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Woman at Center of Canada’s Niqab Battle Becomes Citizen as Debate Rages in Election

On Friday, voters showed up at some advance polls wearing face coverings and potato sacks over their head to protest Muslim women who wear headscarves and niqabs.
Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press

Three court decisions later, the woman at the center of the niqab controversy that's dominated the federal election in Canada finally took her citizenship oath, just the way she wanted to.

Zunera Ishaq, a Pakistani woman who has been a permanent resident in Canada since 2008, sued Canada's immigration ministry over its recent policy banning face coverings during citizenship ceremonies, arguing that it infringed on her religious freedom. Canada's federal court ruled in her favor earlier this year, dismissed the government's appeal, and then rejected its attempt to have the decision held until the Supreme Court could hear the case. The court argued that Ishaq should have the right to vote in the Oct. 19 election.


"Thank you so much for honoring me today," Ishaq, 29, said at the ceremony held outside of Toronto.

The woman at heart of niqab controversy gets citizenship — Susan Ormiston (@OrmistonOnline)October 9, 2015

Her legal battle has made niqabs a divisive issue in the tight political race, with many criticizing Prime Minister Stephen Harper for using it as a cheap ploy to garner votes and distract from other issues like his economic and environmental record. This week in an interview, Harper alluded he would explore banning niqabs in federal buildings. He has repeatedly said the niqab is rooted in a culture that is "anti-women."

In an interview with CBC Radio earlier this week, Ishaq explained that she started wearing the niqab at age 15, without any pressure from her family or community. The preoccupation with her niqab has her feeling unsafe in public, she said.

"People are staring at me keenly and some of the body language is telling me something is wrong," Ishaq said, adding that others have recently told her to "go back to your country" and "ninjas are coming to attack."

Related: Canadian Academics Accuse Harper Campaign of 'Vicious Propaganda'

On Friday, more than 600 Canadian academics released an open letter condemning Harper's campaign strategy as "vicious propaganda" that serves to "pit Canadians against one another" and stoke racism and Islamophobia.

Last month, a Quebec woman started an anti-niqab Facebook event called Je Vote Voilée — or "I vote veiled" in English — urging Canadians to show up to the voting booth next week wearing a niqab or hijab in protest of the religious symbols.


"We invite you to participate in this legal and peaceful movement," the group says in French in its description. "We ask that the electoral vote be made openly. We ask that the oath of citizenship is done openly."

More than 8,600 have said they will join in, and more 144,000 have been invited to participate. On Friday, the first day of the advance polls, people began posting photos of themselves wearing headscarves, niqabs and even potato sacks over their heads while voting.

One woman who voted posted a photo of herself wearing the niqab with the caption: "At the polling station, no questions, no oath of honor or anything more than if I had had the face uncovered."

"I feel proud … It's fine to talk, but action is needed to show the absurdity of the thing," she wrote.

And it's not just at the voting booth that protests have erupted. On Thursday night, a man in Calgary was arrested after he disrupted a federal candidates debate while covering his face with a Confederate flag, apparently to protest the niqab.

According to a police spokesperson, the hate crimes co-ordinator will be involved in the investigation.

There's been a number of other attacks against Muslims over the last few weeks. At least two women have been attacked while wearing headscarves, prompting harsh criticism from Liberal leader Justin Trudeau who urged the prime minister to "stop this before someone truly gets hurt."


But others are wearing the niqab out of solidarity with Muslim women in Canada, and as a way to criticize anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Hey — Alethea ArnaquqBaril (@Alethea_Aggiuq)October 9, 2015

Using the hashtag #DoIMatterNow, indigenous women are sharing photos of themselves covering their faces. "Hey Harper, do I matter now?" wrote one woman on Facebook. "Indigenous women are fighting for the right to be safe and in control of our own bodies, and INSTEAD of launching an inquiry [into missing and murdered Aboriginal women] … Harper attacks our Muslim sisters for [w]hat they choose to wear."

When asked by the CBC this week about anti-Muslim rhetoric during the campaign, Harper said he "didn't think you can use that kind of thing to discredit some kind of legitimate political debate."

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne