Niqāb

We’ve been hearing a lot about the niqāb lately, and I can’t remember the last time a piece of clothing has played such a large part in a Canadian election campaign. To bring the non-Canadians up to date, Zunera Ishaq was to become a Canadian citizen in 2012. When she learned that she would have to remove her niqāb to take the oath, she put the process on hold and began a legal battle. The result is that the Federal Court of Canada found the ban unlawful in February and she finally took the oath, wearing her niqāb, last week.

I have mixed feelings about this.

On one hand, the whole point of a citizenship ceremony is celebrate your new inclusion in Canadian society and to be seen doing so. If you don’t want to be seen and recognized, there’s no point in a ceremony. You may as well get your papers in the mail.

On the other hand, enacting a law to prevent people from wearing a niqāb at the citizenship ceremony seems like a very blunt instrument.

The problem is that there is no middle ground.

I can certainly see a problem with someone wanting to wear a niqāb for an identification photo. In 2002 a woman sued the state of Florida for preventing her from wearing a niqāb for her driver’s licence photo. A Florida appellate court ruled that covering her face defeats the whole point of having the photo, but allowed for the woman to have the photo taken in a private room with a female photographer.1 Interestingly, 15 other U.S states allow for driver’s licences with no photo to accommodate those who object to having their photos taken for religious reasons.2

Frankly though, the Florida solution makes no sense to me. If you’re pulled over, the police officer asks for your licence and registration, and immediately compares your photo to your face. Presumably, a woman wearing a niqāb who would only accept having her photo taken in a private room by a woman, will not agree to take it off for a male police officer on the side of the road. I suppose getting a female officer to check that her ID matches her face would be the only way, but that will take time. I hope the niqāb-wearing driver is patient because I see no way around this. She should certainly not get a pass because she’s wearing a niqāb.

Seemingly determined to double-down on the issue, the Conservative government has promised to introduce legislation to ban the wearing of the niqāb for all people delivering or receiving federal government services, should they be re-elected. While this may feel like a natural follow-up to the driver’s licence issue, I believe the Conservatives are playing on voter fears simply to get more votes. In fact, the CBC reported this interesting fact:

The leaders of the two largest federal public service unions say they are not aware of a single member who wears a niqāb — and accused Conservative Leader Stephen Harper of trying to distract voters with his plan to consider a ban on the wearing of face coverings in public sector work places.3

I can understand being proactive in hearing of a dangerous problem before it becomes a problem, but the timing of this ‘solution’ and the relative danger involved in the problem makes me agree with the unions’ accusation.

And for the record, I certainly do not agree with banning the niqāb, outright. Since when do we ban articles of clothing? I don’t like wedges, so would I suggest that we ban those too? Hell no. In circumstances where being able to identify the person is important, a niqāb-wearer would not be able to make the desired transaction, for example. If she wants to continue to wear the niqāb despite the inconveniences, that’s her choice.


  1. Wikipedia. Niqāb. Retrieved October 10, 2015.
  2. ibid.
  3. CBC News, “Niqabs in federal public service ‘absolutely not an issue’ union leader says,”
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