Zunera Ishaq

When Zunera Ishaq fought the government for her right to wear the niqab at her citizenship ceremony, her opponents saw her as a meek 28-year-old housewife who’d be easy to topple. Instead, she became a powerful voice for Muslim women. And she’s just getting started

(Image: Aaron Vincent Elkaim)

The first thing Zunera Ishaq wanted to do when she moved to Toronto from Pakistan was taste a McIntosh apple. She had read online that Macs were a Canadian delicacy, and she embarked on a quest. Ishaq, her husband, Muhammad, and their infant son, Mousa, had settled with her in-laws in Scarborough, but they never kept Macs in the house, and most Indian groceries didn’t stock them. Ishaq refused to let it go. For her, the apple was like an initiation into Canadian culture. After a few weeks, she finally found a store that carried them. That first bite was a complex blend of sour and sweet. It was one of the few things in Canada that turned out just as she imagined.

In Pakistan, the couple had led a privileged life: Muhammad worked as a chemical engineer, and Zunera was a high school English teacher. But she wanted the kind of freedom she couldn’t find in Pakistan—in the past decade, the country had oscillated between a corrupt democratic government and violent military rule. Once they arrived in Canada in October 2008, both Zunera and Muhammad were unable to find jobs in their fields. Muhammad settled for a teaching position at an Islamic school, while Zunera stayed at home. She gave birth to another boy, Isa, in 2009, then another in 2011, named Muhammad.

Within a few years, the family was living in a small rented townhouse on a sleepy street in Meadowvale, a Mississauga neighbourhood with a large Muslim population. After years of working, Ishaq found herself unsatisfied by full-time parenting. “I never wanted to simply be a homemaker, babysitting all the time,” she says. So she began volunteering, logging up to 15 hours a week, sometimes leaving her kids with friends or relatives, other times bringing them along. She visited seniors in hospice and raised money for Credit Valley Hospital. She helped out in women’s shelters and Islamic schools and food banks.

Canada began to feel like home, and after four years, in 2012, Ishaq and Muhammad applied for citizenship. She was excited but apprehensive. Ishaq, a Sunni Muslim, wears a niqab and an abaya when out in public, religious garments that leave only her hands and kohl-rimmed eyes uncovered—and a year earlier, the federal government had banned women from wearing the niqab during the ceremony. “The citizenship oath is a quintessentially public act,” said then–immigration minister Jason Kenney. “It is a public declaration that you are joining the Canadian family, and it must be taken freely and openly.” He attacked the niqab specifically, stating that it reflected “a certain view about women that we don’t accept in Canada.”

As she and Muhammad read their citizenship study booklet, they arrived at the section declaring that each citizen would have a fundamental right to religious freedom. “I told him to stop reading,” says Ishaq. “I said, ‘These are the rights that we have as Canadian citizens?’ ” If religious freedom was such a tenet of Canadian society, she thought, then why couldn’t she practise her religion as she was becoming a citizen?

Ishaq sought advice from a friend of a friend, who was studying law. The student agreed that the ban was a violation of Ishaq’s Charter rights and promised to consult her law professor about whether she could challenge it. At first, Ishaq was thrilled for the opportunity to fight for her rights. A few days later, it hit her: she was going to take on the federal government. It would be a long, difficult process with no guarantee of success. Her excitement morphed into trepidation.

Weeks went by while she hemmed and hawed. She passed her citizenship exam in November 2013. A month later, the federal government invited her to take the oath. When she explained her conundrum, they refused to budge on the niqab ban. The only thing they could do for her, they said, was allow her to stand in the middle of a group of women taking their oaths. She would be unveiled, but shielded. Ishaq was furious. That tepid attempt at accommodation tipped her toward action. If she won, she realized, any woman who wanted to wear the niqab while taking the oath would have that choice. Her decision was made. She called her friend’s professor, who recommended Lorne Waldman, a lawyer specializing in immigration law. The following day, he filed an official challenge against the federal government. Ishaq expected the issue to be resolved in a few months. She had no idea how famous her veiled face would become.

Over the next two years, Ishaq’s federal challenge became a major election issue, and the niqab a political Rorschach test for questions of race, religion and feminism. In newspaper stories and TV interviews, she was trotted out as a meek Muslim housewife turned accidental activist. But there’s nothing meek about Zunera Ishaq. She’s always seen herself as a champion for the underdog. Now she has positioned herself as a valiant voice for all Muslim women. You have to wonder if that wasn’t her plan all along.

Zunera Ishaq
Ishaq at her townhouse in Meadowvale, a suburban neighbourhood in Mississauga

Last November, I visited Ishaq at her home in Meadowvale. When I rang the bell, a woman I didn’t recognize appeared at the door in a headscarf, her face uncovered. She was small, with delicate features and a crooked smile. I briefly panicked that I was at the wrong house. “Is Zunera here?” I asked. The woman’s face lit in delight, while mine drooped in mortification. “It’s me!” Ishaq exclaimed. Like many Muslim niqabi women in Canada, Ishaq uncovers her face while at home or in female company. Most people don’t recognize her the first time they see her without the niqab. “That’s kind of the point,” she says with a smirk—she wants people to see her actions, not her face.

The Muslim veil comes in many forms. The word “hijab” refers to covered dress in general but is also a colloquial term to describe the head covering many Muslim women use to hide their hair and neck. The niqab covers the face, leaving a wide slit for the eyes. The burka conceals a woman’s entire body, often with a mesh covering over the eyes so she can still see. Then there’s an al-amira, a two-piece headscarf; a chador, a full-body cloak and headscarf worn by Iranian and Afghan women; an abaya, a long-sleeved, loose robe. These coverings are traditionally black, but many modern Muslim women are opting for brighter, colourful scarves. In January, Dolce and Gabbana launched a collection of hijabs and abayas, their long sleeves and hemlines splashed with floral prints and Swarovski crystals.

Ishaq wears niqabs that make her stand out in a crowd. She rotates between seven or eight scarves—floral prints, leopard, plaid. Instead of using an extra piece of fabric as a niqab, she uses the end of her hijab, wrapping it loosely across her nose and mouth. Even without her veil, Ishaq’s intense eyes dominate her face, revealing hints of mischief, humour and intelligence.

Ishaq’s townhouse is sparsely decorated, but the place exudes warmth. When I visited, there were crayon marks scribbled on the wall, and laundry hanging over a backyard the size of an office cubicle. Her newborn, Abdullah, slept in a bassinet. Ishaq had stowed all of the family’s furniture except two couches in the basement. She was afraid her younger boys would hurt themselves by running into something, and she wanted to be able to play with them—she loves to chase her kids around so much that her husband, Muhammad, calls her an adult girl. (Her other favourite activities include playing Pokémon and watching Tom and Jerry, which she loved as a kid in Pakistan.) Muhammad declined to be interviewed for this story. He’s shy and quiet, and both of them prefer it when Zunera is in the spotlight. She describes him as supportive but reserved—he lives in her orbit.

Ishaq practises salah, praying five times a day, and attends the Ar-Rehman Islamic Centre, a mosque in a strip mall near Winston Churchill Boulevard and the 401, for Jumu’ah, a congregational Friday noon prayer. When describing her relationship with Islam, she falls enthusiastically into pious praise: she says that God forgives her mistakes, that she is bound only to Him, that no other power controls her. When she volunteers, she says it’s God’s work. Every conversation I had with Ishaq circled back to her community work and zest for advocacy. Unless prompted, she rarely talked about anything else.

Charity is a religious duty, but to hear Ishaq tell it, it’s also a personal calling. It was ingrained in her at a young age, she explains. When she was five, her mother took her out to knock on doors. They were collecting donations to send to Afghanistan, for victims of the country’s civil war. She remembers it as a thrilling experience.

Ishaq grew up in Multan, a city of 4.5 million in the Punjab province of Pakistan. Her father, Naeem Chisbi, came from a wealthy land-owning family that rented fields to farmers. As a teenager, he decided to go to university and study economics, against the wishes of his parents. He soon wed Ishaq’s mother, Abida, who, like many young Pakistani women, dropped out of high school to get married. Eventually, Naeem got a job as an economics professor at Bahauddin Zakariya University. The family lived in a large house on a half-acre of land, with several servants, including gardeners and a driver. Ishaq was the youngest of nine children. She was an energetic, playful kid, and her parents never forced her into a traditional female role: while her sisters played with dolls, she was a tomboy who preferred cricket and soccer. In school, teachers often reprimanded her for pranks—she once tied her classmates’ chairs together. She was a shit disturber from the first.

Like many members of the upper class, Ishaq’s family was religious but not orthodox. She was the first woman in her family to cover her head and face. The veil is more controversial in Pakistan than it is in the west, especially in educated circles. It’s usually reserved for the rural or lower classes: a status marker often associated with unenlightened, uneducated women under the control of their husbands and fathers. “Even in my country, the niqab is considered backward,” she says.

It was only at age 15, when Ishaq took an English language class from a niqabi teacher, that she became curious. Her teacher was educated and outspoken. Ishaq thought the niqab made her look mysterious and beautiful. She was fascinated with her eyes. She had only a vague notion of what the niqab meant in Islam, but in rebellious teenage fashion, she wanted to be different—to stand out by hiding away. After declaring to her father that she wanted to start wearing the niqab, he urged her to do her research, to really think about what it meant.

Ishaq pored over scholarly texts. She consulted with imams. And she asked other women she saw why they wore it. The answers only confirmed the negative stereotypes she’d already heard—one woman even said that her father forced her to wear it because he didn’t want anyone to recognize her on campus. But she kept asking and reading, sometimes wearing her niqab, sometimes not, as she pondered what Islam required when it came to women, modesty and dress. After a year, she decided women were meant to wear it as an expression of their faith. More than that, she felt that it was an obligation designed to protect them.

She loathed the idea that, as a woman, her appearance could supersede her actions and her intellect. By wearing the niqab, Ishaq would make her appearance a private matter. Not that she wouldn’t wear makeup—she still loves eyeliner and lipstick—but she would choose who saw that version of her, and who didn’t. She would craft her own identity.

Ishaq chose to wear the niqab full-time, much to the dismay of her extended family. While her mother and father supported her decision, her aunts and uncles frowned on the veil. Her cousins were ashamed to be seen with her. Her maternal uncle stopped coming by the house. She became a pariah. Later, when her older sister started wearing the niqab to her medical school residency placement, her fiancé’s parents broke off their engagement. As far as they were concerned, Ishaq and her sister were projecting an image of poverty.

By the time Ishaq started university, she was used to nasty comments and dirty looks. She was often the only woman in her English literature classes who wore the niqab. A couple of her male professors regularly ridiculed her for it. When it came time for Ishaq to make her first oral presentation, one instructor sneered, “Let’s see how the voice will come out from behind the curtain.” Ishaq felt the air punch out of her as her classmates laughed. She delights in recounting how she stood up to him. “I wanted to show everybody just how strong the voice behind the veil could be,” she exclaims. Her presentation was flawless. Once she was finished, she brags, the class fell silent—and they never teased her again. The next time a professor mocked her niqab, she told him to mind his own business.

When Ishaq was in her late teens, her parents decided it was time for her to marry. In her family, most marriages were arranged based on social and economic prospects. Ishaq received three proposals: one from a student completing his master’s degree in social sciences, one from a man working in technology, and one from Muhammad, a chemical engineer who was 15 years older than she was. Her father consulted her on each of her proposals, letting her decide. At one point, a cousin offered to propose if Ishaq downgraded to a hijab. She was incensed—and resolved to refuse him for even suggesting such a demand. “I suddenly thought, no. No way,” she says emphatically. “Just tell him no.”

In the end, Ishaq chose pragmatically, settling on Muhammad as the most suitable prospect. She refused to meet her fiancé or even see his photograph before they married. She didn’t want to be judged on her appearance and refused to do it to her husband. Besides, his looks didn’t matter to her. She was more attracted to Muhammad’s career than any of his other qualities.

They married when she was 20 years old. One day, she brought her new husband to campus. While there, she ran into her old English professor. He stopped them and declared: “You have a strong woman, so be careful.” Muhammad agreed. The professor confessed he’d learned a lot from Ishaq—and she liked that she’d changed his mind. She’d think of this moment again years later when she decided to fight the Canadian government.

The subject of women’s dress appears only briefly in the Quran. Like much holy scripture, the passages are vague, controversial and open to endless interpretation. Chapter 24, verse 31 does not explicitly order women to wear a niqab—or a hijab, or a burka, or a chador. “Tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest,” it reads, “and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment.”

The practice of wearing hijab varies widely from sect to sect, family to family. In 2013, researchers from the University of Michigan surveyed men and women from seven countries in the Middle East about their opinion on what women should wear in public. Most respondents said the hijab was most appropriate, with only respondents from Saudi Arabia preferring the niqab and burka. Pakistan was split between the niqab, the hijab and the chador. Only in Turkey and Lebanon did a significant number of subjects think it was acceptable for a woman to uncover her head in public.

The veil has come to symbolize everything Westerners project onto Islam—a kind of us-versus-them mentality that positions North America as an enlightened society and the Middle East as an archaic backwater. And yet the niqab is much more complicated than that. Threaded through its history are dual narratives of feminism and sexism, liberty and oppression, poverty and wealth. Some women say it helps them reclaim ownership over their bodies; others say it erases them as individuals. Many claim it’s their choice, while many more argue that it’s impossible to separate that choice from millennia of entrenched male power structures. It can be a symbol of piety and pride, or a damning double standard. A token of religious freedom or vicious subjugation.

In 2012, the Canadian Council of Muslim Women embarked on a study called “Women in Niqab Speak.” Researchers spoke to 81 niqabi women in Quebec and Ontario. Many of the subjects were like Ishaq: educated, married, foreign-born citizens in their 20s and early 30s who work as homemakers. Most said they wear the niqab not according to their family’s wishes but against them; the families often interpreted the niqab as old-fashioned. One woman explained the niqab’s importance in her life as a way to stay true to herself: “It reminds me of my values, principles and goals in life so that I am always conscious of my actions and behaviour.” Another said she liked that it kept men from objectifying her: “Once I started the niqab, I felt more comfortable, and it was a sort of barrier to stop the advances.”

By framing the niqab unilaterally as a symbol of subjugation, the Harper government also positioned it as a threat to the Western way of life—an idea that was only reinforced by the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. And that fear took hold: there were several reported attacks on niqabi women in the GTA between November 2015 and January 2016. Some Muslim women told me their mosques have started self-defence classes for women and girls, so they’ll know what to do if they’re attacked. A Thornhill woman who wears the hijab says she’ll no longer go to empty gas stations at night, because she can’t shake the fear of being attacked. Another woman, who lives in Milton and wears the hijab, describes how she’s suddenly become self-conscious while in public places. Before, she wore her scarf without a second thought. Now she’s hyper-aware of people noticing it. “I never thought about the hijab before,” she says. “Now I see it all the time.”

Ishaq’s challenge was heard before a federal court in October 2014. Lorne Waldman argued that the Kenney policy violated her Charter right to religious freedom, forcing her to sacrifice her beliefs for the opportunity to become a citizen. The government countered that Ishaq’s lawsuit was premature. It argued that, because Kenney had slipped the ban into the citizenship policy book, it was not law but a mere guideline. Judges were free to disregard it. It was a clever piece of doublespeak.

It took four months for Justice Keith Boswell to reach a decision. In February 2015, at last, he declared the policy unlawful. “Any requirement that a candidate for citizenship actually be seen taking the oath would make it impossible not just for a niqab-wearing woman to obtain citizenship,” he said, “but also for a mute person or a silent monk.”

When the government filed an appeal, Waldman realized the issue would become bigger than he’d imagined. He asked if Ishaq would be willing to speak to the media—and of course, she didn’t hesitate. She wanted to air her version of the facts: that she was not oppressed, that religious freedom was paramount and that the sudden focus on her niqab was nothing but dirty politicking. Soon, she’d given interviews to all of the major newspapers and the CBC. The media loved Ishaq. More than that, they loved what they could do with her story: she was inspiring but not saccharine, defiant but not belligerent. She loved the attention. Ishaq is both genuine and savvy, someone who deftly stepped into a stereotype just to defy it.

The appeal was heard in mid-September, a month before election day. In a rare move, the Federal Court of Appeal issued its decision that same day, with the intention of allowing Ishaq enough time to take her citizenship oath and, therefore, vote—something she especially wanted to do now. The three appeal judges unanimously upheld Boswell’s ruling.

When the decision was announced, hate mail poured onto Ishaq’s Facebook page and into Waldman’s inbox. “You have the gaul [sic] to tell me on national television that I have to live in ‘harmony’ with individuals who have lived here for five years but who will only become citizens on their own terms,” wrote a woman from Fort McMurray. Others tried the classic line: go back where you came from. When reports surfaced of a niqabi woman being attacked in Flemingdon Park, Ishaq received an anonymous message saying she could be next. “These were the worst days of my life,” says Ishaq. “You cannot imagine the stress.”

Her niqab—hers, not the garment in general—had become a hot election issue, and she felt deflated by all the online hatred. She was tired of people demanding she shut up, quit fighting, go back to Pakistan. As a symbol, she had triumphed. As a person, she was still grappling with what her success meant. Those 10 difficult days culminated in the toppling of the Conservatives’ nine-year reign. In the two-year battle between the Canadian government and the modest Muslim housewife, the housewife had won.

On October 9, 2015, Ishaq took her citizenship oath in a Mississauga government building. She had originally planned to enter the building with fanfare. Each of her sons would wear a red shirt, she’d imagined, and she’d chosen a red-and-white-printed niqab meant to evoke the Canadian flag. Muhammad, her parents and her friends would all attend, as well as her lawyers and the media—a big, splashy celebration that marked the victory. But the threats and Facebook messages she received scared her, and she insisted everyone except her husband and her lawyers stay home. Instead of a patriotic costume, she wore a subdued white jacket, a pink shirt, and a delicately flowered niqab that looked like a Manitoba prairie dress.

Clutching a tiny Canadian flag, tears in her eyes, Ishaq expressed gratitude to the judge. “Thank you so much for honouring me here today.” Later, she fiercely sang “O Canada.” It’s a good memory, she says, but also a sad one. While she was overwhelmed with love for Canada, she wished she could have had her children with her. It felt like a small moment after a two-year ordeal.

She was elated when Justin Trudeau won the federal election; she liked him. He’d called her a few months earlier. He wanted to know why she wore the niqab, and he said he supported her. On election night, she stayed up late, past midnight, to hear Trudeau’s victory speech. She beamed when he mentioned the young hijabi Muslim woman he met in St. Catharines: “She said she’s voting for us because she wants to make sure that her little girl has the right to make her own choices in life and that our government will protect those rights.”

I last met with Ishaq in January at the Ar-Rehman Islamic Centre, inside an empty classroom at the Islamic school where her husband teaches. We gathered around a small TV tray piled with cookies and Lipton tea. On the whiteboard behind us, someone had scrawled “Muslim Women’s Empowerment Group.”

These days, Ishaq is dedicated to a new cause: Syrian refugees. She breastfed Abdullah while we chatted, telling me about the meeting she’d organized at her house for that afternoon to help sponsor Syrian orphans. Her group is co-ordinating fundraising drives to bring over as many children as they can, and also working to pair them with potential adoptive parents. She is hoping to adopt a Syrian girl. After four boys, she has always dreamed of having a daughter, though she hasn’t quite thought through the details of adoption. She wants to get her Ontario teacher’s certification, but her volunteer effort has consumed so much of her time that she’s had to reschedule her exam from February to April. Ishaq said she’s excited to get back into her career, although she can’t imagine abandoning her volunteer work. She’s trying to figure out a way to do both.

Now that Ishaq has her Canadian passport, she wants to travel to Malaysia, a trip Muhammad promised her when they married. Travelling to new places is its own form of adrenalin. I wonder if she’ll ever end up going, or if she’ll keep getting caught up in her projects. She says her whole legal battle and subsequent press storm, which she calls “the campaign issue thingy,” has only further convinced her she can best serve Canada through activism. She believes that if people just knew her, and others like her, they couldn’t hate her or her niqab. Already, Muslim and feminist organizations are inviting her to speak and consult. She tries to say yes to all of them. Now that she’s a citizen, she’s certain that it’s her duty to make Canada better. She will keep going. Insha Allah, she says. If God wills it.