Last week at the downtown YMCA pre-school in Toronto, Canada, reporters observed a childcare worker covered head to toe in black cloth, with only her hands showing and eyeglasses poking through an eye slit.
The federal minister of families, children and social development, Jean-Yves Duclos, arrived to give a news conference on childcare policy but first sat down to play with preschool children for the cameras. The worker in the niqab sat at a second table with other children and did not interact with the minister. The children and minders then cleared the room for the briefing.
Asked afterward when the YMCA started hiring women in niqabs, senior vice-president for child and family development Linda Cottes said the “Y” has never excluded women wearing the niqab. Asked again when such hiring started, she said only, “We are inclusive.”
Nursery school teachers are welcome to wear the full-face Islamic veil, or niqab, at the Young Men’s Christian Association of Greater Toronto, says Egyptian-born president and CEO Medhat Mahdy.
“A woman is allowed to wear the niqab if she chooses,” he says in a written statement released this week through his spokesperson. “We also perform stringent background checks for all our employees, student placements, and volunteers.”
Spokesperson Antoine Tedesco later clarified that the woman in the niqab was a student placement worker, not an employee. He declined all other questions, among them: How many staff members wear the niqab, and what is Medhat Mahdy’s religious background?
“People [at the “Y”] are free to dress and express themselves as they see fit,” he said on Mahdy’s behalf, “as long as it does not threaten or infringe on the rights of others.”
Speaking for the Ontario Ministry of Education, Heather Irwin similarly said teachers and students are free to wear the niqab in all the province’s daycare centers and all publicly-funded educational institutions.
The endorsements are part of a Canadian trend.
Elsewhere in the world, including some Muslim-majority countries, leaders view the niqab as a symbol of female oppression and a flag of Islamic extremism. In Britain, Holland, France, Germany, Denmark, the Philippines, China, Turkey, Syria, Tunisia and Egypt — Mahdy’s native country — lawmakers have passed full or partial niqab bans in schools and elsewhere, or are preparing legislation to do so.
In Canada, however, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau goes out of his way to support the niqab.
“We need societies that recognize diversity as a source of strength,” he told the World Economic Forum last year in Davos, Switzerland.
In one of his first acts as prime minister, Trudeau allowed Pakistani immigrant Zunera Ishaq to wear a niqab while taking her Canadian citizenship oath, after the outgoing Conservative government stopped her. Ishaq works as a women’s coordinator for the Islamist group, Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) and has expressed support for the Pakistani Muslim Brotherhood, the Jamaat e-Islami.
Increasingly, Canadian politicians are also moving to silence all forms of public criticism of Islam.
Last month, Trudeau’s Liberal government led a parliamentary motion to condemn religious discrimination and “Islamophobia.” Introducing the motion was Toronto-area Member of Parliament Iqra Khalid, a Pakistani immigrant and former president of the York University Muslim Students Association, an Islamist group.
When opposition Conservatives asked her to remove the term “Islamophobia” or explicitly condemn anti-Jewish and anti-Christian bigotry as well, she refused. Similarly, she refused to define “Islamophobia.”
Two months ago, the Ontario provincial legislature also passed an “anti-Islamophobia” motion with unanimous all-party support.
The result is a national chill. No politician or civic leader now dares challenge the niqab or burka.
Ironically, Canada marks the 100th anniversary this week of the First World War Battle of Vimy Ridge, said to have forged Canada’s sense of nationhood. At a cost of 10,000 casualties, including 3,600 dead, all four divisions of the Canadian Corps of the British army fought victoriously to take the hill from the Germans in northern France, inch by pitiless inch.
Today, Canadian political and civic leaders figuratively cede ground, bit by willing bit, to symbols of Islamist tyranny.
John Goddard is an independent newspaper and magazine reporter living in Toronto.