Middle Eastern garments designed to cover a woman's face are "medieval" and "misogynist" symbols of extremism with no basis in Islam, said a Canadian Muslim lobby group as it urged Ottawa to ban the burka and the niqab.
The Muslim Canadian Congress Wednesday called on the federal government to prohibit the two garments in order to prevent women from covering their faces in public - a practice the group said has no place in a society that supports gender equality.
"To cover your face is to conceal your identity," congress spokeswoman Farzana Hassan said in a telephone interview, describing the issue as a matter of public safety, since concealing one's identity is a common practice for criminals.
The tradition of Muslim women covering their faces in public is a tradition rooted more in Middle Eastern culture than in the Islamic faith, Ms. Hassan added.
There is nothing in any of the primary Islamic religious texts, including the Koran, that requires women to cover their faces, she said - not even in the ultra-conservative tenets of Sharia law.
Considering the fact that women are in fact forbidden from wearing burkas in the grand mosque in Mecca, Islam's holiest site, it hardly makes sense that the practice should be permitted in Canada, she said.
"If a government claims to uphold equality between men and women, there is no reason for them to support a practice that marginalizes women."
The proposed ban would include the burka, an iconic head-to-toe gown with a mesh-like panel over the face that allows the wearer to see and to breathe, as well as the niqab - a veil that leaves only the eyes exposed.
Ms. Hassan said the ban would not extend to the hijab, a traditional headscarf that does not cover the face.
The proposed ban comes on the heels of reports that Sheikh Mohamed Tantawi, dean of Egypt's al-Azhar university and the country's highest Muslim authority, is poised to issue a fatwa, or religious edict, against the garments.
Media reports Monday said Sheikh Tantawi described the face coverings as "a custom that has nothing to do with the Islamic faith."
Mohamed Elmasry, former president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, said he agrees the tradition has its roots in cultural customs rather than religious teachings, but that the issue is irrelevant in Canada where the practice is not widespread.
Mr. Elmasry disputed suggestions that the garments pose a security threat, saying only a minority of Muslim women living in Canada feel the need to conceal their features in public.
He said he believes those women should have the freedom to decide whether they wish to cover their faces, and that a ban would limit freedom of expression.
"People feel it's part of their identity, people feel it's part of their culture," Mr. Elmasry said.
"It's not for you and me to decide."