SHAFAQNA – As Stephen Harper hardens his anti-niqab (face veil) position on the campaign trail, three Canadian women who wear the face veil say the Conservative leader’s rhetoric risks pitting the country against its Muslim citizens.
The Conservatives have long opposed women wearing the face covering at Canadian citizenship ceremonies, but with the federal election less than two weeks away, Harper doubled down this week by suggesting that if re-elected, he would consider passing a law banning the veil from the federal public service.
But Rezan Mosa, a 22-year-old native of Vancouver, says she is no less of a Canadian just because she decides to don the veil.
“I was born and raised here,” she said. “I have a right to be here, this is my country. I’m very proud to be Canadian.”
Mosa, a student at Brescia University College in London, Ont., said that as anti-niqab sentiment has ramped up on the campaign trail in recent weeks, she’s experienced more incidents of discrimination.
“There’s definitely a noticeable difference,” said Mosa, who began wearing the veil over 18 months ago. “Just a lot more people staring, making comments, telling me to go back to my country.” She said the incidents have made her “feel very unsafe.”
Mosa said she’s also worried about what the proposed ban on niqabs in the public service could mean for her job prospects. A joint sociology and religious studies major, she’s considered working for government-funded agencies after she graduates.
“If I was banned from wearing the niqab, my whole career is on the line,” she said.
Mosa is not the only woman concerned by how the niqab issue is playing out during the election. Shomyla Hammad, who lives in Mississauga, has been wearing the niqab for seven years and said that her fellow Canadians have always accommodated her.
“I have never had any bad feelings from anyone,” she said. “I just wouldn’t be anywhere in the world with my niqab but in Canada.”
But she believes Harper is trying to “put fear in people’s minds” in order to win votes, and she worries the veil could become stigmatized.
“The way that Stephen Harper is politicizing the issue, that is really, really bad . . . it just scares me,” said Hammad, a 42-year-old mother of two.
Afia Baig, a Mississauga woman who also wears the niqab, said she has been in Canada for nearly 20 years without being targeted for how she dresses, and she doesn’t feel personally threatened by the ongoing debate.
But she said she is angry by what she sees as Harper’s Conservatives playing politics with the rights of minorities over a non-issue.
A 57-year-old immigrant from South Asia, she said that about 15 years ago she took the citizenship oath while wearing the niqab, after first uncovering her face to confirm her identity. “It was not ever an issue,” she said.
“They have used this to instill hate amongst Canadian people. It’s so infuriating, it’s so bad and so wrong. We feel we’re being used for his election games.”
Despite Harper describing the niqab as “anti-women,” Mosa, Hammad and Baig all told the Star they decided to wear the veil on their own for religious reasons, in some cases over the objections of male relatives who feared they would be discriminated against.
Meanwhile, advocacy groups are raising concerns about anti-Muslim behaviour popping up across the country. The National Council of Canadian Muslims said it has received several reports of Muslim women being verbally or physically assaulted in the last month. It pointed to a disabled Muslim 19-year-old woman who reported to police that she was verbally threatened at an Ottawa shopping centre. The Star could not independently verify the report.
The group tracks such incidents and recorded the details on its website, saying the woman was “young, visibly Muslim and disabled” when a middle-aged white man told her “to remove ‘the f—ing rug off (her) head.’ ”