Ahmed Yousef’s mom used to wear a niqab – to the chagrin of his dad, himself and his brother – when he was growing up in Cairo, Egypt in the late 1980s.
The three of them disliked seeing her in the outfit so much they refused to go out with her while she was wearing the head- and face-covering veil, and eventually mom returned to wearing a scarf, or hijab.
In Egypt, says Yousef, “It is the uneducated and lower classes who wear niqab. It is not a garment that is looked upon favourably by the moderates and educated classes.”
Yousef isn’t a supporter of Conservative leader Stephen Harper, who wants to ban the mysterious veil from Canadian citizenship ceremonies and could do the same in the civil service.
But on this issue, he agrees with the prime minister.
Yousef, a local PhD student who has a political science degree from the American University in Cairo, says the niqab simply crosses the line and that a woman who wears such a veil, even though she may be legally entitled to do so, is showing she doesn’t want to join Canadian society.
“This is a ceremony where one is pledging allegiance to their new country. This is the opportunity for the immigrant to become part of their new country.”
But it’s up to each woman if she wants to wear the niqab elsewhere, he said.
“Whether they choose to wear the niqab at home and scare the beejesus out of their children because they think their mother is a ninja, is up to them, he added.
The niqab is not a religious garment.
“One huge misconception on behalf of millions of people … the niqab has no part of Islam. It is a cultural head and face covering for women that is coming out of south-central Asian countries, as well as Saudi Arabia,” Yousef said.
“It is purely cultural. It has no scholarly backing in Islam religion.”
What is required is for women to cover themselves from their ankles to the head, leaving their face visible. But Muslim societies around the world have various interpretations of that.
Yousef arrived in Canada in 2010 and says his family is religious, but moderate. When he was a child he used to study the Quran so much that he had the nickname Shaykh, a title given to religious scholars.
“What is required is for a woman to dress moderately so as not to show the curves of her body, so as not to be looked at as a sexual object.”
Yousef says the hijab, a scarf which covers the head and shoulders, should be allowed because it’s similar to other religious garb. If it was the only such religious garment in the world and it was Muslim, he could accept banning that at ceremonies, as well in Canada, because it’s not a Muslim country.
But the hijab is just a head covering, a tradition followed by many religions.
“Are you going to ban nuns from wearing headcovers also?”
Sikhs, and orthodox Jews wear headcoverings, as does the Pope.
As an immigrant, Yousef respects Canadian culture and traditions and says all immigrants should do the same.
“I would never dream of changing street signs to be in my own mother tongue, changing store signs to be in my language. If I want that, I should go to Cairo.”
He said it’s confusing for people to come to Canada and see signs in other languages.
He takes the love-it or leave-it philosophy expressed by many native-born Canadians.
“If you don’t like how it’s done, there are plenty of aircraft that leave Canadian soil every day. You’re more than welcome to hop on a plane and go to where they require you to wear one of those,” such as Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia.
While he agrees with the Conservatives on the issue he calls it a cheap shot if the only motivation is getting votes.
“These Conservatives, Stephen Harper, has not done well for Canada. He’s not served Canada in the best way.
“Many of his policies are setting Canada back and really destroying Canada’s image internationally.”
In a blog called the Arab Democrat, he compares an immigrant’s duty upon arriving in a country to that of eating a watermelon. Each immigrant should bring the best of his or her culture and traditions to Canada, and discard the rest and do the same with Canadian customs and traditions.
After spending several years in the U.S., he likes the Canadian mosaic approach to immigration instead of the American melting pot, in which newcomers try to fit in as soon as possible.
Yousef refers to Canada as more of a salad.
“There may be tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce – each retains his or her own identity, flavour and shape, but yet together they function very well as a salad.
“I definitely enjoy the soup more than the salad.”
Two Palestinian sisters living in Maple Ridge, though, say wearing the niqab is just a matter of choice.
Other religions wear similar clothing but are not targeted, says Zeina Dirawi.
She agreed, the niqab isn’t mandatory under Islamic law.
“But some people choose to wear it because they say it’s my body, it’s for me and my husband,” she said.
“Nobody forces them to. It’s basically their freedom to decide whether they wear it or not. You don’t see every single Muslim wearing the niqab.”
Similarly, the hijab, which covers the hair, can also serve to save a woman’s beauty only for her husband.
It’s the same as if a woman wants to walk around wearing tight shorts and a bra, she added. It’s their choice.
The debate bothers both Zeina and her sister, Nessrine.
The came from Lebanon 22 years ago, but are Palestinian.
“They don’t go around judging the Christian nuns or priests for what they wear,” said Nessrine. “They should be allowed to wear whatever they want, when they want.
Some people come from different cultures and shouldn’t be judged by what they wear.
“You only see the Muslims being attacked. It seems like everybody is trying to pin everybody against the Muslims, which is not fair.”
Zeina thought about the issue recently and it is inspiring her to vote.
She added that she grew up not wearing the hijab or head scarf and spent most of her life in Canada not wearing one.
Then three years ago she began wearing one, of her own choice.
“It’s amazing. I thought I would get a lot of people staring at me and judging me and saying a lot of mean things to me, but they don’t.”
While some people aren’t up for it, she said people from all backgrounds usually tell her it’s beautiful.