The real threat to Canadian values isn’t the niqab, but fear

By Amira Elghawaby

October 8, 2015 TVO

It’s every kid’s worst nightmare. You’re on the playground, minding your own business, and someone suddenly yells at you: “Look at that kid! What’s wrong with that kid?”

Suddenly, everyone in the playground is staring at you.

That’s how Canadian Muslim women are feeling these days. All of a sudden, everyone’s looking at us, with a mix of fear, anger and misunderstanding. Some are even turning to acts of hate.

In the past two weeks alone, a pregnant woman was attacked by teenagers in Montreal who tried to rip off her headscarf. A mother wearing a face veil was struck at a Toronto mall. A young woman with a disability was verbally harassed at an Ottawa mall. University students were yelled at on a downtown Toronto campus.

Those are some of the cases we know about; there are likely more the public will never learn of. In two of the cases mentioned, the women were told by police that the incident was low-priority, and were discouraged from even reporting what happened.

We are currently witnessing a disturbing attempt by political leaders to use identity politics to divide Canadians from one another and amplify a wedge issue that has little bearing on our day-to-day lives. This negative rhetoric is creating a climate in which some Canadian Muslim women say they feel threatened, alienated, or both. With Canadians preparing to choose their next government, suddenly a woman’s choice has become a symbol of all that is either right or wrong with this country.

Women of all backgrounds in Canada have been taking the citizenship oath for decades. Perhaps a few of them wore a face veil. Did anyone ever hear about it? Did it ever bother anyone? Likely not—and why would it? Everyone is expected to prove their identity before taking their oath, and women in niqab fulfill this and all other necessary requirements. The moment in which immigrants are “joining the Canadian family” is when they should be free to express their most sincere selves, as one former citizenship official put it on a recent call-in show. More importantly, the law permits the practice and Canada’s Charter protects it.

Yet with new musings about banning the face veil from the public service—a policy which would likely affect no one—keeping the issue alive remains a calculated and cynical ploy to distract from broader issues. Will this manufactured hysteria fade after the election? Perhaps, but some Canadians no longer feel as safe, or as welcome, as they once did.

 Amira Elghawaby is a journalist and the Communications Director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM).