Battle for Citizenship on Cultural Terms
In mid-September, Zunera Ishaq, a Muslim Pakistani immigrant seeking Canadian citizenship, was turned away because she refused to take off her veil during the citizenship ceremony. Ishaq brought the case to court, which ruled in her favor that is was unlawful for the government to ban religious veils at the ceremony. The federal government is currently undergoing an appeals process to challenge the ruling in the supreme court. Timing is everything in this process; the decision will affect her ability to vote in the Canadian federal election on October 19th.
According to a spokesperson for Canada’s Conservative Leader, who reiterated the prime minister’s sentiments, “most Canadians find it offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family.” The defense minister agrees with this opinion, stating that “At that one very public moment, of a very public declaration of one’s loyalty to one’s fellow citizens and country, one should do so openly, proudly and publicly, without one’s face hidden.” Many citizens have expressed their fear that allowing Muslim women to wear their niqab to the citizenship ceremony is akin to allowing anti-feminist and “barbaric” traditions to permeate the Canadian political culture. This verbiage of “barbarianism” may be borrowed from the resurfacing of the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, which would be reinforced and promoted if the conservative party were re-elected.
Ms. Ishaq has expressed her disappointment in how the conservative party has handled her issue, particularly in the way the party presented her case to the public. Moreover, she claims to be saddened that they have integrated this issue into their platforms rather than focusing their attention on more serious events. Many liberal frontrunners in the federal election have also been angered by the focus on the niqab because it detracts from more pressing issues and may set “a dangerous precedent that threatens to undermine the country’s delicate multiculturalism.”
In response to conservative claims that wearing the niqab promotes anti-female and violent cultural and religious traditions, Ishaq’s supporters draw attention to the fact that Ishaq has undergone extensive background checks prior to the citizenship ceremony and that the government does not have enough – if any – proof that this tradition will bring harm to Canadian citizens.
This issue has ignited conversations regarding protected freedoms and enduring Islamophobia. These conversations have been magnified by the conservative party, who have rapidly integrated this discussion into their election platforms. Should pursuing Canadian citizenship require Ishaq to forfeit some of the religious and cultural traditions she has brought from Pakistan, in an effort to show more “pride in being Canadian”? In refusing to allow Ishaq to wear her veil, is the government overstepping the rights of the citizens to practice their religion and culture freely? Does the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act encourage discrimination and suspicion between fellow citizens? If so, isn’t it the responsibility of the government to protect the citizens from this very thing?