Not Really “Zunera’s War”

A colleague calls Lauren McKeon’s Toronto Life article on Zunera Ishaq “horrible”; horrible is the perfect word to describe “Zunera’s War.” Everyone has a story, but most people don’t get a version of their story written and published to attract a sympathetic audience.

There is no question that McKeon’s purple prose is designed to mask the inconsistencies in “Zunera’s War.” Zunera Ishaq is not “a powerful voice for Muslim women”; she is, if McKeon’s article is accurate, a walking talking contradiction.

Lauren McKeon’s effort to show that Zunera Ishaq was and is eager to embrace all things Canadian is obvious in the first paragraph of “Zunera’s War”:

The first thing Zunera Ishaq wanted to do when she moved to Toronto from Pakistan was taste a McIntosh apple. . . . 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.

This passage is the first indication that McKeon intends to lionize Ishaq; however, her first attempt has failed because the title of the article, “Zunera’s War” makes it difficult for readers to be taken in by Ishaq’s quest for the quintessential Canadian fruit. Zunera Ishaq’s fight against the Canadian government for her right to wear the niqab at her citizenship ceremony was not a “war”; as the rest of the article shows, it was shameless self promotion designed to further Ishaq’s personal goals.

Ishaq came to Canada because

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.

Canadian gave Ishaq the freedom to read and interpret Canada’s citizenship study booklet, especially “the section declaring that each citizen would have a fundamental right to religious freedom.” According to McKeon, this section led Ishaq to ask

If religious freedom was such a tenet of Canadian society . . . then why couldn’t she practise her religion as she was becoming a citizen?

This question and “advice from a friend of a friend, who was studying law,” gave her another freedom she couldn’t find in Pakistan:

the opportunity to fight for her rights and to take on the federal government.

McKeon tells us that when Ishaq decided to challenge the Federal government, “She had no idea how famous her veiled face would become.” However, McKeon is honest about how Ishaq sees herself: “a champion for the underdog” and “a valiant voice for all Muslim women.” McKeon admits “You have to wonder if that wasn’t her plan all along.”

However, a close reading the rest of the article suggests that Ishaq versus Canada was Ishaq’s attempt at agitprop:

Ishaq’s federal challenge became a major election issue, and the niqab a political Rorschach test for questions of race, religion and feminism.

Ishaq’s interpretation that her right to practise her religion means “her right to practise her religion as she was becoming a citizen” is flawed: the Canadian Citizenship Ceremony should not be a venue for religious display or proselytizing.

According to McKeon, Ishaq 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. . . . Now that she’s a citizen, she’s certain that it’s her duty to make Canada better.

Ishag’s insistence on her right to wear the niqab at her citizenship ceremony did become a campaign issue, but it was not a “thingy.” If Ishag believes it was, she is wrong. Ishaq has trivialized the Canadian Citizenship Ceremony, and she has manipulated the Canadian legal system to promote her view of her faith, her God and herself.

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