Canada is currently having a national debate about the niqab, the face veil worn by a small number of Muslim women, after a woman did not remove hers during a citizenship ceremony. She then asked a federal court to make a ruling about the legality of the Conservative government’s policy that stipulates women must remove the niqab during the oath-swearing portion of a citizenship ceremony.
A passionate debate on the matter has emerged, with some people saying the niqab is rooted in a sexist culture and that it is a practice oppressive to women. While teaching a course on Women’s & Gender Studies at the University of Regina, a student from Syria told me that her decision to wear the hijab, a veil that covers the head and chest, was not forced on her by sexism; rather, it was a personal, spiritual decision.
Stories are important for bringing a new understanding and awareness. They can help dispel myths, break stereotypes and correct false assumptions. Stories are also a way for people to express their truths. Rather than talk about Muslim women who wear the niqab, it would be useful to make space for niqab-wearing women to be able to share their stories and for everyone else to listen.
In this study, Women in Niqab Speak: A Study of the Niqab in Canada, 81 women were interviewed, and “being forced” to wear the niqab was never provided as a reason for wearing it.
In this article, Zunera Ishaq, the woman at the centre of the niqab debate, writes, “It’s precisely because I won’t listen to how other people want me to live my life that I wear a niqab. Some of my own family members have asked me to remove it. I have told them that I prefer to think for myself.”
She also shares this: “Aside from the religious aspect, I like how it makes me feel: like people have to look beyond what I look like to get to know me. That I don’t have to worry about my physical appearance and can concentrate on my inner self. That it empowers me in this regard.”
In this powerful interview that aired on The Current, three women who wear, or have worn, the niqab share their reasons for choosing to wear it, as well as the impact that choice has had on their lives and their loved ones.
As we collected stories from Saskatchewan immigrants, newcomers and Indigenous communities for the Stories of Integration Project, a noticeable theme emerged. People expressed the importance of being able to retain their unique cultural customs, values and practices. As one woman, Xiaofeng from China, said, “I think multiculturalism is great because it's like a rainbow. You see a rainbow, and it's colourful.”
Another woman, Ingri, immigrated to Weyburn from Chile, and told us a story about going shopping with a friend from El Salvador. The Salvadorian woman would wear her apron instead of a purse, said Ingri, who appreciated that her friend could continue practicing her cultural customs in Saskatchewan, instead of being forced to assimilate into Canadian culture.
One of our PSAs, “From Many Peoples Strength,” reflects the idea that everyone has a story to tell. Sharing our stories and respecting one another’s culture helps build a stronger community.