Bill 62 or Niqab: A religious compulsion or a head-cover to make you look modest?

Suresh Kurl

Editor’s Note: The views expressed by the writer, and commenters below, do not necessarily reflect the views, and policies of the Milton Reporter

By: Suresh Kurl

Historically, the earliest record of women veiling their faces dates back to the Assyrian Empire around 5000 BCE. Face veiling used to be indicative of social status. Only aristocrats used it. Slave women, found wearing it, were publicly punished.

“There is no mention of Burqa in the Quran but there is mention of dressing modestly,” says Mr. Syeda Ratal Zehra, a practicing Muslim. Islam adopted veiling around 700 AD, when it started spreading around the world. However, just as the followers of Islam adopted customs and traditions of the countries they invaded they also forced their traditions and customs on the countries they conquered. “Among the unfortunate development that took place was the growth of purdah or the seclusion of women.” writes Jawaharlal Nehru in his book:  Discovery of India.

In 1971, within one year of my family and me landing in Canada, the government announced its official policy on multiculturalism.  Since then the country has embraced every colour, creed, culture and ethnicity, with warm hearts, open minds and open arms. Not only that, it has been doing everything it can to promote racial harmony. However, when different cultures come together, they experience certain degree of cultural congestion, causing friction, requiring understanding and mutual adjustments. Here is an example of that certain friction.

CBC carried a story 1 year ago, about a Vancouver resident, Mr. Gaba placed two Swastika flags in the front of his house to welcome his  Spiritual Guru. This behaviour upset the Jewish community.

Even though SWASTIKA represents Lord Vishnu (the preserver of this planet) and god Surya (Sun), and is indicative of fortune, success, prosperity and victory in Hinduism; represents abundance and eternity in Buddhism and is found carved on statues on the soles of Lord Buddha’s feet and on his heart; symbolises the four states of existence — heavenly,  earthly,  being flora or fauna and hellish in Jainism, and represents Sun  in Native Americans culture, for the Jewish community, after the Second World War, it became a symbol of pure evil and grief; and rightfully so.

As the saying goes, Charity begins at home, I decided to write an essay on the subject, “SWASTIKA: Cultural Sensitivity Should Take Precedence When We Display Controversial Symbols and Objects,” and apologised for Mr. Gaba’s insensitivity.

It is obvious that all of us, those who were born in Canada, those who have been living in Canada for several decades, or those, who have just arrived, are not only responsible to monitor and control our carbon foot-print, but are responsible to monitor and control our cultural-foot-print as well. We are responsible to contribute to Canada’s harmonious living as well.

A recent Angus Reid Poll, ([Religious Trends April 4, 2017) seems to confirm this view: “Canadians are increasingly encountering different perspectives in their day-to-day lives. While multiculturalism has been Canada’s official policy since 1971, recent research indicates that many hope to see new immigrants do more to integrate into what they would consider “mainstream” Canadian society.”

In 2015, the Liberal government ended Canada’s four-year fight against wearing of the face/body veil during the citizenship oath. But I am not talking about the appellant’s legal rights here. I am talking about our citizenship obligations. Given the Swastika example, I believe that Canada has reached a cultural juncture when we must define and discharge our responsibilities to the nation as well; not just fight for our rights.

Canada is a friendly nation. Here people stop and greet each other on the sidewalks, public parks, shopping malls and public fairs. Here neighbours share their harvest with each other and help in distress. Their ability to see and greet each other face to face assures them of their mutual well being. Under the circumstance, I will find burqa a barrier to integration.

Here are a few wise words of Mr. Tariq Ramadan: “On the social level, “We [Muslims] must commit ourselves to a far more social mixing in our schools and communities. Far more courageous and creative social and urban policies are needed, of course. But even citizens can foster human interchange in and through projects focused on local democratic participation.”

I also have a personal grief against burqa. It was 1946-47. India was going through its partition. I was returning home from my dad’s store. I noticed a burqa clad person walking ahead of me. I also noticed a boy, younger than I was, walking a few steps ahead of me.  I recognized him. He was Naval, our neighbour’s son. Then, I saw that person in burqa grabbed the arm of that boy and pulled him inside the burqa. I yelled, “Where are you taking him? He is my neighbour.” Instantly I grabbed Naval and pulled him out and ran dragging him.

But our escape did not dissipate my fear; perhaps, because of the rumors: “They (the Muslims) were bagging boys, circumcising and converting them to Islam, breaking their arms and legs, putting their eyes out and forcing them to beg on the streets, or simply killing them to reduce the Hindu population. I began to cry, “What if I were Naval with no one waking behind me?”

Given my personal story, a witness covered in burqa/niqab would not be acceptable to the court system. Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, writing on behalf of several of the judges in the majority says, “…permitting a witness to conceal her face behind a niqab in all cases would rob accused people of the right to a fair trial. It could also harm public confidence in the justice system.” She adds, “A witness who for sincere religious reasons wishes to wear the niqab while testifying in a criminal proceeding will be required to remove it if (a) this is necessary to prevent a serious risk to the fairness of the trial, because reasonably available alternative measures will not prevent the risk; and (b) the salutary effects of requiring her to remove the niqab outweigh the deleterious effects of doing so.”

Further more, judges, jury, the prosecutor and defense attorneys may not be satisfied with a witness’ verbal responses alone. Non-verbal cues are just as crucial in communication as verbal. Burqa is a barrier to listening to the body language.

Here are a few wise words of Mr. Tariq Ramadan from his book What I believe: “On the social level, “We [Muslims] must commit ourselves to a far more social mixing in our schools and communities. Far more courageous and creative social and urban policies are needed, of course. But even citizens can foster human interchange in and through projects focused on local democratic participation.”

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 Suresh Kurl is a South Asian Community Activist, a former university professor, retired Registrar of the BC Benefits Appeal Board (Govt. of B.C.) a former-Member of the National Parole Board (Govt. of Canada), a writer and public speaker.