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Canada Woman at centre of niqab debate says she’s educated, not oppressed

Zunera Ishaq is pictured in a lawyer's offices in Toronto on Thursday, October 8, 2015.

Zunera Ishaq wants Canada to know she is not an oppressed Muslim woman in a niqab, forced to stay at home and care for her children. But if the Conservative Party continues governing the country after this month's election, she fears she may become one.

Ms. Ishaq, the 29-year-old Mississauga woman at the centre of the country's niqab debate, says the Conservative government's rhetoric around the face veil has made her feel unsafe for the first time since she came to Canada in 2008. If Stephen Harper goes ahead with a proposal to ban public servants from wearing the niqab, she worries that her ability to pursue a fruitful career in Canada may be in jeopardy.

"Personally, I'm not the woman who wants to sit with the kids at home only, serving them all the time. I want to proceed with my career here. I have some future plans," said Ms. Ishaq, who was a high school teacher in her native Pakistan and hopes to teach in Ontario, too.

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In an extensive interview with The Globe and Mail in her lawyer's downtown Toronto office, Ms. Ishaq, dressed in a pink and mauve leopard-print niqab, said becoming a Canadian is no longer an event worthy of major celebration for her, given the way her Muslim face veil has been politicized.

She had plans to roll up to her citizenship ceremony with a big entourage – her husband, her four children, relatives and friends – while sporting a festive red and white niqab, specially purchased for the occasion, but now she seeks something quieter. Publicizing the location of the citizenship ceremony might attract a mob of protesters, she fears.

Ms. Ishaq has won three battles against the Conservative government, which has tried to ban the face veil from citizenship ceremonies. She plans to take her citizenship oath in the coming days, clearing the way for her to vote in the federal election. Wearing a niqab doesn't prevent her from voting, but not holding Canadian citizenship does.

In 2011, then-immigration minister Jason Kenney banned the niqab at citizenship ceremonies, but last year Ms. Ishaq challenged that regulation and won. The government lost an appeal last month and just this past week. Its attempt to suspend the Federal Court's ruling so it could appeal to the Supreme Court was also dismissed.

Mr. Harper has said the niqab is "rooted in a culture that is anti-women," but Ms. Ishaq said he and many other Canadians have made incorrect assumptions about why she wears it.

She grew up in a well-to-do, liberal neighbourhood in Multan, Pakistan, and later Lahore, where none of her family members wore hijabs, let alone niqabs. She used to think less of the women she saw who wore the face veil, assuming they were uneducated, until she took a college course with a professor who sported one.

"I started thinking, 'If the educated ladies can wear it, I can go for it,' " she said. She read extensively on the subject and decided at 15 to wear it. While her father never voiced opposition to her decision, she got the impression he wasn't a fan of it.

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"My father never commanded us for anything, never directed us, never told us what to do, what not to do," she said. While he was "hesitant" about his daughter's choice because of the socially liberal circle they ran in, he encouraged Ms. Ishaq to consider what it would mean to wear the niqab before making her final decision.

When she decided to challenge the niqab ban in court and dug in her heels in the face of loud opposition from the federal government, her husband and other members of her family advised her to back down.

"I have tried to convince them with so many arguments," she said. " 'It's my legal right. See? The court has approved me two times. Don't worry, I'm not doing anything illegal.' "

Ms. Ishaq understands there are times she must remove her veil for security reasons and has always complied when asked, whether it was when she was getting her photo taken for government ID or before boarding a plane. She is content to show her face to an official in private before taking her citizenship oath so she can be identified, but says she cannot understand why it's necessary for her to remove her niqab during the public ceremony.

When she lived in Pakistan, Ms. Ishaq's views of Canada were informed by friends as well as books she read while she studied English literature in university. She believed her new home would be a bastion of freedom and tolerance. As soon as her plane touched down at Toronto Pearson International Airport in 2008, she asked to try a McIntosh apple (which she'd heard was a national delicacy) and visit the world-renowned Niagara Falls. The FFalls and the apple lived up to the hype, but she's come to question how tolerant her fellow countrymen truly are.

Last week, the Conservative Party announced plans to establish a tip line so residents could report "barbaric cultural practices" to the RCMP. Ms. Ishaq has been glared at by strangers and told to "go back to [her] country." On a recent trip to the mall with her seven-year-old son, someone swore at her.

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"[My son] felt very sad. Like, 'Why are the people trying to abuse my mother?' He's getting an image of Canada that is not very true of it," she said.

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