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The first time I saw a niqab, I hated it. Harper showed me I was spectacularly wrong.

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Four woman sit wearing hijabs on a planter near Bay and Dundas (August 2013).

The first time I saw a woman wear a niqab was many years ago when I was driving through rural northern Nigeria. She was completely enveloped from head to toe in heavy black clothing. Only a thin slit for her eyes were visible. This was, I learned, a burka, an extreme form of the niqab, and I still recall all these years later how revolted I was by the sight of a woman who, it seemed to me, was wearing her own solitary confinement. Until now, no one had ever persuaded me that any woman would freely chose to disappear into that suffocating prisoner's uniform.

Whether burka or niqab, I've never failed since to recoil when I've seen a woman wearing either. In Canada, to be sure, it's an extremely rare sighting, but I've continued to believe that no woman would ever shroud herself like that by her own volition.

Thanks to the singular cruelty and political opportunism of our prime minister, I've just learned that I was spectacularly wrong.

Out of 35 million people in Canada, Stephen Harper has chosen to single out for verbal abuse one lone, niqab-wearing Mississauga woman, Zunera Ishaq. Her only offence is choosing to wear her niqab as at her Canadian citizenship swearing-in ceremony, as is her legal right. The Prime Minister has spoken of her often, but never to her.

What he has done -- this great authority on the Muslim religion -- is to slander an entire "culture" as "anti-woman." What he's done is to unleash his caucus to join the piling-on of this one woman -- "stay the hell where you came from" -- even if they then pretend to apologize. She is defenseless; he bullies her from his privileged place in the House of Commons while his mindless minions stand and cheer. The court ruling that there's no law prohibiting her from wearing her niqab at a the citizenship ceremony is unambiguous; Mr. Harper is challenging it. Jason Kenney has been exposed for peddling false photos of women in niqabs; he has not apologized. And all of this scapegoating, this character assassination of one woman, is being done for the crassest of political purposes.

Here's the silver lining, though. Some media have finally decided to introduce real, live women choosing to wear the niqab to their audiences. And what a remarkable group they've proved to be.

In the past few days I've met through media five Muslim women, four of whom are veiled. Anna Maria Tremonti, host of CBC's The Currentinterviewed two women who wear the niqab and one who no longer does. The Toronto Star carried an article by Zunera Ishaq herself. And The Tyee posted an open letter to Mr. Harper by another woman wearing a niqab, Aysha Luqman-Pandor from Pickering, Ontario

These glimpses are revelatory. They destroy every single assumption I made, in my ignorance, about women wearing niqabs. I strongly urge everyone to check out these sources for themselves. Given the government's hysterical fearmongering, we all owe it to ourselves to know these women better. We can safely assume that no member of the government ever has done so, or how could Jason Kenney, another renowned authority on Islam, dare say that face coverings are a "pre-medieval" tradition "that has been imposed on some women."

In real life, you'll find here no sign of a woman who's being submissive or who has been oppressed. On the contrary, you'll find five women all of whom are thoughtful, independent and articulate to the point of eloquence.

Here's what else they have in common.

  • They all are or intend to be Canadians -- proud Canadians.
  • They all take their religion very seriously.
  • They all chose by themselves to wear the niqab, even when a husband or father tried to dissuade them.
  • Those who wear it say the niqab brings them closer to their religion and their god.
  • All readily remove their niqab when required for practical or official purposes.
  • Every one of them insists she never encountered any trouble when wearing their niqab -- until the prime minister of Canada chose, out of the blue, to make trouble for them all.

Here's from the unintimidated Zunera Ishaq:

"I am not looking for Mr. Harper to approve my life choices or dress...."To me, the most important Canadian value is the freedom to be the person of my own choosing. To me, that's more indicative of what it means to be Canadian than what I wear."

And from Aysha Luqman-Pandor in Pickering:

"I'm not here to state a ruling on whether the veil is mandatory in my faith or not, I'm here simply to say it is mandatory for me, and I choose to observe it...

"I am fortunate that I was born into this great land. I am free to learn, to practice what I learn and to teach it to others."

These women all understand the best of Canadian values even as the PM shamelessly distorts and undermines them. They also understand why they're suddenly in the limelight. As one of the CBC panelists put it: Stephen Harper "is just playing politics with this."

The politics of the lowest road possible.


This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.

Image: Flickr/orangegreenblue

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