But some women choose covering
Family handout / Postmedia News Minna Ella (centre), with her family in Montreal, was born and raised in Ontario but has been told by strangers �You�re in Canada, now,� and to �go home.�
When Minna Ella walks through the department store, she’s one of the few women who don’t get pestered by clerks trying to dole out free makeup and perfume samples.
“They just look right through me,” says the 35-year-old.
The reason seems clear.
Whenever the mother of four leaves her house in Waterloo, Ont., she covers herself with a niqab, a Muslim veil that covers her from head to toe, leaving a slit for her eyes.
She is one of an estimated 300 women across Canada living their public lives under the cover of this veil.
Ella, who was born and raised in Ontario, says in the past few years, she has noticed a sense of growing anger and fear from Canadians.
This week, Jason Kenney, the minister of immigration, citizenship and multiculturalism, announced that women will now be required to remove their face coverings during citizenship swearing-in ceremonies.
Survey results from Forum Research showed widespread support for the move, with 81 per cent of respondents saying they agreed with it.
In fact, a majority of the survey’s 1,160 respondents in every major category — sex, age, region and political persuasion — agreed.
Still, some have been angered and point to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects religious freedoms and freedom of expression, saying this rule will set Canada back, and flies in the face of our multicultural society.
“We have never locked into a notion of what it means to be Canadian,” says Bev Baines, professor of public and constitutional law at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
“So, if we want to have a debate about our identity, we should have it being conscious of the fact that almost a third of Canadians now are not the old-line francophone or anglophone folks that we used to be.”
The veil has become a highly political garment, both here and abroad, with Canadians, both Muslim and non-Muslim, on both sides of the debate.
France and Belgium were the first to ban the face covering in all public spaces, and the issue often makes headlines in the Netherlands and Denmark, with supporters calling the niqab a “medieval relic” that oppresses women and promotes sex discrimination.
Naima Bouteldja, a French researcher who interviewed 32 niqabi women in that country for an April 2011 report and is in the process of doing the same in the United Kingdom, says there is a disproportionate response from politicians to what they see as the “problem of the niqab.”
Bouteldja wears the hijab, a Muslim garment that covers her hair but leaves her face revealed.
“It’s a clear political manipulation, which they use to divert attention from economic problems,” says Bouteldja, who says she personally has not met any women forced to wear the niqab.
In fact, she says some have been thrown into family conflict because they choose to cover against the wishes of their parents.
“But none of this is addressed by an outright ban,” she says.
Ella says under her niqab she wears makeup and follows the latest fashion trends.
“If you were to visit me at home, I would be wearing whatever I want to wear — I have skinny jeans and nice tops, I have everything that everyone else wears, but I only show them inside my home, with my family and friends, or outside with only women.
“In our book, the Qur’an, there are verses that God has sent to us that explain how we’re supposed to dress,” says Ella, when asked why she decided, at age 17, to cover herself for the sake of modesty.
Still, in countries such as Canada and France, where women have fought for equality, where an increasingly secular society has seen religious belief steadily decline, and where many young women take every excuse to flaunt what Mother Nature gave them, the idea that any woman would choose to keep her body out of sight can seem alien.
“It’s hard for many Canadians to understand,” says University of Montreal researcher Patrice Brodeur.
When confronted with a woman in a niqab, there’s a certain level of discomfort because we don’t know how to behave, he says.
Without being able to see her body language, how can we know her intentions?
But banning certain types of dress has never been the answer, he says.
The government’s move has earned praise from some quarters.
Tarek Fatah of the Muslim Canadian Congress applauded Kenney’s announcement.
“He has done in one stroke what any other Canadian politician has not had the courage to do. It sends a clear message that this attire is not welcome in Canada.”
Fatah, whose organization has been called right-wing by members of other Muslim organizations in this country, called the niqab “monstrous” and accused women who wear it of being agents of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood who hate Canada.
He says the veil allows them to avoid pledging allegiance to the Queen which, he says, is against their “extremist views.”
Brodeur counters that it’s foolish to assume all women who wear one piece of traditional clothing think or believe the same thing.
Critics of the Tory government’s recent policy change have pointed out it was done with little public consultation with the community.
Furthermore, Brodeur says, the niqab simply isn’t that prevalent in Canadian society.
There are not more than 50 women in the Greater Montreal Area who wear the niqab, he says.
There are perhaps 100 around Toronto, and fewer in Vancouver, and a total of maybe 300, at most, across the country, Brodeur estimated.
Those numbers could grow.
The population of Muslims in Canada is expected to nearly triple in the next 20 years, from about 940,000 in 2010 to nearly 2.7 million in 2030, according to a Pew Forum survey on The Future of the Global Muslim Population.
Muslims are expected to make up 6.6 per cent of Canada’s total population in 2030, up from 2.8 per cent today.
“It’s frustrating because we are not a threat,” Ella says.
“They are making us seem like a threat, they are making up stories and making people scared of us.”
When asked if she will guide her daughter to cover herself, Ella says no, it’s a personal matter between a believer and her creator.
“No one else can make that decision for her.”
But she is worried.
“I was shopping once and a lady came up very close to me. She stared into my eyes and said ‘You’re in Canada, now.’ “
Most people tell her to “go home” or give her dirty looks, Ella says, but she just keeps silent when this happens.
“It makes me feel sad, because I would like to reach out and say, ‘I’m just like you, and I dress like this because it’s a religious thing, but it doesn’t make me less human than you.’ “
— Postmedia News
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 17, 2011 A29