The longest-running federal election campaign in modern Canadian history has been enmeshed in a ferocious debate over the niqab, a veil which covers the face, and whether Muslim women who choose to wear it may remain veiled while taking their oath of citizenship.
Judging from how the niqab debate has hijacked the national agenda, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has pulled the wool over voters’ eyes.
For more than a month now, a piece of cloth worn by a Pakistan-born woman has shrouded the Harper government’s sorry record. This includes his Senate appointees’ spending scandals, his disdain for investigating the cases of hundreds of murdered or missing First Nations women, and his unabashed support for Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel.
Nobody is talking about all the laws his government passed since they were ruled unconstitutional by the courts. There’s virtually no coverage of the muzzles he ordered on government scientists who can no longer speak about the environment, even as he strikes down pollution regulations.
The list does go on.
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Economic and democratic issues have been muted all because Zunera Ishaq, 29, a suburban mother of four, had refused to unveil during the public portion of her swearing-in ceremony.
Even though she has won a string of court victories and, finally last week, was made a citizen in time to vote on October 19, fears are that her niqab may still hand Harper his fourth electoral win.
It has lifted his poll figures from third place, behind the New Democratic and Liberal parties, to a neck-and-neck race for first place.
Canada has always allowed veiled women to take the oath, as long as female citizenship officials verify their identities. But that changed in 2011 when Jason Kenney – then minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism and now in charge of defence – banned the niqab during the public ceremonies.
Since then, out of more than 680,000 immigrants who have taken the oath, only two women have opted to do so while veiled. Lucky for Harper, one was Ishaq. That’s because the former high school teacher from Karachi, who had passed all the requisite language and other tests, refused to go away quietly. In 2014, she sued the government.
Her case has since provided the Conservatives countless opportunities to drive a wedge into Canadian society and exploit tensions between those who believe that the state has no place in the closets of the nation and those who insist that they have the right to dictate what women wear.
To me, the most important Canadian value is the freedom to be the person of my own choosing.
The results have been ugly: In the past two weeks, two women in headscarves, by coincidence or by design, have been attacked. One pregnant woman was knocked off her feet in Montreal. Another was accosted in a Toronto mall.
Muslim women who wear the veil report that they are afraid to leave their homes unaccompanied.
“[Harper] is stirring up the politics of fear and division in a way that, quite frankly, is unworthy of the office he holds,” Liberal leader Justin Trudeau said earlier this month.
Meanwhile, Ishaq had the law on her side. In February 2015, Federal Justice Keith M Boswell ruled that the niqab ban violated government regulations, which give citizenship judges the authority to administer the oath “with dignity and solemnity, allowing the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnisation”.
However, “dignity and solemnity” are not in the Conservative playbook, particularly when it comes to Muslims.
This is the government that selectively accepts Christian immigrants from the Middle East, strips dual citizens of their Canadian passports and refugees of healthcare, and has proposed a telephone line where Canadians can register “barbaric cultural practises”, such as the female genital mutilation supposedly occurring next door.
No wonder Harper demanded, “Why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practise at that time that is not transparent, that is not open and, frankly, is rooted in a culture that is anti-women?”
As for current Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, he said that Canadians “don’t want their co-citizens to be terrorists”.
Worse, Conservative MP Larry Miller announced that Muslim women in niqab should “stay the hell where [they] came from”, adding that “most Canadians feel the same”.
If the polls are to be credited, they are correct. The country is so riven by Conservative identity politics that the vote on the centre-left will split – and the Conservatives will return to Ottawa.
Last month, Harper’s appeal of the Boswell decision was rejected. His effort to stop Ishaq from becoming a citizen in time to vote was also struck down. Now he plans to go to the Supreme Court to argue that the niqab is, as Kenney insisted two weeks ago, “anchored in medieval tribal customs as opposed to any religious obligation”.
Not according to Canadian jurisprudence. That’s because in 2004 after Montreal Jews sued their condominium corporation for the right to erect temporary structures on their apartment balconies to celebrate the Succot harvest festival, the Supreme Court ruled that there is no legal distinction between religious “obligation” and “custom”, as long as the belief is sincerely held.
The government’s lawyers must know this, although no mention of this has been made in the media. Maybe that’s why Harper has doubled down yet again, announcing that – as Quebec has repeatedly attempted to do since 2010 and his own government tried in June, just before parliament was dissolved – he would ban the employment of veiled women in the civil service.
The determined Ishaq can only say: “To me, the most important Canadian value is the freedom to be the person of my own choosing,” which makes her more of a Canadian than those who would rob her of the right to follow her faith as she sees fit.
Antonia Zerbisias is an award-winning Canadian journalist. She has been a reporter and TV host for the Toronto Star, the CBC, as well as the Montreal correspondent for Variety trade paper.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.