Canada hijab row is all about the anti-terror act

Western men who never before opined on women’s rights suddenly want to liberate them.

Pedestrians walk past the Bank of Canada office in Ottawa
Canada is one of the most accommodating countries in the world, writes Zerbisias [REUTERS]

Ever since 9/11, the terrorist scaremongering has been raining down on Muslim women’s heads.

Or, more precisely, headcoverings.

Political cartoonists depict hijab-clad women as symbols of how Islamists will enslave all infidels if we don’t strike first. Western men who never before opined on women’s rights suddenly want to liberate them, if only to justify invading their countries. Muslim women’s clothing choices allow us to rail against Islam, to portray it as backward, tribal, other, alien while ignoring repressive practices in other regions and religions. 

In Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Canada, the veil has once again been lifted on this issue, and women again must face the consequences.

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Last month, Ontario Federal Court Judge Keith Boswell tossed out a three-year-old ban imposed by the Conservative government against face coverings at citizenship swearing-in ceremonies. He ruled that Zunera Ishaq, a Muslim teacher from Pakistan, had the right to become a Canadian in niqab (the face covering worn by some Muslim women). All she needed to do was to sign an affidavit affirming that she had taken the oath in the citizenship judge’s presence.

‘Not how we do things here’

The irony in all this is that recognition of our freedoms of religion and conscience is at the core of the oath itself. Not that it matters to the Conservative government. In announcing his intention to appeal, Harper called Ishaq’s refusal to bare her face at the ceremony “offensive”, and “not how we do things here”.

Except that it is how we do things here. That’s why Ishaq and her family chose this country over others. Canada is one of the most accommodating countries in the world.

Or at least it was until the current government decided to whip up the Islamic terrorist bogeyman for political gain.

Within days of Boswell’s ruling, the Conservative party exploited the case on its website, by showing a woman’s raised hand alongside text that reads: “In Canada, women are full and equal members of society – including when they take the oath of citizenship. That is why we are strongly opposed to wearing a niqab – a full face covering – while taking the oath.”

Meanwhile, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander would tell reporters: “I worry when some of those defending the idea of keeping a woman behind a niqab in a citizenship ceremony are also those who say that we don’t need these protections for women from violence and from abuse. It’s something we’re all passionate about in Canada, there is no place for violence against women or any domestic violence in this country.”

This from a government that is deaf to appeals for inquiries into the fates of more than 1,000 murdered and missing Indigenous women.

Much better to focus on the spectre of Islamism in order to ram through Bill C-51, Harper’s  “Anti-Terrorism Act”. It’s an alarming set of revisions to Canada’s laws that critics all along the political spectrum fear will curtail Canadians’ rights and freedoms – and do so without sufficient oversight.

Convenient distraction

But, as oil prices tank and Harper’s vision of creating a petro state sinks with them, terrorism is a convenient distraction from the economy in an election year. It’s playing so well in the polls that even Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau supports it.

When el-Alloul applied to get the seized vehicle back, she was instructed to remove her hijab because she was not 'suitably dressed' as the rules of the Quebec court dictate.


Into this fear-fuelled atmosphere stumbles Rania el-Alloul, a Montreal single mother of three whose son was caught driving her car with a suspended license. When Alloul applied to get the seized vehicle back, she was instructed to remove her hijab because she was not “suitably dressed” as the rules of the Quebec court dictate.

“Hats and sunglasses for example, are not allowed. And I don’t see why scarves on the head would be either,” Judge Eliana Marengo lectures her in a recording obtained by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. 

The fact is, Alloul has jurisprudence to support her case. It suggests that, even though hijab may not be essential to being a devout Muslim woman, the fact that she believes it is suffices, as evidenced by a 2004 Supreme Court of Canada decision regarding Orthodox Jewish practices.

Canadians have rallied to her side, raising some $50,000 for a new car. A complaint has been filed with Quebec’s judicial council against Marengo. A Twitter hashtag #suitablydressed has trended.

The outcry against Judge Marengo was so vociferous, Harper’s office was forced to condemn her decision, in a grudging one-line statement: “If someone is not covering their face, we believe they should be allowed to testify.”

“Allowed”, as if testifying in a court of law on one’s behalf is not a right, just like freedom of religion.

Canadian women, or those who want to be Canadian, should be free to choose how to present themselves to the world, and not be forced to conform to patriarchal religions – nor to patriarchal governments which are all too selective about which women and women’s rights they support and when.

In this regard, Canada is headed down the wrong road.

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.