“The true north strong and free.”
Ever since I was a little girl in elementary school, this has been my favourite line in the national anthem. This country where I was raised, where generations of my relatives were raised, has always been home to me. It is part of me. I am a proud Canadian and have brought my children up in the same way. We learn about other cultures and countries and I teach them to be grateful for the blessings they count as rights in this country, that others don’t. We watch videos on YouTube about children having to hike torturous waters just to go to school and people who die just to practice their religions. This is our right in Canada. Our children don’t have to fight for it because our relatives did. They should, instead, be grateful.
Now I find us having a new discussion at home. One with an undertone of fear and mistrust where once there was comfort. It deeply saddens me that Quebec took a step backward with bill 62—a new law that will ban people wearing face veils from receiving public services—to a time before our ancestors escaped religious intolerance to live here. I am now faced with the task of explaining why our beautiful free country is no longer totally free. Why their mother is no longer welcome in Quebec because she wears a niqab as part of her faith.
In the last few years, the number of discriminatory comments I have received publicly has significantly increased. I have been told to go back to where I came from (Kitchener?), to dress like a Canadian, and to learn to look like a Canadian. What does that even mean? People don’t care if my children are with me. But the most ironic thing said to me is that I need to stop expecting my country to change its laws to adapt to my religion. Why is this ironic? Because I don’t need Canada to change its laws for me since Canada already has its charter of freedom and rights. It is they who are changing Canadian law to better suit their belief that they should have a say over what I wear, my body, and how I choose to practice my religion.
The charter of rights and freedoms ensures that, as a Canadian, I reserve the right to wear the niqab as a Muslim woman. I have had people attack me, demanding that I show them proof that my niqab comes from Islam. But what it comes down to is that it’s my right to wear it whether others agree or not. I do not need to prove how it is part of my religion, just as I cannot walk up to any other person and push my beliefs on them or demand them to justify their practices.
I don’t understand why showing my face when necessary in the airport, to police officers, to enter a university exam, at a bank or in court still isn’t enough. Why could they not just mandate that a woman identify herself to the bus driver when entering the bus? This makes sense! I would happily show my face to someone in authority needing to identify me. All this bill does is allow men to control women. Women who once went to university or work in Quebec will no longer be able to go safely and peacefully. They will be forced to withdraw from society as they fear to leave their homes.
I have had some ignorant comments and arguments thrown at me—from being accused of hiding bruises from a husband who forces me to wear the niqab to condoning forced child marriage and honour killings—none of which are part of Islam. If people took just a few moments to ask or even read about Islam, they would know this already. In fact, this is true for most ignorance. It could be reduced if more people asked and read about it.
As a Canadian, I love my country and show my love by respecting its laws and contributing to society. I teach my children about its history and bring them up as proud Canadians. Above all, my wearing a niqab, practicing my right to religious freedom and being grateful should be a testament to my love for my country. So many women around the world are being controlled and forced to conform to societal norms, prevented from making their own choices and told what they can and cannot wear. Canada is not that country, and that is not my Canada. By passing bill 62, we have opened the gates to something dangerous and ugly. I pray Canada unites and acts to correct this. So, to that I pray, “God keep our land, glorious and free!”
Zahra and her husband run the Bilal ibn Rabah Centre, which serves to educate the community about Islam and misconceptions surrounding it. To learn more, check out their website.