Second woman fights Harper government’s citizenship ceremony niqab ban

Sheena Goodyear
Daily Brew

It turns out the federal Conservative government is fighting its battle against Muslim niqabs at citizenship ceremonies on two fronts.

In 2011, the Conservatives introduced new legislation forbidding women from wearing face-coverings, such as niqabs that cover the head and face except for the eyes while pledging the oath of citizenship. 

The controversial policy prompted a high-profile court challenge from Ontario’s Zunera Ishaq, a Pakistani woman who called the ban a “personal attack” on her and all Muslim women who choose to wear a niqab.

But while Ishaq’s case winds its way through the courts, a second woman is fighting the niqab ban on a different front.

Maiia Mykolayivna Zaafrane has filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, alleging religious discrimination by Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC).

On Dec. 4, 2013, Zaafrane was forbidden from taking part in a citizenship ceremony unless she removed her niqab. 

Like Ishaq, she was willing to take the garment off in a private room in front of a female citizenship officer in order to verify her identity.

Zaafrane, a Montreal woman who moved to Canada from Ukraine, filed the human rights complaint in April 2014 with the help of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM).

Her story has now come to light after the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal denied the government’s request last week to have her hearing adjourned pending the results of the Ishaq case. 

Ishaq won a victory in February, when a Federal Court judge struck down the niqab ban.

The government is appealing the ruling, and that case will be heard later this month in the Federal Court of Appeal.

In its bid to have the human rights hearing adjourned, the CIC argued the two cases are so similar that “to proceed with the complaint would be contrary to the principles of natural justice.” 

The tribunal disagreed, noting that the Federal Court judge did not comment on whether the ban violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a question the tribunal will rule on. 

Instead, the Federal Court ruled that the ban violated the Citizenship Act, which states that new Canadians be granted the “greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization” of the oath. 

The Federal Court of Appeal is also expected to examine the ban within that same context. 

If the tribunal decides Zaafrane was discriminated against, it can order the government to financially compensate her. 

Neither Zaafrane nor the NCCM will be commenting publicly on the case until the commission makes its ruling, spokeswoman Amira Elghawaby told Yahoo Canada News.

The CIC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Conservative government has been steadfast in its opposition to niqabs at citizenship ceremonies, vowing to entrench the ban with legislation if re-elected in October.

During a discussion about the ban in the House of Commons in March, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said: “Why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practice at that time that is not transparent, that is not open, and frankly is rooted in a culture that is anti-women?”