In this opinion piece former Muslim Canadian Congress president Farzana Hassan posits that the niqab looms large over an Ontario court as a symbol of Islamist oppression of Muslim women. She is responding to a current debate in the Canadian courts. The Ontario Court of Appeal is debating a test case of a Muslim sexual-assault complainant who insists on remaining both invisible and anonymous, yet needs to testify in court. The woman enjoys support from a motley group of activists who are citing her right to religious freedom. For instance, the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) cautions against using this case to set a precedent, the feminist group wants the court to accommodate the woman’s request.
Hassan describes the niqab as a symbol of deep-rooted sexism, patriarchal control and inveterate misogyny. She claims it remains the most pernicious symbol of female subjugation, as many believe the niqab greatly stigmatizes and marginalizes women in society.
The issue of whether the courts or Parliament should decide if a Muslim woman can wear a veil while testifying was at the centre of arguments on the first day of a potentially landmark hearing at the Ontario Court of Appeal. The court must determine whether a 32-year-old Toronto woman, who is accusing her uncle and cousin of sexually abusing her while she was a child, can testify against them while wearing a niqab.
A wide range of suggestions was put forward by lawyers representing the woman, the defendants, the province and five interest groups. The three-judge panel appeared reluctant to turn the case into a referendum on the use of the niqab in Canadian society and other social issues. It will likely be several weeks before the court issues its ruling.
When a lawyer for the Muslim Canadian Congress, which is opposed to women wearing the niqab, noted that the complete outfit restricts the ability of a lawyer in court to see not only her face, but the body language of a witness, the panel interjected. In its argument, the Ontario government urged the court to avoid imposing any general rules. Instead, a “legal framework” should be created that would be applied in individual cases. Under the suggestions put forward by the province, it would likely be more difficult for a witness to wear a veil at the actual trial, because of the impact on the defendant’s right to a fair trial.