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December 19, 2011

New swearing-in rule upsets Muslims

Liz Monteiro

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Huda Hasan and her sister-in-law Amena Faysal had every intention of becoming Canadian citizens.

The Waterloo women aren’t so sure now. Both of them wear the niqab, a facial covering worn by some Muslim women.

This week, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced that anyone wearing a face covering must lift it while reciting the oath of Canadian citizenship in a room full of people.

Kenney said the veil “reflects a certain view about women that we don’t accept in Canada. We want women to be full and equal members of Canadian society and certainly when they’re taking the citizenship oath, that’s the right place to start.’’

Kenney said he received complaints from citizens, MPs and citizenship judges who said it was difficult to ensure that those whose faces were covered were actually taking the oath.

But for Hasan and Faysal, an open and equal society means allowing women to wear what they choose.

“I think it’s a direct attack on Canadian Muslim immigrant women who are simply trying to fulfil a religious obligation,’’ said 22-year-old Hasan. She moved to Canada in 2009 from Pakistan.

Hasan said wearing the niqab — a veil that covers her head and face, showing only her eyes, along with the abaya, a robe-like dress over the entire body — is a covering she has worn since she was 15.

“I want to wear it. Nobody can tell me to remove it,’’ said Hasan, who is expecting her second child in February.

“I believe that is an obligation on Muslim women. It’s a dress code that we are to apply to ourselves,’’ Hasan said.

When it comes to security issues, both women respect Canadian laws and have unveiled at airports, taking a passport photograph and applying for a driver’s licence.

But at a ceremony such as the citizenship court, the women say the government is going too far.

Faysal, who started wearing the niqab at 14, said covering her face is her interpretation of being a practising Muslim woman.

“I believe this is part of Islam and I wanted to do this,’’ said the 25-year-old Faysal, a mother of a 10-month-old son.

Her mother and sister, who both live in Pakistan, also wear the niqab.

In his announcement, Kenney also said he didn’t support the argument that wearing the niqab was a form of religious freedom for Muslim women. He referred to the pilgrimage to Mecca known as the Hajj in which women are required to show their face.

“He is telling us about our religion. It’s very strange,’’ said Faysal. “The Hajj is a specific type of worship.’’

Faysal said she’s concerned that Kenney has established a law that affects a minority of women. Most Muslim women wear the hijab — a covering over their head — while few women don the niqab.

Despite the controversy, Faysal said she feels accepted as an immigrant and a Muslim woman who covers her face living in Waterloo Region.

“For some people, it’s still new. It’s OK to be amazed,’’ said Faysal, who graduated from medical school in Pakistan and hopes to practise medicine here.

Hasan, who upgraded her high school credits at an adult learning school, said she was often asked about the niqab and willingly answered inquisitive students’ questions.

“The staring is uncomfortable,’’ she said.

Rania Lawendy, spokesperson for the Coalition of Muslim Women of Kitchener-Waterloo, said Kenney’s statement is sending a discriminatory message.

The number of Muslim women who cover their faces is negligible, and when those women need to recite the oath they could be accommodated by saying the oath in front of a female officer of the citizenship court or by using a microphone, she said.

“It’s a political move and it’s a dangerous attitude for an immigration minister,’’ said Lawendy, a 37-year-old mother of four who was born and raised in Waterloo.

Lawendy said Kenney is forcing veiled women to choose between their religious beliefs and citizenship.

Imam Shafiq Hudda of the Islamic Humanitarian Service Centre in Kitchener said he understands the reservations that Canadians have with the niqab because the covering has been misused in Iraq and Afghanistan by militants to blow others up.

But Hudda said he’s more concerned that Kenney’s remarks are part of a clampdown on minorities.

“The Conservative government is making statements that are very clearly anti-Muslim,’’ he said. “Tomorrow it could be the hijab, then God knows what next.’’

Idrisa Pandit, co-ordinator of Muslim Social Services of Kitchener-Waterloo, said she, too, worries about the stance the government is taking.  “Who gives Jason Kenney the authority to cite someone’s religion and their wish to wear a niqab?’’ she said.

“Even if I don’t agree, who am I to say?’’ she said. “It’s not his place to tell a woman how they should understand their religion.’ December 17, 2011

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