Is the niqab going to determine Canada’s next prime minister?

Updated 14 Oct 2015

Email

Partisan politics in Canada has swayed the debate away from what matters to the country to a few square inches of cloth. —AP/File
Partisan politics in Canada has swayed the debate away from what matters to the country to a few square inches of cloth. —AP/File

Zunera Ishaq is a niqab-wearing Canadian immigrant of Pakistani origin; she is also likely to determine Canada’s future prime minister.

Ms Ishaq picked a legal fight with the right-wing Canadian Conservative government over her right to take the oath of citizenship while wearing a niqab. She prevailed.

In so doing, she has inadvertently swayed the electorate in the Conservatives’ favour, who were otherwise falling out of favour with the Canadian voters.

Canadians are heading to polls next week. The incumbents (the Conservative Party) are running a political campaign on their opposition to the niqab, a piece of cloth that hides the wearer’s face, exposing only the eyes.

The Conservatives have mastered the politics of fear, scaring the electorate of a make-believe onslaught of niqab-wearing women on Canada.

Ms Ishaq and her ilk are hardly a grassroots movement in Canada. Still, the Conservatives have made niqab to be the centerpiece of their campaign because despite being in the government for eight years, they don’t have a stellar record on economy, job creation, trade or the building of Canada’s image internationally.

Also read: Choosing between religion and justice in a Canadian court

Thomas Muclair, the leader of the left-leaning National Democratic Party, was in the lead until recently, with many pundits speculating that he may be the next prime minister. He took a principled stand on Ms Ishaq’s right to wear whatever she pleased to her oath taking.

Mr Muclair and his party have paid dearly for standing up for their principles. Their support in the French-speaking Quebec province, which until a couple of weeks earlier had lined up right behind the NDP, evaporated after the niqab controversy.

Know more: Anti-Muslim rhetoric dominates election campaign in Canada

Quebeckers have an estranged relationship with, not just Islam, but organised religion in general.

Some Quebeckers even objected to the presence of a cross at Quebec’s National Assembly (Quebec’s provincial legislator). A nationalist government in Quebec earlier passed a law that banned the wearing of religious symbols by public-sector workers. The law applied to all religions, but its target, and the motivation for promulgation, were the Muslim women who wore hijab (a head-covering that does not cover the face).

Mr Muclair’s federalist party had swept the last federal elections in Quebec. In a province overtly opposed to any public manifestation of religion, supporting a niqab-wearing woman would hardly be popular.

Mr Muclair knew this. However, principles, and not political brinkmanship, mattered more to him. Now, in the third position behind the Liberals and Conservatives, Mr Muclair is still miles ahead of the rest on standing up for his convictions.

It must sound Machiavellian, but it’s true.


The gurus of partisan politics in Canada have swayed the debate away from what matters to Canada, i.e., aboriginal rights, economy, environment, jobs, and global human development, to a few square inches of a piece of cloth that covers the face of a Pakistani immigrant in Canada.

What does it say about the Conservatives in Canada, or more importantly, the gullibility of an electorate that can so readily fall for a gimmick?

The Conservatives speak for the rights of “old stock Canadians”, a euphemism for White, Christian, and (soon to be) pensioners, who will draw their old-age benefits on the backs of taxes raised from today’s workers, many of whom are, like Ms Ishaq, immigrants.

Despite the overt racist underpinnings of the Conservative campaign and its targeting of immigrant minorities, many immigrant communities readily offer their support to the Conservatives.

Some in the Indian diaspora – large enough to tilt the balance in the Conservatives’ favour in the suburban ridings in Toronto and other cities – for instance, have increasingly agreed with the Conservatives’ agenda because they like the Conservatives’ strong stance against Muslims in Canada and abroad.

A few months ago, when the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, addressed a ‘sold out’ crowd in Toronto, the Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, was at the centre stage with Mr Modi, trying to shore up support in what was effectively a pre-election rally.

Take a look: 'It is not their faces they're hiding, it is their fears'

I am, personally not enthused by Ms Ishaq’s decision to hide her face from the rest of the citizenry. Her interpretation of her faith creates a mistrust between her and the rest of the society.

I wish the diktat were even more severe for face-covering women, where they were also forbidden from seeing others’ uncovered faces. Only then, they would realise how this erects isolating walls of mistrust between neighbours.

However, regardless of my disapproval of Ms Ishaq’s decision to cover her face, I find her to be a brave and inspiring woman who stood up for what she believed was right and took a sitting government to task.

She has demonstrated the tenacity and courage of a conscientious citizen, and I welcome her to the fold as a fellow Canadian citizen.