GUEST VOICE: When it comes to the niqab debate, where are the Jews?

Woman wearing a niqab

Back before Canada was Canada, Aaron Ezekiel Hart was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada. In 1808, when it was time to swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown, he covered his head and placed his hand upon the Old Testament.

His peers kicked him out of Parliament the next day. 

“Sorry,” they said. “This isn’t how we do things here.”

Nothing personal or anything, the legislators argued, but it’s offensive that while taking this respected office, you’re choosing to display your Jewish faith over the Christian principles upon which this successful colony has been founded.

So the argument went then, and so it goes now.

Zunera Ishaq wants to wear a niqab to her Canadian citizenship ceremony. This 29-year old high school teacher from Pakistan is perfectly willing to remove her veil in a private room before a female officer to confirm her identity when dealing with the actual citizenship documents, but wants to keep her niqab on during the symbolic ceremony, because there will be men and photographers in the room.

The courts have defended her right to do so – twice.

How is it that Jews have not come out in mass support of Ishaq?

No country, nation or empire in the three millennia we Jews have been dispersed has been a refuge to us like Canada. Quebec, thanks primarily to the battle fought by Hart and his sons, gave us our full civil and political emancipation in 1832 – almost 30 years before anywhere else in the British Empire.

Jews are not ignored and reluctantly tolerated, like we were in ancient Rome and the Ottoman Empire. Here, today, our rituals are encouraged and defended, by law and the populace, even though many, just like Islamic ones, clash with those practised by “old-stock Canadians.” 

So although we may find Ishaq’s desire to cover her face offensive, weird and not of this time or place, we must nevertheless insist that the same laws that protect us extend to her. 

It doesn’t matter if there’s merit to the federal government’s argument that the custom is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.”

So what? 

Our customs, after all, are also derived from a patriarchal religion. Many married women in our community, for example, cover their hair because they are governed by the same principle of modesty that drives Ishaq. As long as we and her refrain from forcing other women to do the same, we must be allowed to clothe and unclothe our bodies as we wish, and the state must accommodate us to a reasonable degree. 

This has been the basis of Canada’s multicultural policy for decades and the reason that although we lend the widest latitude to our religious minorities, we experience the least conflict between them.

Those who fear that Ishaq’s niqab represents a culture so contrary to ours that they cannot coexist, that if we cannot protect our borders from the danger of her veil, we must at least insulate our most sacred institutions, should recall that this fear is identical to the one Jews were subject to in 1808 with the Hart affair. It’s the same fear that Sikhs faced in 1990 when they fought to wear turbans in the RCMP. The hysteria is familiar and tiresome. 

Be assured that if we allow this fear to aim its arrow at Ishaq’s dress, the archer’s bow will soon be spun around to face us. 

We will end up like South Africa and Sweden, unable to circumcise our infants, or like France, turning away our men from voting booths while they wear a kippah, or like Quebec, just two years ago, fighting to maintain our sons’ right to learn in public school while also covering their heads.

When we support Ishaq’s freedom, we support our own. And if we do not fight for Ishaq, who will be left to fight for us? 

Danielle Kubes is a freelance journalist in Toronto.