The Canadian Government may have thought niqab-wearing women dangerous. Audrey Macklin and Zunera Ishaq disagreed.

The first Dangerous Women Project post considers what it means to be a dangerous woman from several angles. It features two voices in the landmark 2015 court case between a young Muslim woman–Zunera Ishaq–and the Canadian Government.

Audrey Macklin was an academic advisor to Zunera’s litigation team. Audrey is Professor and Chair in Human Rights at the Faculty of Law at University of Toronto. Her research and writing interests include transnational migration, citizenship, forced migration, feminist and cultural analysis, and human rights.

Zunera Ishaq moved to Canada from Pakistan in 2008 and gained permanent residency. In the second half of this post, Zunera explains in her own words why she chose to challenge the Canadian Government’s attempts to prevent her from wearing a niqab during the public part of her Canadian citizenship ceremony.



Audrey Macklin

In late 2011, Canada’s Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Jason Kenney, decided that he did not like women who wear niqabs swearing the oath of citizenship. So, he prohibited it: no person could swear the oath of citizenship while covering her face.

Candidates who fulfill the requirements for Canadian citizenship (residence, language proficiency, knowledge of Canada) attend a public ceremony where they take the oath of citizenship before a citizenship judge, often alongside hundreds of other citizens. After performing this ritual, they obtain a certificate of citizenship, which they need to prove that they are Canadian citizens and to obtain a passport.

The effect of the policy was to prevent women who wear niqabs from obtaining Canadian citizenship unless they removed the niqab during the ceremony. Although he and then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper insinuated that women wearing niqabs deliberately conceal their identity, the handful of niqab-wearing women who had taken the oath in the past willingly removed it in front of a female citizenship officer to confirm identity prior to the ceremony.

Out of about 18 million females in Canada, the number who wear niqabs is infinitismally small, and the vast majority of Canadians are unlikely to ever encounter a niqabi woman in person. Nevertheless, many Canadians oppose it as a symbol of female oppression and of rejection of the wider Canadian community. The citizenship-oath policy attracted popular support, and the Minister promoted and publicized it widely and often.

Some of us in the legal community (scholars, pro-bono lawyers, and law students) regarded the policy as unlawful on a number of grounds. But it took almost three years to locate and bring to court an actual niqab-wearing woman to whom the policy applied and who had standing to challenge it. Zunera Ishaq was that woman.

In fall 2014, the Federal Court ruled that the policy was unlawful. The Court did not tackle the question of whether a ban on niqabi women swearing the citizenship violated the constitutionally protected freedom of religion, because it was not necessary to resolving the case. The Court found that the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration had created the anti-niqab policy with no legal authority to do so, and then demanded that it be obeyed as if it were law.

In other words, the Minister purported to rule by decree.

Ruling by decree is a favoured technique of despots, but does not play well in a system governed by the rule of law. The government appealed the decision, and by the time the case was heard by the Federal Court of Appeal, Canada was in the midst of a long and sometimes nasty federal election campaign. The Federal Court of Appeal heard the case and did something it almost never does: It ruled from the bench, rejecting the appeal for the same reasons given by the first judge, and ordered the government to schedule a citizenship ceremony forthwith for Zunera so that she would become a citizen in time to vote.

Instead of acceding to the court order, Prime Minister Harper decided to double down on his party’s anti-Muslim messaging, especially (but not only) in Quebec. The Conservative’s attack on Zunera Ishaq and her veil was no longer a thinly veiled attack on Muslims – the Conservative’s veil had more or less slipped off. Mr. Harper swiftly declared that the government would appeal the decision, and the Citizenship and Immigration Minister announced the launch of a ‘barbaric cultural practices tip line’ whereby Canadians could anonymously report objectionable conduct by their neighbours.

Finally, it seemed that the Prime Minister had overplayed his hand. Canadians scorned and mocked the ‘tip line’, and even those offended by the niqab were even more offended that the Conservative Party was using one woman and her niqab to distract attention from bigger, more important campaign issues, including those affecting women.

At one stage in the campaign, it appeared that the Conservative Party might parlay their vilification of Zunera Ishaq into a majority of seats in Quebec, but as election day approached, it appeared that the strategy was actually alienating voters across the entire country. Prime Minister Harper and his Conservative Party were soundly defeated.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Ministers of Citizenship and Immigration (Jason Kenney, then Chris Alexander) never ceased accusing niqab-wearing of wilfully concealing their identity at citizenship ceremonies, deliberately conjuring up fears about Islamic extremism and national security: Zunera Ishaq was a dangerous woman.

But ultimately, Zunera’s successful legal challenge and her brave, articulate and warm demeanour in the face of a media onslaught, proved disarming. The Conservative’s attack on Zunera Ishaq backfired.

So in a way, Mr. Harper and his party were right – Zunera Ishaq was a dangerous woman.

Just not in the way they thought.


Zunera Ishaq citizenship ceremony
Left to Right: Zunera after the ceremony; with her husband and her legal team celebrating with coffee and donuts at Tim Hortons (a typical Canadian coffee shop); with the citizenship judge who administered the oath.


Zunera Ishaq

I was fifteen when I told my parents that I wanted to wear the niqab. My mother was surprised and non-plussed. My father, who was an economics professor, did not try to influence me but he did urge me to reflect carefully and logically on my decision. A teacher I admired had initially inspired me to wear a niqab, but as I studied more deeply, I became convinced that it was my religious duty.

My marriage was arranged through my father, and my future husband did not even know that I wore a niqab when he proposed, though he did not object when he learned of it. I rejected another suitor suggested by my father because he was not comfortable with my choice to wear a niqab.

Wearing a niqab is not all there is to me as a person.

Before I came to Canada, I studied literature in university. I love Shakespeare, and my favourite play is Hamlet. I appreciate its complexity, and the emotional reality within it. Yet it is Romeo and Juliet that I find myself reading repeatedly – even though I feel ambivalent about its depiction of relationships.

I enjoy living in my neighbourhood in a suburb of Toronto. I have neighbours among my good friends. Our children play together. I volunteer in the community. I have planted trees for the local municipality, assisted at Canada Day celebrations, fundraised for a local hospital and taken part in community workshops. In the winter I shovel snow and in the summer my neighbours and I sit in each other’s yards and share meals together.

I wanted to become a Canadian citizen so I could be a full member of this wonderful country. I was eager to participate in the democratic process, embrace a life of security, move freely in the world, and provide a solid future for my four sons. They were born Canadian citizens, and they are growing up proud to be Canadian citizens. I am grateful that they will flourish in a country of peace where they are free to practice their faith, and to explore the many opportunities that Canada offers them.

I decided to challenge the niqab policy because it violated the rights of that small number of women who wear the niqab. I did not do it only for myself. My husband wondered if I should just give in, but I knew that removing it in these circumstances could be traumatizing for some niqabi women, and yet they might not feel able to raise their voices to object. After all, Canadian citizenship is precious and it is not easy to assume the risk of being denied it, even if the cause is just.

So, I did it for them, too.

Although it was a struggle to pursue the legal challenge, I was feeling optimistic about the appeal because we had prevailed before the first court. But then I found myself in the eye of the storm when the appeal coincided with the federal election campaign. I did not expect to become a political target. I felt shocked and offended when the Prime Minister and others used my case to promote animosity toward Muslims, all for political gain. I received hate mail, and a few people harassed and insulted me while I was out with my children, which upset and frightened them.

The day I finally got to swear the citizenship oath was an emotional moment for me and I celebrated my victory. I felt a sense of accomplishment, increased confidence in Canada’s justice system, and appreciation for those who helped me on my journey. The hostility I encountered in my struggle had shaken my vision of Canada as a country where everyone enjoys the freedom to practice their faith in peace and mutual respect. But I also feel motivated to continue on my path to ensure that we Canadians each and all truly enjoy this freedom.

I understand that some people might not be comfortable with this peaceful, religious practice of Muslim women. I do not ask or expect others to wear a niqab, or even to agree with my choice to wear a niqab. I only ask that my choice be respected, just as I respect other women’s and men’s choice of attire.

Canada is a country where people of so many cultural backgrounds co-exist. Maybe it is impossible for everyone to be comfortable with everyone else’s religious and cultural practices, yet we can still respect each other and enjoy our freedom to practice our religions peacefully.

We need to build trust and mutual respect for each other. There is no point to being afraid, rather we must approach one another and overcome this fear with love. We need to bridge the gap between different faith groups, and between those of religious faith and those without.

I believe we can do that, and I do not think that makes me a dangerous woman.


2 thoughts on “Dangerous to whom?

  1. This is so amazing. I really loved and appreciated reading Zunera’s characterization of herself after politicians and the media got so busy characterizing her themselves. It is really beautiful and a wonderful way to explore what it means to be a dangerous woman from different perspectives. GREAT first post!

  2. I am highly critical of this young woman’s fashion choice. It seems she values her privileged, individual right to choose above solidarity with those women who are forced to cover their faces and who risk death threats, acid and sexual attacks if they do. This article by another young Canadian woman eloquently explains why Zunera is doing women a disservice.

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