Politics of Burka and Niqab Heat Up in Canada

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Muslim Canadian Congress is lobbying to ban the burka and niqab, but authorities say apparel is a matter of individual expression. Young women who have adopted the clothes say they like the modest attire.

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Salma Siddiqui, vice president of the Muslim Canadian CongressVANCOUVER, Canada (WOMENSENEWS)--Salma Siddiqui recalls her grandmother habitually wore a burka in her native Pakistan decades ago.

"She was of the old school and she wore it because that was the only way she saw it," Siddiqui said.

But eventually, donning the full-body, face-concealing cloak fell out of practice in that country. Like other women, Siddiqui's grandmother cast off the burka in favor of a more modern and less concealing style of dress.

Now living in Canada, Siddiqui said she has noticed a small but alarming number of women reverting to what she believes is a dated and oppressive custom of wearing burkas and niqabs, a garment and face covering that similarly envelope the wearer, leaving only the eyes exposed.

As vice president of the Toronto-based Muslim Canadian Congress, Siddiqui is lobbying to ban wearing these garments in public.

In October, the congress, a grassroots, nonsectarian organization, issued a public statement calling on the Canadian government to introduce legislation to prohibit burkas and niqabs, arguing that they pose a security risk, as they allow the wearer to conceal her identity, and are political symbols of Islamic extremism.

In the statement, the congress called the custom a "medieval misogynist practice" against which the Canadian government should take a lead in ending. It added that the congress "regretted that while the rest of the world is moving toward the goal of gender equality, right here in Canada Islamists are pushing back the clock, convincing educated Muslim women they are no more than sexual objects and a source of sin if they reveal their faces in public."

'Pushing Back the Clock'

The organization's push for a ban has reignited a long-standing debate over the practice, which others argue is a religious right protected under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Last fall, an Ontario court judge created controversy when he decided a woman did not have the right to wear a veil when testifying in a sexual assault case. And in 2007, a Quebec elections official ruled that women should be required to remove their veils to vote.

In response to the congress's statement, the Canadian government expressed support for the organization's work to encourage tolerance and women's rights, but indicated it would not pursue a ban.

"[I]n an open and democratic society like Canada, individuals are free to make their own decisions regarding their personal apparel," said a statement from the Office of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Even so, Siddiqui said her organization will continue to press for legislation, but declined to say what measures they will take.

'Try Our Best'

"We are aware that it is not that easy [to introduce a ban] but the fact is, the debate has started," Siddiqui said. "We are going to try our best."

She said her organization's call for a ban was inspired by an announcement last month by Egypt's Muslim authority Sheik Mohamed Tantawi that he would issue a fatwa, or religious edict, against the niqab and burka.

Tantawi said the garments were merely a cultural tradition, rather than a religious obligation, and were not required by the Quran.

Siddiqui said she is worried the revival of the burka and niqab indicates a resurgence of fundamentalist Islamic groups believed to subordinate women.

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