by Shelagh Day
The more you learn about the federal policy on the niqab issue, the more absurd it becomes. Press reports do not tell the details of the court case or reveal the real circumstances of the citizenship ceremony. It helps to look beyond the current cut lines.
Zunera Ishaq comes from Pakistan and is a devout Sunni Muslim. She says that her religious beliefs obligate her to wear a veil that covers most of her face. She will unveil herself to a stranger only if it is absolutely necessary to prove her identity, or for purposes of security, and even then only privately in front of other women.
In December 2011, Citizenship and Immigration Canada (“CIC”) announced a new policy requiring all persons to take the citizenship oath with their faces uncovered. CIC told the Federal Court that the reason for this new policy was “concerns that citizenship candidates were not actually reciting the oath”.
You might wonder why reciting the oath, and being seen to recite the oath, is crucial. By the time candidates get to a citizenship ceremony they have already been granted citizenship. They have met all the requirements and are going through the final formalities. They have passed a citizenship exam and their identity has been confirmed for security purposes. Ms. Ishaq removed her face veil in order to be identified.
After reciting the oath each candidate signs a form certifying that she has taken the oath of citizenship. The Federal Court found that it is the candidate’s signature on this form, rather than a visual confirmation of the candidate saying the oath, that is the proof needed that a candidate has taken the oath of citizenship.
Nonetheless, at the ceremony, the candidates, as a group, recite the oath. Depending on where and when the ceremony is held, there may be 20 or 50 candidates reciting the oath together. The 2011 policy is ostensibly intended to ensure that the citizenship judge can see the faces of the candidates reciting the oath. But a citizenship judge cannot reasonably be expected to keep track of exactly what is being said by 20 or 50 moving mouths in front of her. If seeing the candidates recite the oath is crucial, surely it should be done one by one, not in chorus.
But the 2011 policy stipulated that if a candidate did not remove a face covering while saying the oath during the citizenship ceremony, the Certificate of Citizenship would not be given, and citizenship would not be granted. It also stipulated that despite the fact that CIC’s website advises that there can be private citizenship ceremonies in urgent or extenuating circumstances, “under this new directive there are no options for private oath taking, or oath taking with a female official”.
For CIC to simply assert that the value of women’s equality is in issue does not amount to a justification for the discriminatory effects of the policy on Ms. Ishaq. If the no face covering policy were challenged in a human rights complaint – and it could easily have been, since citizenship judges seem to be providing a public service similar to that provided by marriage commissioners – CIC would be required to demonstrate that the policy is reasonably necessary to the pursuit of equality for women, and that accommodating Ms. Ishaq would be an undue hardship.
Where is the evidence that permitting a veiled woman to recite the citizenship oath is a serious threat to the achievement of women’s equality? Also, is agreeing not to wear a face veil for the one-minute citizenship oath an adequate measure of adherence to this value? Surely, there could be more meaningful tests, ones that might apply to men as well.
However, if we do not want to test all candidates for citizenship about their commitment to women’s equality, then this policy simply targets niqab-wearing Muslim women, treats them as “un-Canadian” and suspicious, and promotes a discriminatory attitude towards them that has already caused violence.
This column was first published in the Canadian Human Rights Reporter’s View Point. Shelagh Day is the President and Senior Editor of the Canadian Human Rights Reporter.