Toronto Star: Faith is often a visual marker of identity — but also a source of discomfort

Faith is often a visual marker of identity — but also a source of discomfort
It’s a Canadian paradox: We identify human rights and freedoms as among our most important values. Yet many struggle to accept something as simple as a headscarf.

By: Nicholas Keung Immigration reporter, Published on Sat Jan 03 2015
To strangers, she’s often defined by her hijab. But to her friends, Aisha Khaja is simply an inspiring, giving young woman who happens to be Muslim.

The Toronto woman is also one of 2.4 million Canadians, or about 7.2 per cent, who belong to a faith other than Christianity. And like Khaja, adherents of Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and other religions say they often still feel the sting of being considered “the other” in a country where two-thirds of the population claim some degree of affiliation with Christianity.

According to a new report by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, a poll of 2,005 Canadian adults put respect for human rights and freedoms at the top of a list of “Canadian values.”

Yet, 64 per cent said they feel Canada’s multicultural ideals “allow for the pursuit of cultural practices that are incompatible with Canadian laws and norms.”

Some 28 per cent named wearing of religious garb, such as hijabs, turbans or burkas, as an example of such practices. Some 46 per cent said wearing such items should be discouraged.

“As Canadians, we pride ourselves for our tolerance of differences, but how can you be tolerant if someone has to be this and that?” wondered Khaja’s best friend, Sabrina Sahadevan, a non-denominational Christian.

“It’s strange and ironic to me that we embrace religious tolerance only if it fits our mode,” added the 24-year-old medical student. “We can’t be closed-minded on both ends. The bottom line is, whatever you do does not hurt or harm anybody.”


To her friends, Aisha Khaja is simply an inspiring, giving young woman who happens to be Muslim.

Canada adopted an official policy of multiculturalism in 1971 in a bid to ensure equality for all citizens and recognition of aboriginal rights, alongside commitment to the two official languages. It also asserts the freedom of Canadians to practise their faith and preserve their heritage and cultural identity without fear of persecution.

As Canada’s demographics have evolved with changing immigration patterns, the focus of multiculturalism has shifted. In the 1960s and ’70s, it was about recognizing the contributions of ethnic communities; in the 1980s and ’90s, the push to eliminate racism and enhance social equity.

Today, the debate is dominated by questions about religious accommodation.

With growing immigration from Asia and the Middle East, the percentage of Canadians following a non-Christian faith has risen in the past decade from 4.9 per cent to 7.2 per cent, led by Muslims (3.2 per cent), Hindu (1.5), Sikh (1.4), Buddhist (1.1) and Jewish (1).

Ottawa’s creation of the Office of Religious Freedom in 2013 and recent introduction of the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act are prime examples of the shift in focus.

Queen’s University professor Will Kymlicka said there is certainly a bias against non-Christian religions. While some Canadians negatively view hijabs and burkas as a symbol of gender oppression, he said, the Catholic Church’s refusal to allow female priests isn’t given the same weight.

“It is clearly a double standard,” said Kymlicka, who specializes in social justice within multicultural society. “That’s the challenge we face.”

What Kymlicka found interesting of the race relations foundation survey on Canadian values was that respondents were more likely to raise objections to religious clothing (28 per cent) than to bring up Sharia law (5) or the practice, in some Muslim countries, of condoning “honour killing” (4).

His guess is that, unlike the more distant issues of Sharia law or honour killing, religious garb is something people in Canada are “visually confronted with, in your face every day, and that’s when things hit home.”


Amandeep Kaur, left,, a Sikh, seen here with her Muslim friend, Aisha Khaja, said, "Equality means equality to everyone. You can't be selective."

Khaja, 25, was born in Saudi Arabia and moved to Toronto with her family in 1999. She started wearing a hijab in Grade 6 at Brockmill Junior Public School, where she was the only girl in a headscarf in her class.

Through the years, she has suffered her share of inquisitive stares from strangers, and at times experienced unprovoked verbal attacks (“go back home to your country”) from random people on the street.

Khaja, who holds a master’s degree in education and now works as an advisor for the provincial government, believes intolerance of religious clothing stems from preconceived notions about women who use the veil, something even her best non-Muslim friends weren’t immune to.

She and her Christian friend, Sahadevan, once had a huge argument over her head covering that almost wrecked their friendship.

“I read that women had no choice but were forced to wear the hijab. To me, it was a form of oppression, and I did not want that for Aisha. I asked if her dad made her do it. I told her if she did not want to wear it, she shouldn’t wear it,” said Sahadevan, 24, who has known Khaja since Grade 6.

“We had too many religious differences, and I said to her, ‘We can’t be friends anymore,’” she recalled with a chuckle. “We stopped talking for two days.”

Khaja said it is bizarre that people would have more issues with women who try to “dress modestly” by covering up than those who flaunt their bodies. Yet, she said she is grateful to live in a multicultural Canada, which challenges her faith daily and makes her a stronger person.

“If I’d continued to live in Saudi Arabia, nobody would ask any question about religion,” said Khaja, who co-hosts the Vision TV program, Let the Quran Speak. “Here I have to struggle to maintain my religion, my identity. It is a blessing to live here, though it comes with challenge.”

Born and raised in Queensville, north of Newmarket, Balpreet Singh said his father stopped wearing a turban and cut his hair after he came to Canada in 1970. In his first day of kindergarten, he remembered a little boy coming over to him and telling him he wouldn’t be his friend.

“I knew well then that there’s something about me that I can’t hide, which is the colour of my skin,” said Singh, 33, who graduated from the University of Ottawa law school and now practises human rights law.

When he started Grade 1 at Queensville Public School, he asked his parents to let him grow his hair. He started wearing a small turban in Grade 4 and was formally initiated into Sikhism at 15, at a gurdwara in Scarborough.


Balpreet Singh, standing on the steps of Old City Hall Courthouse.

“I saw my identity as an asset to me. I may look different, but it makes me a better person. I have to set higher standards and do better because people look at me,” said the father of two girls.

Singh, too, had his share of unpleasant experiences related to wearing a turban and carrying a kirpan, the Sikh ceremonial dagger. He says he was asked by a teacher to remove his “hat” while singing “O Canada,” mocked by bullies on the school bus using racial epithets, refused entry to a Toronto courthouse for his law class, and removed from a VIA train because he was carrying a “weapon.”

“This is my country and I belong here, but I am not given the same rights,” said Singh. “Appearance does matter. I chose to wear them and I was given different sets of challenges.”

The Canadian Race Relations Foundation’s Rubin Friedman said the offence taken over religious clothing also reflects Canadians’ discomfort with women covering their faces and the perceived values associated with veiling.

A key element of Canada’s Multiculturalism Act, officially passed in 1988, is to promote mutual respect, inclusion and full participation in the country’s diverse fabric.

“People are expected to participate together and not to be separated from one another,” said Friedman, who is of Jewish background and has been involved in integration and anti-racism work for over 25 years.

Public displays of one’s faith can be “a symbol of you separating yourself from others, rejecting the rest of us. That is a concern.”

Amanpreet Kaur, a Sikh, believes what underlies some of the discomfort with religious clothing is racism, exacerbated when it comes to racial minorities who overtly express devotion to their faith.

Kaur, who met Khaja while studying at the University of Toronto, said there is a hierarchy of discrimination. Racism is no longer publicly acceptable and is expressed more subtly today; it’s easier to point to racial minorities who wear their faith visibly as being incompatible with Canadian values.

“I think that the fear is always there; underlying it is the fear of somebody who is different than us,” said Kaur, 26. “So it’s okay to practise your faith in the confines of your home, but you can’t wear any religious symbols in public. And it’s OK for Christians and Catholics to wear a crucifix. To me, equality means equality to everyone. You can’t be selective.”

Singh agrees.

“The Charter of Rights is an amazing document that enshrines the values of what it means to be Canadian,” Singh said. “If we interact and behave according to those values, it will serve as a strong base for our community.”

While white — and Christian — privilege is part of Canada’s colonial and imperial legacy, Richard Chambers, of the Toronto Area Interfaith Council, said Canada has seen a pendulum swing between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ secularism in the last century.

Chambers highlighted the contrasting approaches to secularism among English-speaking and French-speaking respondents.

Last year, Quebec’s proposed charter of values, which would have banned public employees from wearing religious symbols such as hijabs, turbans and yarmulkes, offered a prime example of that difference. Opposition to the proposal was far stronger outside Quebec.

A separate report by the foundation earlier this year found that, while 40 per cent of Canadians voiced “some anxiety” about religious diversity, the rate shot up to 54 per cent among Francophones, who believed having many religious groups in Canada “is more of a liability than an asset.”

“People in Quebec may be more liberal in their social policies, but they are more predisposed to ‘closed’ secularism,” discouraging any public display of religious faith, Chambers said, in reference to the province’s unique struggle within Confederation.

There’s a big difference between embracing equality and equity, said Chambers.

“It is like having a party. You don’t just invite everybody to the party. You have to make an extra effort to make sure everybody is accommodated,” he explained.

Out of the tragedy of 9/11, Chambers said, has come the blessing of a robust interfaith dialogue among Canadians, through initiatives such as twinning mosques and synagogues to foster goodwill and solidarity.

Despite seemingly polarizing views on religious accommodation, Queen’s University’s Kymlicka remains optimistic, as long as all groups continue to be engaged and are treated equitably.

“We have a multi-faith, multicultural and multiracial society. We can’t turn Canada back to a white British society,” he said.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.