Elle Beaver brings you profiles of the women who are shaping the 2015 federal election (#elxn42), the pundits, spin-doctors, journalists and activists who are making headlines, shaping our political landscape and who are vying for YOUR vote! In this edition, we focus on Zunera Ishaq, the woman who is fighting to assert her right to wear the niqab at her citizenship ceremony.
Hers is the face that launched a thousand political squabbles. Zunera Ishaq, the woman the Stephen Harper Government is attempting to force into casting aside her niqab as she swears her citizenship oath.
Some have applauded Ishaq. Others have mocked her. Admired and commended her pluck. Reviled and ridiculed her temerity. No one is indifferent to her — from our political leaders thumping their fists on their electoral pulpits; feminist bloggers of all stripes punching away at their laptops; to everyday opinionated types in the wastelands of the Internet. And the 82% of Canadians who feel that they are owed Zunera Ishaq’s bare face, supporting the ban on the niqab at citizenship ceremonies.
In a recent interview with Macleans, Ishaq suggested that her case is meant to distract (a “weapon of mass distraction,” says NDP leader Thomas Mulcair). “I can’t understand,” she continues, “why the state is making it a big issue and such a political environment, when so many other things need to be taken care of.”
That delightful curmudgeon Gerald Caplan wrote last Winter, “All of this scapegoating, this character assassination of one woman, is being done for the crassest of political purposes.” Margaret Wente clarified, “This is about politics, not principles. In the public mind, the war on the niqab is a proxy for the war on radical Islam. And waging war on radical Islam has been a solid winner.”
And so the focus on Zunera Ishaq’s attire – and the denial of her fundamental rights and freedoms — is meant to stoke the flames of cultural indignation, appeal to mainstream fears of a Muslim tide out to overtake our genteel society (consider Harper’s curious, head-scratching exclamation during the French-language debate: “I will never tell my young daughter that a woman should cover her face because she is woman!”), ignite controversy and distract from other pressing issues like job creation, the economy and the environment.
We cannot see Ishaq’s story as a single narrative. It should not be lost of any of us that Ishaq’s story, that rabble-rousing Muslimah, is part of the continuing narrative around fundamentalist Islam and terrorism — cue Zakaria Amara, the ring-leader of the recently convicted Toronto 18, and last week stripped of his citizenship. Mulcair called out the timing of the decision, underscoring that “this is Mr. Harper strutting his stuff for his right-wing base,” and more importantly,
“I find it lamentable that in a free and democratic society someone finds joy in having two levels of citizenship. A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”
Ishaq’s story is also replacing the narrative of those floating masses of hungry, frightened Syrians — suspicious Others who *gasp* might be terrorists — who are turning up on Europe’s front stoop. Human suffering, such a politically inconvenient narrative during an election campaign.
Finally, it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Ishaq’s case could potentially harm the NDP’s chances at a second ‘Orange Wave’ in Quebec, a province where 93% of the population backs the Conservative and Bloc Québécois’ calls to ban the niqab at citizenship ceremonies. And as any federal political leader will tell you, Quebec is one of the top battle-grounds that must be conquered to make gains in the House of Commons.
In the end, Ishaq’s case isn’t just about the niqab, but winning an election. But what it really *should* be about is Zunera Ishaq’s fundamental rights to free expression and freedom of religion.
Earlier this year, Zunera Ishaq wrote eloquently about what freedom in Canada has meant to her,
“To me, the most important Canadian value is the freedom to be the person of my own choosing. To me, that’s more indicative of what it means to be Canadian than what I wear. I am looking, however, for Mr. Harper to govern according to the law of Canada and not according his own personal preference.”
Harper doesn’t need to like the veil. He doesn’t even need to understand it (though it would be *super* if he did). But he does owe Zunera Ishaq her fundamental rights in her citizenship ceremony. But all’s fair in love, war and politics, amiright Mr. Harper?
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