys] so much freedom” for someone wearing a niqab. She adds that “my body will be policed and my choices scrutinized” for the expression of her faith and identity within today’s socio-political climate.

And she’s not alone, Shazlin, a Malaysian immigrant who once wore religious headgear, states she has had similar experiences, in addition to street harassment.

“Even talking about it now, it makes me angry that I was vulnerable and that I was made a victim in that moment when I know I have a lot more agency,” she says. She recalls one particular incident when on a walk with other visibly Muslim women in Toronto, a man verbally assaulted them and attempted to flick cigarette butts at them.

Regardless of what Islamophobes think, the comments and questions Muslim women face on an everyday basis eventually begin to take their toll. T.G*, who is an Ethiopian Muslim immigrant, has found that people often assume she lacks intellect, agency and knowledge of pop culture because of her hijab.

“I’m a walking encyclopedia on all the ethnicities, cultural expressions, and nuanced faith practices of the Muslim world,” T.G adds sarcastically. “We are expected to be the compassionate caretaker, teacher, and empathetic listener to all manners of ignorance about our faith. The brunt of the burden of flag-bearing for Islam falls on us – especially hijab-wearing Muslim women.”

Seeking a lower profile

But Muslim women who are more visibly ambiguous are not immune to similar experiences. As in the case of Safia*, an Arab-Canadian Muslim who does not wear any religious headgear such as the niqab or hijab. Yet, she constantly faces questions related to terrorist groups such as ISIS at her workplace.

One of her former coworkers even emailed her after the Orlando shooting with footage he had found of an Imam who seemed to have made homophobic comments. He wrote to her demanding, “We want answers. What is your community doing about this?"

No action was taken and the comments continued, despite the fact that Safia had made complaints to her immediate supervisor multiple times. In the absence of authoritative intervention, she weathers the harassment through therapy.

Sara*, a young professional of North African descent who doesn’t wear a hijab, has attempted to keep her religious affiliation from co-workers, out of fear that repercussions could affect future opportunities and her overall comfort at work.

Sara explains that her former employer would bring her news articles about honour killings in an attempt to make a correlation with her faith that would justify its relevance. The controversial articles forced her into a defensive position on a complex subject that she did not even agree with. Now she avoids questions about religion or her ethnicity to discourage unwelcome conversations.

These experiences only begin to highlight some of the situations Muslim women are faced with on a daily basis. The full impact it may have on their everyday interactions, ability to navigate public spaces or even in their careers remains immeasurable.


*names have been changed to protect the identity of these women

Manaal Farooqi is a writer and community organizer working on issues of violence against women and race. This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series. 

Published in Top Stories
Thursday, 26 October 2017 20:31

Quebec's Bill 62 is an Oppression

Commentary by: Surjit Singh Flora in Brampton, ON  

It's absurd to pass any law that is so obviously a violation of that constitution and its Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Quebec's National Assembly passed a bill that will require civil servants and members of the public seeking government services to have their faces uncovered. Known as Bill 62, this legislation will affect Muslim women who wear religious face coverings such as a Niqab or Burqa. 

To be sure, this issue of Muslim women covering their faces is one that elicits very strong reactions, both from a rights and freedoms perspective as well as from the perspective of those in our society who view this religious practice with great suspicion and mistrust.

The reality in Canada today is if a woman chooses to cover her face to observe her religious traditions, our constitution protects her right to do so. Frankly, it's absurd to pass any law that is so obviously a violation of that constitution and its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, leaving me to openly question the motives of Quebec's lawmakers.

I was talking with an older, Roman Catholic friend of mine who, during a conversation on this very topic, recalled how, as a child, whenever his family attended mass, his mother had to either wear a hat that covered the majority of her head or wear a lace veil called a mantilla to cover her head. This Christian, Roman Catholic practice has not been altogether abandoned, with female dignitaries visiting the pope often pictured wearing black clothes and a mantilla to this day. One still sees the odd older woman wearing one to mas, but no one rushes to admonish her for observing a practice that has faded from popular use as the conventions of worship in that faith have evolved over time.

I also have strong feelings about this issue that come from my own personal experience as a member of a visible minority who, from time to time, has been subjected to "strong reactions" from people over my turban, or on those occasions when I wear traditional clothes or carry a kirpan — a ceremonial dagger. I well remember the doomsday predictions of blood and carnage that were made when observant Sikhs were permitted to wear their Kirpan in schools, places of employment and even courts of law. These are ceremonial, symbolic items, and none of the hysterical predictions of knife-wielding Sikhs running amok ever came to pass. Nor will they.

Bill 62, which the Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée describes as a first in North America, is the culmination of a long conflict in Quebec around the province's religious minorities that I personally view as an extension of the province's vigorous protection of its French language and culture that makes them suspicious of those whose behavior or beliefs they perceive as a threat to their "Frenchness."

Meanwhile, those who are critical of Bill 62 are left with few details of how the law would be applied in a variety of circumstances, as the regulations have yet to be written, and municipalities such as Montreal that are blatantly opposed to this bill are demanding to be exempted from it. The law poses serious challenges, such as potentially pitting nurses and doctors — and their professional standards of practice that require they provide medical service to all patients who present themselves for care — against the law, which essentially forbids them to provide that care to a woman whose face is covered.

To many people who view these "foreign customs" through the lens of Western sensibilities, women choosing to cover their face or their body is at best a curious practice, or at worst a practice of dangerous and suspect motives hiding behind orthodox religious convention. Even within Islam, the practice of wearing the niqab can be controversial, with some Muslim scholars expressing the opinion that it is not required, while others assert their opinion that it is.

Mandatory, not mandatory — to those women who do wear the niqab or burqa it is clearly a requirement to them as they choose to interpret their religion and, ultimately, our constitution guarantees them that choice. If we can successfully deprive these women of that choice, then I believe we can deprive our citizens of just about any choice. This is not freedom, it is oppression. And it is not worthy of Canada.


Brampton-based Surjit Flora is a veteran journalist and freelance writer who has previously contributed to the Huffington Post, Toronto Sun and other publications. He is a member of the New Canadian Media Collective.

Published in Commentary
Monday, 23 October 2017 17:35

We Ignore Islamism at our Own Peril

Commentary by: Fred Maroun in Ottawa

Quebec recently passed a law banning face coverings for people delivering or receiving public services, which has re-ignited the debate across Canada on banning the burqa and niqab. 

Some people, such as Idil Issa, have accused Quebec’s politicians of going after Muslims because they are a minority and an easy target. Knowledge of Quebec history and culture, however, contradicts that accusation.

Quebec’s strong liberal values

Quebec is by far the most progressive province in Canada. Its two main parties are centrist (the Liberal Party of Quebec) and centre left (the Bloc Quebecois) whereas all other provinces have strong conservative parties. Quebec’s support for same-sex marriage is at 78%, possibly a world record. Quebec is a striving multicultural and diverse society.

Quebec was the only Canadian province to undergo a revolution (albeit a non-violent one, aptly named the Quiet Revolution) against religious and political conservatism.

There is a problem when women live in a society as liberal as Quebec and yet feel the need to comply with some of the most conservative and patriarchal religious rules ever invented. The fact that many Quebecers recognize this as a problem is not a symptom of intolerance.

Islamism

When Quebec’s new law is discussed, the discussion invariably drifts towards the face covering of some Muslim women due to a version of Islam that is highly sexist and regressive, commonly referred to as Islamism. The concern of citizens is clearly not face coverings in the abstract but the religious radicalism that it implies.

I grew up in Lebanon at a time when Muslims were already the majority, and yet I never saw a woman with her face covered in public, even in Muslim neighborhoods. Several members of my family grew up in Egypt and make the same observation. With the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, however, the niqab and the burqa are now often seen in the streets of Cairo.

Raheel Raza, president of the Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow, wrote, “[I] never saw a niqab when I was growing up in Karachi, Pakistan. […] But in the 25 years I have called Canada home, I have seen a steady rise of Muslim women being strangled in the pernicious black tent that is passed off to naïve and guilt-ridden white, mainstream Canadians as an essential Islamic practice”.

Islamism is the opposite of social liberalism. Whereas liberalism aims to achieve for women equal rights and opportunities, Islamism considers women inferior and expects them to be subservient. The infiltration of Islamist values into Canadian society can only send chills into the backs of liberals.

A political hot potato

There are however no easy answers to fighting Islamism in Canada since we also value freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and personal choice. A ban on face coverings can be seen as a patriarchal imposition on women who may in theory choose to cover their faces. And if a husband prevents his wife from leaving the house with her face uncovered, a ban may transform her house into a jail.

Politicians try to avoid complex issues, and the growth of Islamism in liberal societies is undoubtedly a complex issue. Quebec politicians deserve credit for at least trying. Federal politicians refuse to even talk about it.

During the Conservative leadership campaign, Kellie Leitch attempted to bring forward a proposal to defend Canadian values by asking some tough questions of potential immigrants, but she faced strong opposition even within her party. After Andrew Scheer won the leadership, he left Leitch out of his shadow cabinet and gave another former candidate, Lisa Raitt, the position of deputy leader even though Leitch received almost twice as many votes as Raitt on the first ballot.

The federal Liberal Party and the NDP stay even farther away than their conservative counterparts from fighting Islamism. Almost all Liberal Members of Parliament (MPs), all NDP MPs, and a small number of Conservative MPs passed a vague motion condemning “Islamophobia” without defining its meaning, which could be interpreted as an attempt to muzzle legitimate criticism of Islamism.

Demagogues could fill the void

While I never saw burqas and niqabs in Lebanon, I see them now in Ottawa, far too often. Such occurrences are frequent reminders to Canadians that the issue of Islamism is not a faraway problem but a local one.

Canada has no leading politician resembling Donald Trump at the moment, but neither did the U.S. until two years ago. Then Trump barged into the political scene and raised issues that Americans were concerned about, such as Islamic terrorism, issues that other politicians were afraid to discuss.

There are likely more significant reasons why Trump was elected, but his willingness to be politically incorrect was undoubtedly one of the attributes that attracted voters to him. We see such a phenomenon occurring in parts of Europe as well, such as Germany where the extreme right has significantly weakened Chancellor Angela Merkel’s dominance. 

Politicians must find the courage to ask the politically incorrect questions, even when they do not have all the answers, so that intelligent solutions can emerge. If competent politicians ignore the challenge, demagogues may take advantage of the vacuum and propose ill-conceived populist ideas, which is the last thing we need.


Fred Maroun is a Canadian of Arab origin. He lived in Lebanon until 1984, including during 10 years of civil war. He regularly blogs for The Times of Israel.

Published in Commentary
Wednesday, 22 March 2017 20:45

Mayor Jeffrey’s Hypocritical Pandering

Commentary by Surjit Singh Flora in Brampton

I don’t know why hypocrisy by politicians still manages to surprise me. Recently, it was being paraded in plain sight by Brampton’s Mayor Linda Jeffrey when she waded in on the recent controversy around Muslim prayer in Peel public schools.

But before I comment on Mayor Jeffrey’s latest hypocritical pandering, lets revisit Her Worship’s own entanglement with prayer in a public institution – her own council chamber.

In 2015, Brampton’s newly elected Chief Magistrate and her council acted on one of Jeffrey’s own campaign promises and dropped reciting the Lord’s Prayer at Council meetings, killing a 163 year tradition that went back to the first Brampton village council meeting of January 1853. This was done after a public meeting to discuss the plan was cancelled in the face of fierce public outrage. 

More recently, the Peel District School Board attempted to implement changes to the practice of Muslim prayer in their schools by providing prepared sermon texts by local Imams for the youth to use. This did not go over well with Muslim students, and in the process of receiving public delegations, a number of people expressed their opposition to any kind of prayer in a public school.

Some remarks had racist overtones. Public delegations were eventually stopped and the changes shelved.

"Have your backs"

Recently, in an interview on TVO, Mayor Jeffery said that she felt her expression of support for the Muslim community was needed after hearing from religious leaders, who were anxious about the tone of comments on social media and elsewhere. “I want people to feel welcome in Brampton; I want them to feel safe. I want them to know I have their backs.”

I am certain Brampton residents join me in wishing Mayor Jeffrey truly “had their backs” at Council. Given the endless squabbling and complete lack of cooperation among all Council members and Jeffrey’s inability to lead, Brampton has lurched from one debacle to another since Mayor Jeffrey was elected.

And many Bramptonians have been telling me they are fed up with Jeffrey’s constant taking credit for achievements that are in fact largely the work of her predecessor Susan Fennell and the previous council.

The funding of the Peel Memorial Centre for Health and Wellness, the original University plan, Brampton’s significant investment in expanded public transit, major infrastructure investment – all under Fennell. Jeffrey’s administration began with the failure to secure the approval to complete the LRT line through Brampton with the loss of $300 million in funding, and her record has not improved. 

Religious accommodation

Religious accommodation has been a fixture of life in Canada for years. Sikhs have worn kirpans, Muslim women the hijab, and for the most part Canadians have accepted diversity and gotten on with their lives.

While we must all defend the rights of our fellow citizens regardless of race, creed or colour, I believe politicians like our own Mayor need to remember their own public record before they wade in on any issue.

Jeffrey banned prayer in City Hall, and now supports it in Public Schools. Mayor Jeffrey needs to be reminded that, try as they might, even politicians can’t suck and blow at the same time, and voters have long grown tired of the hypocrisy of it all.


Brampton-based Surjit Singh Flora is a veteran journalist and freelance writer. 

Published in Commentary

by Danica Samuel in Toronto 

When Sheema Khan told audience members at the Aga Khan Museum that the men sitting at one of her last lectures refused to face her, the entire room cringed.

Khan, a Globe & Mail columnist, author and women’s activist, says that she became a activist and feminist because of the Muslim community and this kind of behaviour.

For Aga Khan’s lecture series “Islam in the 21st Century,” Khan spoke on the challenges and opportunities of being a woman, muslim and Canadian. 

Known for her fiery columns and controversial discussions on the perception of women in the Islamic community, Khan centred her talk around her latest book “Of Hockey and Hijab: New Reflections.”

Dr. Ruba Kana’an, head of Education and Scholarly Programs at Aga Khan, organized the event that had 250 audience members in attendance.

The topic was chosen amongst many that the Aga Khan visiting survey uncovered, but Kana’an said such a controversial topic was sure to pique the interest of many people within and outside of the Muslim community.

“The issues of women, gender [equality] and the perception of women [are] questions we always ask,” says Kana’an. “It’s important to address these issues especially with how much misconception and misunderstanding there is between patriarchy and religion. It’s a topic to bring to the public.”

Muslim women’s unhappiness in Canada

The highlights of Khan’s lecture related to the statistics that started off her talk, which she used to discuss how unhappy and targeted Muslim-Canadian women felt.

In the Environics Survey 2016, 42 per cent of Muslim women said they felt discriminated against. Of that percentage, 60 per cent wore a head covering and 40 per cent did not. Compare this to Muslim men, of whom only 27 per cent said they experienced discrimination.

Khan says this treatment leads Muslim women in Canada to be unhappy and concerned. 

“More Muslim women than men worry about how Canadians view Muslims. They are far more pessimistic than men are,” she says. “They worry about how Muslims are portrayed in the media, stereotyping their neighbours and wondering if the the next generation will face more difficulties than they do. ”

“More Muslim women than men worry about how Canadians view Muslims."

One of the members of the audience, Judy Csillag, who has been doing interfaith and intercultural work for over 35 years, says that these worries could stem from the fact that mothers and women see how prejudice affects their children more than the men.

“Khan spoke a lot about how women don’t go to the mosque as much as men do. They are usually at home with the kids and involved in their children’s life,” Csillag says.  

To the contrary, Khan says part of the reason why Muslim men are happier is because they aren’t seen as inferior in Islamic society.

Experiences drive desire for change

Khan recalled a few experiences in her lifetime where she felt that men refused to acknowledge her as a scholar and speaker.

One circumstance, Khan recalls, happened in 1996 in Quebec. She was preparing to  speak at a Unity Dinner — a function put together by the Islamic community to address inequality in their community — when she heard that the more Conservative mosque had rejected the idea of having her speak. 

They didn’t think a women should speak in public, she explains.

“One of my muslim colleagues said, ‘Sheema don’t take it personally, it’s not you they’re against, it’s just women in general,’” Khan repeats, laughing with the audience.

She says that the views that conservative Muslim men have of women stems from their ignorance of the roles of women during the prophetic era. 

They didn’t think a women should speak in public, she explains.

“There was one scholar, the late Abduhalim Abu Shaqqa: he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He [performed] very valuable research on Islamic women, which unfortunately is ignored in the Muslim world,” Khan explains.

“It took him ten years, but he looked at every single verse and narration that had to deal with women and, in conclusion, he found that the way women participated in society during the best era and generation is very different from what we see today in the Muslim world.”

The importance of women in the conversation

Kana’an says that hearing these stories is important for young immigrants looking to locate their experiences within a Canadian context. 

“One of the things that we are noticing [. . .] is that there is a happiness in the awareness of students, that they gain a sense that they matter, their history matters and that there is a worthwhile contribution they’ve made to the world at large,” she explains.

Csillag agrees, saying that as a refugee from Hungary, it was hard for her to settle in Canada.

Kana’an says that hearing these stories is important for young immigrants.

“[How] pleased my heart is that women are starting to take the stage, and Aga Khan has been a godsend for women speaking as equals,” she comments. “What was fantastic is that so much of the audience is not Muslim, so people are reaching out and wanting to learn.”

For Csillag and Khan both, educating the younger generation is of utmost importance in order to fight radicalization and misconceptions.

 

“Being treated as an inferior human being is something no one should go through” says Khan. “I decided that I had to fight back. And by pushing back that’s how I gained my self respect. I’ve created a lot of controversy in my community, and I don’t mind because I’m thinking of the next generation.”

 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Books

by Eddie Ameh in Ottawa 

Inside the main atrium of Carleton University, four women wearing hijabs (a head covering worn by some Muslim women) set up tables and stands with mounted posters and banners in one of the busiest areas on campus. The most distinct writing on the posters and banners reads #JeSuisHijabi. 

They are on their feet attending to people, mostly students, who come up to them to inquire about their mission. Among the women is Anna Ahmad, a government worker who has taken time off from her job to volunteer. 

“This is who we are and we can be what we want to be, wearing the hijab,” she says. 

Ahmad is among hundreds of Ahmadiyya Muslim women across Canada participating in a nationwide awareness campaign dubbed #JeSuisHijabi to explain the importance of the hijab and defuse any stereotypes related to it. 

“This is who we are and we can be what we want to be, wearing the hijab.”

Niqab in the last campaign 

In the recent federal election, the wearing of and proposed ban of the niqab (a veil worn by some Muslim women that covers the entire head and face except the eyes) became a point of political debate. 

The Conservatives insisted they were going to appeal a court decision that allows the wearing of the niqab while taking the citizenship oath, and that they would consider a ban on public servants wearing the niqab. 

However, the newly elected Liberal government recently decided not to appeal a Supreme Court decision to allow the wearing of the niqab during citizenship oath taking ceremonies. 

Imtiaz Ahmed, imam at the Ahmadiyya mosque in Cumberland, Ottawa says of the whole niqab debate, “It’s history now.” 

[T]he #JeSuisHijabi campaign challenges a widespread portrayal of Muslim women as being inferior to men.

He commends the Liberal government for discontinuing the case. Ahmed says allowing the niqab debate into the campaign was needless and hopes this does not happen again. 

Eesha Affan, one of the volunteers for the #JeSuisHijabi campaign, says the decision to wear a hijab or a niqab is to show people who they are as Muslim women. 

“It’s our own decision and we want to protect our modesty,” she explains. 

Equality in Islam 

Ahmad says the #JeSuisHijabi campaign challenges a widespread portrayal of Muslim women as being inferior to men. 

“This campaign is to create awareness that I am equal to a man, Islam allows me that equality,” she says. 

She says the campaign has received some attention especially with the hashtag #JeSuisHijabi on Twitter and Facebook. 

“Doing that campaign is creating that awareness of equality.” 

The negative portrayal of women in Islam is more culturally related.

Ahmed says this campaign comes at the right time to correct the misconception of how women are treated in Islam. He says Islam respects women and they are not forced to wear the hijab as it is always misconstrued. 

The negative portrayal of women in Islam is more culturally related, he adds. 

“Islam is not restricted to women in one country. People accept Islam and they have different cultures and different backgrounds and women are suppressed in some of the cultures,” Ahmed says. “It is the cultures that are to be blamed and not Islam.” 

Attacks on Muslim Women 

Following the shootings in Paris, there have been increases in attacks on Muslims in Canada. 

A mosque was set ablaze in Peterborough and a Muslim woman was robbed and attacked in Toronto. 

“We’re trying to tell people that we are a very peaceful community and we want to tell people that what ISIS and other terrorist groups are doing is not the real Islam,” Affan says. 

She says it is upsetting to hear of attacks on Muslim women and that ISIS is pushing fear into people’s hearts. 

“When someone feels fear, they do irrational things,” Affan says. “So we’re trying to take away that fear; love is so much [more] powerful than hate or fear will ever be and that’s what we’re trying to put in people’s hearts.” 

Ahmad emphasizes people need to be better informed. That is why the campaign’s purpose is to show people Islam is a peaceful religion. 

Ahmed says attacks on Muslim women especially are very unfortunate. 

“Just as those who perpetrate nefarious activities in the name of Islam don’t represent Islamic values, same thing with those who attack Muslims, they don’t represent Islamic values,” he says. 

It is, however, comforting to know that the majority of Canadians have been condemning these actions, he points out. Authorities are also on the lookout for people who attack Muslims. A Quebec man was arrested three weeks ago for threatening to kill a Muslim every week in a YouTube video. 

Affan and Ahmed say the constitution of Canada protects them just as it protects everyone. They want to be treated like any other citizen and not looked at suspiciously. 

For the next two weeks, while they campaign in three universities as well as major shopping malls in Ottawa, they have the huge task of swaying a lot of negative stereotypes. 

But even when the campaigning ends, they will still be in their hijabs and saying, #JeSuisHijabi. 

As Ahmad states, “It’s a campaign within ourselves, it’s not a campaign we’ll run for two weeks, and it’s an awareness I’ll have for life.”

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Top Stories

by Susan Delacourt in Ottawa

It might be an awkward time to remind Conservatives of this, but the current government has two different standards for when one can wear a niqab — one for citizenship ceremonies, one for voting.

It is definitely not OK — “offensive” even — for people to wear face coverings at citizenship ceremonies, Conservatives swiftly declared after an important court ruling cleared the way for that practice this week.

Voting, apparently, is a different matter. Despite all of their condemnations of veiled voting several years ago — and all the other sweeping changes in the 2014 Fair Elections Act making it tougher to vote — somehow Conservatives never did get around to banning face coverings at the ballot box.

That’s right. The same face coverings that are “offensive” in citizenship ceremonies are allowed in the voting booth, according to the Conservative government’s own laws … or lack of them.

So Zunera Ishaq, the 29-year-old woman who went to Federal Court to win the right to cover her face during a citizenship ceremony, didn’t have to go to court for the same right at the voting booth. She already had that right, as soon as she had Canadian citizenship.

Odder still, in Ishaq’s court case, a lawyer for the Justice Department testified that it was never the government’s intention to make it mandatory for women to remove face coverings at citizenship ceremonies.

Elections Canada has a procedure in place for any voters who want to cast a ballot while wearing face coverings on Oct. 19. Here’s how it described that procedure in an advisory sent out late last year after the Fair Elections Act became law:

If an elector wearing a face covering comes to vote, the deputy returning officer will ask the elector to show their face. If the elector agrees to remove their face covering, the election officer will follow regular voting procedures. Election officers have been instructed to exercise respect and sensitivity in following this administrative procedure. If the elector does not wish to remove their face covering, the deputy returning officer will advise the elector that they must provide two pieces of authorized identification, one proving their identity and the other proving their identity and address, and then take an oath attesting to their eligibility to vote. If the elector agrees to provide the identification and take the oath, the election officer will follow regular voting procedures.

It’s not like the government forgot to ban veiled voting in the Fair Elections Act. When a Commons committee was reviewing the bill in early 2014, Bloc MP André Bellavance specifically asked why the prohibition wasn’t in the bill. Two cabinet ministers, Jason Kenney and Pierre Poilievre, said they were open to amendments on that score.

The amendments never materialized.

Odder still, in Ishaq’s court case, a lawyer for the Justice Department testified that it was never the government’s intention to make it mandatory for women to remove face coverings at citizenship ceremonies.

What we have here is a textbook case of saying one thing and doing another in politics. The ‘saying’ part is for all the wrong reasons — the ‘doing’ part is for the right ones.

Sending dog-whistle signals

I suspect the Conservative government realized several years ago that it was legally impossible to ban veiled voting. Two attempts were made between 2007 and 2011. Both quietly died on the order paper.

Here’s why: It would amount to singling out certain members of the population for restricted rights. We do allow people to vote in Canada without showing their face at the ballot box — through proxies, or mail-in special ballots. How do you write a law that says some people don’t need to show their faces, but others do?

[T]he Conservatives took the path of blustering about niqabs and sending dog-whistle signals to people uncomfortable or fearful about Muslims. Bad statesmanship. Easy politics, though.

Moreover, a special law to prohibit the niqab would stomp all over Canadians’ rights to religious expression. That’s probably why the Justice Department lawyer felt he had to point out the non-mandatory aspect of the legislation in Federal Court.

Rather than explain this to Canadians, though, the Conservatives took the path of blustering about niqabs and sending dog-whistle signals to people uncomfortable or fearful about Muslims. Bad statesmanship. Easy politics, though.

We saw that earlier this year, as well, when the Conservatives sent out a fundraising e-mail asking supporters to sign up if they agreed that it was “offensive” to wear a niqab or a hijab at citizenship ceremonies. The e-mail left little doubt that the Conservatives were whipping up these sentiments for reasons of purest electoral politics.

The note was signed by Immigration Minister Chris Alexander and stirred up some controversy with his interchangeable use of ‘niqab’ and ‘hijab’; one is generally associated with full-face coverings, while the other, the hijab, is commonly used to describe a head covering.

To make things even more confusing, not all Conservatives have been using the word “offensive” when it comes to garments of religious expression. Kenney, for instance, said on Twitter in 2013: “A child is no less Canadian because she or he wears a kippa, turban, cross, or hijab to school.” Kenney sent out that missive in the midst of the Quebec debate over the wearing of religious symbols in public.

There’s still a month left in this election and it’s entirely possible that one of the eleventh-hour Conservative campaign promises will revolve around banning veiled voting — again. It would fit well with this week’s bluster on citizenship ceremonies.

This time we might ask them: Why did the last two attempts quietly die? Are they serious this time, or is this just another attempt to whip up some good old-fashioned intolerance?

What’s really being veiled here by all this talk about the niqab?


Susan Delacourt is one of Canada’s best-known political journalists. Over her long career she has worked at some of the top newsrooms in the country, from the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail to the Ottawa Citizen and the National Post. She is a frequent political panelist on CBC Radio and CTV. Author of four books, her latest — Shopping For Votes — was a finalist for the prestigious Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Canadian non-fiction in 2014. She teaches classes in journalism and political communication at Carleton University.

Published in partnership with iPolitics.ca.

Published in Commentary

by Jooneed Jeeroburkhan in Montreal

Quebec’s growing obsession with identity politics came to a head, quite literally, last month, when a judge refused to hear the case of a Muslim woman because, for religious reasons, she wore a hijab (a scarf that covers the hair) in court.

On Feb. 24, Rania El-Alloul, a single mother from Kuwait who lives on welfare, appeared in a Quebec court to ask that a confiscation order issued against her car by the province’s Automobile Insurance Authority (SAAQ) - resulting from an infraction with her 21-year-old son - be lifted.

Judge Eliana Marengo took a look at El-Alloul, and asked, “Why are you wearing this scarf? For religious reasons?”

“Yes, because I’m Muslim,” she replied. Without further questioning, the judge suspended the hearing for 30 minutes.

On resumption, Judge Marengo stated that the rules of the court did not allow El-Alloul to wear a hijab, in the same way it’s forbidden to wear a hat or sunglasses. She refused to hear the case if El-Alloul did not remove her scarf and later advised her to consult a lawyer and return to court at a later date to present her case.

El-Alloul, who has no income other than her welfare payments, could not afford to hire a lawyer. Therefore, she was denied her day in court.

Rallying Support

In the wake of the divisive electoral debate on the Quebec Charter of Values, which led to the defeat of the nationalist Parti Québécois (PQ) last year, the El-Alloul affair went viral on social media as well-wishers launched a crowd funding campaign to help the Canadian woman hire a lawyer and buy a new car.

The project amassed $20,000 within 24 hours, and has recently earned over $50,000. But El-Alloul says she cannot accept the money as it may affect her status as a welfare recipient. The money may still be used to help; there is talk of possibly setting up a scholarship fund for low-income kids.

El-Alloul says the decision stunned her – after all she had been wearing her hijab when she took her citizenship oath.

“The awareness raised by this campaign has brought us people from all over, who have offered support to carry this issue forward,” El-Alloul wrote in a letter posted on the fundraising website. “As a result, I believe these funds can be put to better use helping those whose rights have been forfeited and stories left untold,” she added.

In an interview with the CBC’s The National, El-Alloul says the decision stunned her – after all she had been wearing her hijab when she took her citizenship oath – and she cried non-stop after leaving court.

The story made headlines across Canada and abroad, prompting Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office to issue a statement saying that people should be permitted to appear before a judge as long as their faces are not covered. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau also publicly condemned the judge’s decision.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said that people should only be forced to remove a part of their clothing if it causes problems for, “communication, identification or security.”

El-Alloul now plans to file a complaint against the judge. She says she’s working with the Ottawa-based National Council of Canadian Muslims on a formal complaint to the Quebec Judicial Council, which oversees judges appointed by the province.

Following the successful crowd funding campaign, she has been gathering support from other human rights groups. And another Montreal resident, Jean-Pierre Lussier — who doesn’t know her — has also filed a complaint with the Judicial Council.

“Disrespectful” and “Discriminatory

Sukania Pillay, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, told The Canadian Press that asking El-Alloul to remove her hijab was disrespectful and violated her fundamental right to freedom of religion.

El-Alloul’s case has become a new battleground for the province’s aggressive push to impose French-style “secular values” on its growing non-Western immigrant population — especially Muslims.

“The courtroom has every right to be secular,” said Pillay. “But that doesn’t translate into telling people what they can and cannot wear in a manner that’s incompatible with their freedom of religion.”

Lucie Lamarche, a lawyer for Quebec’s League for rights and freedoms, said that there is no precedent for judge Marengo’s decision and called it “extremely personal and discriminatory.”

A Push for Secular Values

But not everyone agrees. El-Alloul’s case has become a new battleground for the province’s aggressive push to impose French-style “secular values” on its growing non-Western immigrant population — especially Muslims.

François Legault, leader of Quebec’s third party, the CAQ (Coalition for the Future of Quebec), made the news when he proposed a plan aimed at assimilating immigrants by teaching them French and Quebec values over a three-year period. The purpose being that if they fail their final exams, they would be sent back to their countries of origin.

“Demography and immigration mean we are losing one county every year. We’d wish to control it better, but let’s have no illusions.” - Pierre Karl Péladeau

Pierre Karl Péladeau, who’s most likely to win the leadership of the Parti Québécois (PQ), said in a candidates’ debate last week that immigration threatens Quebec’s sovereignty project.

“We won’t have 25 years to achieve independence,” he said. “Demography and immigration mean we are losing one county every year. We’d wish to control it better, but let’s have no illusions.”

After he was criticized for his statement, Péladeau issued an apology, saying his words did not properly convey his thoughts – but the message to the PQ electorate was conveyed, and the fallout lingers.

Islamophobic incidents are on the rise in Quebec – often exemplified by taunts against hijab-wearing women, acts of vandalism on Islamic schools and desecration of graveyards.

Now, Ville Saint-Laurent, a suburb of Montreal, has ordered the closure of the Al-Andalus mosque citing zoning regulations. And the town of Shawinigan-Sud turned down a request from the local Islamic Cultural Centre to build a mosque there – with social media users welcoming the move, essentially equating mosques to breeding terrorism.


Jooneed Jeeroburkhan, 70, is a journalist, writer, human rights activist, feminist and grandfather living in Montreal. He came to study in Canada, on a Commonwealth scholarship, 50 years ago from Mauritius. He retired from the Montreal daily La Presse in 2009 after 35 years as a reporter and analyst on international affairs, visiting some 60 countries in the process. He published a book of essays, in French, on his native country, in 2010, titled Un autre Maurice est possible (Another Mauritius is Possible).

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Commentary

by Shireen Ahmed (@_ShireenAhmed_) in Mississauga

With a federal election in plain sight, Canadians can look forward to politicians passionately declaring their commitment to the betterment of society. Election strategies involve debating and deflecting from pressing issues such as foreign policy, military commitments, the environment and budget concerns. Often, party leaders choose to focus on a message that might unite the public. They pander to potential voters, and their election staff and advisors carefully prepare strategies.

In an attempt to get re-elected, the Harper government has unsurprisingly chosen to highlight his commitment to fighting terrorism as his primary platform, but in an odd turn, is obsessing with a woman’s constitutional right to wear niqab as a point to rile up voters and distract them from real concerns.

Niqab Deemed ‘Anti-Women’

Last week, still irked after a Supreme Court judge ruled against the government’s attempt to ban niqab at citizenship ceremonies, Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared that wearing niqab (a veil that covers the face) was “rooted in a culture that is anti-women”. His comments provoked much response from social media as Canadians took to Twitter to mock his misogynistic and Islamophobic remarks using the hashtags #DressCodePM and #ListenNotSave.

Perhaps Harper’s lip service to the plight of oppressed and ‘enslaved women’ might have been tolerable had he and his colleague not been so greatly misinformed.

That Harper attempted to present himself as someone who is concerned with the status of women is laughable. Particularly as his government has repeatedly ignored calls to investigate thousands of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

Perhaps Harper’s lip service to the plight of oppressed and ‘enslaved women’ might have been tolerable had he and his colleague not been so greatly misinformed, and had either of them communicated or reached out to a single woman who chooses to wear niqab.

“I am not looking for Mr. Harper to approve my life choices or dress. I am certainly not looking for him to speak on my behalf and “save” me from oppression, without even ever having bothered to reach out to me and speak with me,” wrote Zunera Ishaq in the Toronto Star. Ishaq is the woman who launched the legal challenge to Ottawa’s ban of niqabs.

It is clear that through the ongoing debates of his Anti-Terrorism Bill C-51, Harper will link Islam and potential terrorism to convince Canadians that his government is the only one equipped to fight this madness (earlier this month Embassy Magazine released a cartoon by Michael de Adder - shown to the right - that pokes fun at this). This is despite a recent report from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) stating that it is “white supremacy” and not Islam that is the biggest threat to national security.

Policing of Women in 2015

Harper’s incessant attempt to shame Muslim women and comment on their mode of dress is not unexpected. Another recent political adventure of the Harper government was its introduction of Bill S7 known as the “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices”. This is an unnecessary bill, marinated in ignorance, inferring that newcomers – namely those with a strong cultural background – would threaten peace and safety of Canadian woman. Targeting marginalized communities is horrendous. Advocates from violence against women agencies and law clinics, who are experts in dealing with cases of abuse, are challenging this legislation.

Surely, Alexander, the Minister of Immigration and Citizenship, might want to consider learning about the difference between ‘hijab’ and ‘niqab’.

At the helm of Bill S7 is Minister Chris Alexander, who, taking a page from the Prime Minister’s handbook on inflammatory comments, has been spewing hateful and ignorant commentary via e-mail and on Twitter, while simultaneously confusing hijab and niqab.

Surely, Alexander, the Minister of Immigration and Citizenship, might want to consider learning about the difference between ‘hijab’ and ‘niqab’. Perhaps he is satisfied with maligning any outfit a Muslim woman chooses to wear. Regardless of his experience abroad, Alexander does not get to decide what hijab and niqab mean to Canadian women.

Nor does Harper have the power or privilege to strip women of their privileges accorded by section 2a of the Canadian Charter of Freedoms and Rights Act.

Policing women’s bodies and controlling their clothing is the same modus operandi of the extremist governments, which the frenzied Harper and Alexander claim to be against.

It must be noted that one does not have to agree with every choice a fellow Canadian makes in order to support their right to choose it. The mere fact that these discussions are raging in 2015 over an article of clothing a woman chooses to wear is reprehensible. That is the real face of a culture that is increasingly anti-women. Policing women’s bodies and controlling their clothing is the same modus operandi of the extremist governments, which the frenzied Harper and Alexander claim to be against.

And it is the same misogyny upon which the Harper government has set its course. In fact some of his esteemed colleagues now seem to be falling in the ranks and also making xenophonic and misogynistic remarks on this issue, as did Tory MP Larry Miller. To conflate issues of immigration and religious clothing is dangerous and horribly offensive. Not all practising Muslims in Canada are recent immigrants. Many actually choose to dress a certain way because of the freedoms allowed in Canada.

It would be of no surprise if Canadians soon begin to tire of Harper’s frantic rhetoric asserting a fear of terrorism to fan political support – even drawing on support from the United States.

Harper’s attempt to push Bills S7 and C51, and his repetition of the perils of niqabs, stems from his documented bias against Islam.

But for Stephen Harper to try to use the plight of women in the same sweep as his intolerant comments is ill advised and unbecoming of a statesman and the leader of this magnificent country. To arrogantly declare what he feels is Canadian dressing and Canadian culture is, in fact, the anti-thesis of being Canadian: tolerant, strong and free.


Shireen Ahmed is a writer, public speaker and sports activist focusing on Muslim women in sports. She is an athlete, advocate, community organizer, and works with youth of colour on empowerment projects. She is a regular contributor to Muslimah Media Watch, a global sports correspondent for Safe World For Women and works on the Muslim Women in Sports website. Her work has been featured and discussed in Racialicious, Policy Mic, The Globe and Mail and several more. Ahmed’s blog Tales from a Hijabi Footballer, where her passion for sport, politics and women’s issues collide, has been recognized by Sports Media for its candid discussions. She is currently working on her first book.

 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

 

Published in Commentary

by Richard M. Landau (@Richard54) in Toronto

So a woman is told she can’t testify in a Quebec court while wearing a hijab. The Prime Minister speaks out against women wanting to take the oath of Canadian citizenship while wearing a niqab, which makes only a person’s eyes visible. 

Let’s weigh what facts we know.

If the Quebec justice is going to be totally consistent, then no one – no Muslim, no Sikh, no Jew, no Christian will be permitted to testify in her court while wearing religious gear. So, if you are a nun in full habit or an elderly woman given to wearing head covering… no mercy, strip for the judge. I guess that also means if any of Quebec’s three Roman Catholic Cardinals (not to mention numerous archbishops and bishops) are subpoenaed to court, they too would get the same heave-ho. After all, it’s all equal treatment under the law. 

Did the justice think through the significant implications of her action? Probably not.

But those who argue on the side of absolute religious freedom also have a flawed argument. Since when has our society been compelled to acknowledge that all must accept every self-declared religious or creed-based observance? Do we let the child of Jehovah’s Witnesses, in need of a blood transfusion, die? No.

We need to remember that freedoms, when exercised, will sometimes permit behaviours we frankly don’t like. Welcome to the rule of unintended consequences.

If we are going to say that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects all forms of religious expression even forms of dress, are we ready to allow members of the Digambara sect of Jainism and the occasional Hindu sadhu (holy man) to stroll naked through our streets as they do in parts of India? In fact, Canadians of a certain age may recall how the members of the Freedomite sect of the Doukhobors in BC paraded naked in public as a form of religious protest, while practicing arson and bombings. After all, if we are going to look the other way (literally) over public displays of nudity during Pride Week, why get upset over a simple face or hair covering? We need to remember that freedoms, when exercised, will sometimes permit behaviours we frankly don’t like. Welcome to the rule of unintended consequences. 

All of which begs the question, is some practice worthy of Charter 2 protection just because someone says it is? Will someone show me where in the Bible it is made compulsory that Mennonite men have to wear suspenders? What about the Hutterites in Western Canada who argue that they shouldn’t have to be compelled to have their photos taken for drivers’ licences – on religious grounds? Which religious grounds, you ask? “The second commandment,” they answer. You know that one about not making graven images. Well those poor Hutterites need to brush up on their aleph-beth-gimels because the Hebrew prohibition is against making graven images/likenesses/tokens of the Almighty, not images of Shemp and Lucky Hildeberger, or you and me. Oh, and if you are opposed to all graven images of people, then that means you’re also going to have to remove the mirrors from your vehicle, lest you catch a glimpse of an image of a human. And, if you take the mirrors off your vehicles, well then, I don’t think you should be allowed on public roads. Game. Set. Match. 

In other words, just because you say your religion compels you to do something, doesn’t mean the rest of us have to acquiesce to your reasoning – even though our religiously ignorant courts fold and capitulate at the very hint of the religion word. Our judges and even the politicians have little understanding of legitimate religion, and yet, they are quick to cede ground to it or make pronouncements about it. 

Why the Niqab Bothers Us

First, some facts. No less an authority than Sheikh Tantawi of Cairo, a leading Islamic scholar, rejected the belief that the niqab is a religiously ordained form of dress. Tantawi and others say that niqab is not fard (obligatory) nor even mustahab (recommended). In fairness, there are sects who do support it. It should also be pointed out the niqab has cultural roots that predate the advent of Islam. Culture 1, Religion 0.

I wonder, if we compel all people to reveal their faces in public, what implications would this have for someone who veils his or her face due to a birth defect or disfiguration or an outside worker wearing a ski mask on a cold winter day?

Which brings me back to why the niqab bothers us as a society. I know that many of my fellow Canadians regard the wearing of a niqab as anti-social and a refusal to engage. They feel that the wearer is making a statement that ‘my loyalty is to my faith, not my nation.’ Others feel that those wearing a niqab are looking down on the established order and the social contract. After all, our experience and our culture historically link covering of the face to deception, subterfuge and recently, evil ISIS henchmen, or even a bunch of guys bluffing and deceiving each other while… playing poker!

How many of the niqabis were raised by mothers and grandmothers who also wore the niqab? In other words, are they wearing it because that is their tradition – or out of some misplaced sense of anti-social piety and a superiority complex that is sometimes ascribed to those who wear the niqab?

Here again, let’s be measured and fair. Why all the fuss? There are literally only a handful of women in Canada who have chosen this type of garment. I wonder, if we compel all people to reveal their faces in public, what implications would this have for someone who veils his or her face due to a birth defect or disfiguration or an outside worker wearing a ski mask on a cold winter day? Oh, and before you get too smug, consider this: 1 Corinthians 11 talks of women covering their heads, as does 1 Timothy 2. Or, as another example, Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair because of its “sexual potency”.

See, this is not as simple as we think, is it?

So, weighing the facts, let’s make a case for sensible accommodation. In other words, Hutterites need photo IDs and mirrors in their cars… baptized Sikhs need to wear helmets for hockey, motorcycling and even construction sites. Niqabi women will reveal their countenances to the authorities when passing through airport or security checkpoints, and as I am told, they do that now.

Calm down everyone, it’s only a handful of women wearing the niqab. It won’t irreparably damage our society, even though a good many of us find it off-putting and extremely anti-social.


Richard M. Landau has been responsible for adjudicating disputes and enforcing a television network code of ethics in a religious broadcasting setting since 1992. He is a graduate of Carleton University and the University of Ottawa. A leader in interfaith dialogue, Landau has consulted with the UK Home Office, and the White House Office of Community and Faith-Based Initiatives.  He works closely with leadership in all of the major world religions. He is author of What the World Needs to Know about Interfaith Dialogue.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Commentary
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